I'm traveling to Seattle right now for my grandfather's funeral. He was 87 and to the best of my knowledge he lived a great life and had a productive and happy retirement. I never really had a chance to spend much time with him in my adult years because I haven't lived in that area in a while. A few weeks ago I got to see Grandpa one more time. I wish I could have thanked him for helping to make me the person that I am today. Let me explain.
I recently heard a discussion about epigenetics on NPR's Science Friday and it made me think about my own genetic heritage. In short, epigenetics is a sort of Lamarckian way of thinking about evolution. Before Darwin, Lamarck thought that you could influence your genes during your lifetime and pass those traits on to your offspring. The classic example is of a giraffe stretching its neck to reach those really high leaves and therefor passing on a couple extra inches in neck length to its offspring. We know this physical alteration and passing on of traits to be incorrect in the Darwinian sense of evolution. There may be, however, some traits that you can develop and pass on to your offspring via epigenetics.
I'm not going to pretend to know anything about this science so I'm not going to explain it in detail either. PZ Meyers did a better job here. Basically, epigenetics involves a cellular memory that can by "imprinted" throughout someone's life. The idea is that you can think a certain way and construct your brain in a certain way so as to have an aptitude for one skill or another and that can be passed on.
If all of this is true then it might explain some aspects of my own life. My grandfather worked at Boeing and always had an aptitude for and an interest in engineering and design. Grandpa used to get plans from Popular Mechanics and build all sorts of things. The first boat I ever waterskied behind was built by Grandpa. The first metal detector I ever used was built by Grandpa. Grandpa also designed and built radio controlled airplanes and RC radios. He was into rock collecting and used to go to Arizona every year to hunt for agates and whatever else they could find.
My Dad is the youngest of five siblings. Grandpa must have been in his thirties when my Dad was born. He had plenty of time to start developing his interests and organizing his brain into the type of person he would be for his entire life. If there is any truth to epigenetics then it is possible that Grandpa passed on some of his technical ability to my Dad. While my Dad didn't really use that ability in his professional life, he did use it in his recreational activities. Dad is always taking things apart and fixing them himself. He also builds model airplanes and enjoys designing and making any number of things. I may have received some of this ability from my Grandpa through my Dad and, since I'm 36 already, could pass some of my skills onto my children, if I ever get around to having any.
The theories of epigenetics could give people a reason to have children later in life. Having kids in your twenties may not give them all the advantages they could possibly have. Of course, this could all turn out to be wrong. I still like to think that while I didn't have the benefit of my grandfather's direct influence, I still have some of his skills and abilities and his passion for doing new and different things.
Thank you, Grandpa. I love you and I'll miss you.
Written on Southwest Flight 416 to Seattle, WA.