A fascinating article in the Economist suggests that it might be.
THE effects of child abuse can last a lifetime. Neglected or abused children have a higher risk of developing all sorts of ailments as adults, including mental illnesses such as depression but also physical ones like cancer and stroke. In fact, the effects may last even longer. Emerging evidence suggests that the consequences of mistreatment in childhood may persist down the generations, affecting a victim’s children or grand-children, even if they have experienced no abuse themselves.
Exactly how this happens is not well understood. Rigorous experiments on human subjects are difficult. Scientists have therefore turned to rats and mice. But now Larry Feig of Tufts University and his colleagues have shown that psychological stress seems to cause similar changes in the sperm of both mice and men.
Biologists know that traits are carried down the generations by genes. Genes encode proteins, and proteins make up organisms. That is still true. But it has recently become clear that it is not the whole story. Organisms regulate the activity of their genes throughout their lives, switching different genes on and off as circumstances require. It is possible that such “epigenetic” phenomena can be passed, along with the genes themselves, to an animal’s descendants. They offer a mechanism by which an animal’s life experiences can have effects on its offspring.
There’s more at the link.
Just as a hypothesis, based on many years of working in severely distressed Third World environments, here’s a thought. What if those severely distressed environments have such an effect on those experiencing them that they pass on their elevated stress levels to their children? And what happens if those children, and their children, and their children’s children, continue to experience that stress? Does that society eventually become so “stressed out”, genetically speaking, that it – society itself – fails? Is that what we’re seeing in parts of Europe now, where – after two World Wars and the Cold War – some societies look as if they’re disintegrating?
If we look at history, particularly in the nastier parts of the world, that’s not so far-fetched a suggestion as it might seem. If this research is validated, I’m surely going to wonder . . .