Q. The Bell Curve made quite a controversial splash in 1994, proposing that some groups of people have missed out on the genetic lottery and will never be as smart as others.
A. It’s no accident that the people they talked about with inferior genes actually have lived in horrible circumstances and have not had the chance to tap into their potential the way that those who’ve had economic and cultural advantages have had. The signs are very strong that that potential is quite extraordinary in most of us, if we can apply the resources. The idea that we’re kind of two or more separate classes of human beings is not scientifically correct.
Q. No superior genes?
A. We can’t say at this point that there aren’t genes that you’d rather have. We don’t know yet. But no genes are genetic islands. They really don’t produce stuff on their own.
Q. Can genes also be altered?
A. Genes can’t be altered except by random mutation, but what can be altered is the coding around the genes—the epigenome, which is critical in gene expression and in helping figure out when the genes are going to get turned on and off and how often.
Not only do we alter the expression of our genes by changing our epigenome by our actions—the food we eat and the lives we lead—but we usually pass on those changes to our kids and even on to subsequent generations.
Q. Your lifestyle choices can be transferred to your children … on a genetic level?
A. Everything you do in your life can have an influence on gene expression. Absolutely everything. That’s why it’s so complicated. It’s never going to boil down to a simple formula.
Q. For example?
A. Say a drug could be carcinogenic and a lot of people exposed to it end up getting cancer. Cancer results from genetic expression. Those genes are being expressed as a result of certain types of chemicals. That’s why some people can have exactly the same gene and, depending on environmental exposure to certain things, one person might get cancer and another won’t.
Q. But this can be passed on?
A. You could be passing down a lot of byproducts without even realizing it. It looks like leading a balanced life with making good decisions on every level, even intellectually, all could have an effect on how your kids’ genes and their kids’ genes are expressed.
There are so many reasons to lead a healthy life, and here’s another one: You could be determining the fate of your grandchildren.
Q. No pressure.
A. Exactly. Think about picking up that cigarette at age 16! I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing ads—it’s going to take a little while to filter down—the American Cancer Society would be perfectly within its right to say hey, if you’re a teenager smoking, you’re not only affecting your own life but any kids and grandkids that are coming down the road. Not that a lot of teens think of that stuff.
Carol Kaufmann is a contributing editor at the AARP Bulletin.