Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present

Peter Ward. Bloomsbury, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-63286-615-8
The main question posed by this frustrating book is whether the acquired characteristics of one generation can be reliably passed on to future generations. In other words, was 18th-century naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in fact correct that parents can pass on physical changes they’ve undergone over their lifetime—for instance, improved musculature—to their children, despite this theory having long been considered disproven by Darwin? Ward (Gorgon), a paleontologist and astrobiologist, defines epigenetics as “the study of heritable gene functions that are passed on from one reproducing cell to another, [whether it’s] a somatic (body) cell or a germ cell (sperm or ovum), which do not involve a change to the original DNA sequence,” while also cautioning that the actual process is “still poorly understood.” Ward’s analysis ranges widely, taking in the origin of life on Earth, patterns of recovery from mass extinctions, the possible genetic basis for violence, and the genetic impact of various pandemics. Ward references the classic study showing how starvation impacted one and perhaps two generations in the Netherlands following a WWII-era famine, but provides little hard evidence beyond that example. Without a proposed mechanism for such long-lasting effects and without data indicating such effects exist, Ward leaves readers with little more than suppositions. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 06/11/2018
Release date: 07/01/2018
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