Inherited memories

In a recent paper in Nature Neuroscience, Dias and Ressler trained mice to fear the smell of acetophenone.  They claim that this reaction was passed on to their offspring, and to the following generation.

I don’t believe a word of it.  It would require a mechanism that takes the epigenetic states of genes in the brain, sends that information down to the testes, and then somehow imprints it on the germ cell precursors.  And it would have to do this in a very special way, because many epigenetic changes that are the product of learning wouldn’t be the right thing at all during embryogenesis and development: somehow you’d have to pass timing information as well – info that says “methylate this sucker when you’re three weeks old, but not before”.  Genes are like a recipe, but this patch would be more like a program.  And it’d take a tnuctipun – or better – to prepare it.

According to the blurb at Nature, Kerry Ressler is a neurobiologist and psychiatrist at Emory University. In other words, he’s already a good deal more likely than average to be a flake.  He became “interested in epigenetic inheritance after working with poor people living in inner cities, where cycles of drug addiction, neuropsychiatric illness and other problems often seem to recur in parents and their children.  So he’s motivated.  He’d like this to be true.  Too bad.

We’re going to see more and more articles like this: people want to hear it. Tyler Cowen certainly does, but then he may not really be people.  None of this research will ever be replicated by anyone careful and honest, but that has hardly stopped a flood of analogous nonsense in the social sciences – for example, how poverty reduces your IQ, unless your name is Abel or Ramanujan.

If the progress of Science were inevitable and unstoppable,  I wouldn’t worry, but that is not the case in the human sciences.  Look at mental illness, where Freudians supplanted people who were at least trying to figure things out.  Look at archaeology, which progressed from halfway accurate ideas about European prehistory to pots-not-people: if we just click our heels together, we can make past violence disappear.

There are more things yet to be discovered than are dreamt of in our philosophy – but there’s even more bullshit.  And that’s what this is.




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81 Responses to Inherited memories

  1. reiner Tor says:

    I think anybody who doesn’t believe that poverty lowers IQ or that memories are inherited is a bad person, because Progress.

    On a different note, I think that if bad memories (and other acquired qualities) are inherited and further if poverty causes bad memories and low IQ, then that’s a good argument for curtailing the reproduction of the poor, for stopping immigration from third world countries, and for encouraging reproduction of the talented, the rich, and the successful. In other words, it’s a good argument for eugenics.

  2. Ex Ovo Omnia says:

    …how poverty reduces your IQ, unless your name is Abel or Ramanujan.

    Or Faraday:

    His family was not well off… The young Michael Faraday, who was the third of four children, having only the most basic school education, had to educate himself.

    (Michael Faraday

    If the progress of Science were inevitable and unstoppable, I wouldn’t worry, but that is not the case in the human sciences. Look at mental illness, where Freudians supplanted people who were at least trying to figure things out. Look at archaeology, which progressed from halfway accurate ideas about European prehistory to pots-not-people: if we just click our heels together, we can make past violence disappear.

    It’s a race between genuine science and the electronic police state that’s being planned, where it will be possible to watch everyone 24/7/52 and make sure no-one deviates from the ideologically correct line:

    One of the greatest victories of anti-racism was the removal of racist attitudes in the Social Sciences. Most Social Science faculties are now anti-racist and internationalist socialist. It was the racist works of Jensen in the USA and Eysenck in the UK in the 1970s that precipitated the change. These authors claimed that their IQ tests showed differences between the races. They presented the famous “Bell Curve” as a justification of difference. Social Scientists joined together in condemning this racism. The supporters of these measurements claimed the defence of “truth” but there is only ideological truth. The racists were purged from Social Science faculties across the world. Racism and Truth

    • Anonymous says:

      Or Gauss.

      “the son of poor working-class parents.[3] Indeed, his mother was illiterate and never recorded the date of his birth, remembering only that he had been born on a Wednesday”

      “The year 1796 was most productive for both Gauss and number theory. He discovered a construction of the heptadecagon on 30 March.[8] He further advanced modular arithmetic, greatly simplifying manipulations in number theory.[citation needed] On 8 April he became the first to prove the quadratic reciprocity law. This remarkably general law allows mathematicians to determine the solvability of any quadratic equation in modular arithmetic. The prime number theorem, conjectured on 31 May, gives a good understanding of how the prime numbers are distributed among the integers. Gauss also discovered that every positive integer is representable as a sum of at most three triangular numbers on 10 July and then jotted down in his diary the famous note: “ΕΥΡΗΚΑ! num = Δ + Δ + Δ”. On October 1 he published a result on the number of solutions of polynomials with coefficients in finite fields, which 150 years later led to the Weil conjectures.”

      etc etc etc

  3. Jaim Jota says:

    Lysenko made a meteoric career based on the Chevalier de Lamarck’s discovery of adquired characteristics (and memories). Then the idea was forgotten and became a low hanging fruit. Brilliant academic careers are a-waiting to be made with its rediscovery. The progress of Science may not be straightforward, but ambitious scientists are inevitable and unstoppable,

  4. LemmusLemmus says:

    What does Tyler Cowen have to do with this?

  5. Neil craig says:

    I can imagine such memories being transferred, probably via RNA, from the mother in utero. But this does not seem to have tested purely maternal transfer.

    Repeatability is one of the hallmarks of science. Lets wait till it is repeated.

    • ziel says:

      Replication won’t mean anything, though, if they’re just making it up. It would have to be replicated by someone without an ideological ax to grind – or a different ax, anyway – to mean anything.

  6. Jim says:

    The amazing success of Freudian psychology exemplifies how deeply animism appeals to most people and how foreign the scientific view is to them. It also shows that if a theory resonates with people’s deeply held preconceptions then the total abscence of any empirical evidence is no barrier to it’s widespread acceptance.

    In the case of Freudian psychology a little bit of novel terminology and a theory which didn’t differ fundamentally from a miedeval theory of spirit possession was regarded as the height of scientific sophistication by most of the intellectuals of the day.

  7. kai says:

    Yep, Lysenkoism/lamarkism 2.0. Found it strange too, I did not read the article, but defending Lysenkoism in a high-exposure journal should trigger the same skepticism as cold fusion did in Physics, with real attempt at replication/falsification …So I expect a relatively quick debunking in a followup article showing there is no effect, or giving an alternative non-lamarkian explanation…Or maybe I am too naive, and this will go under the radar as convenient lie…

  8. Jim says:

    Oops, I see I

  9. Jim says:

    Sorry, I misspelled “medieval”.

  10. Uqbar says:

    Asian people evolved for tens of thousands of years on the steppes of Central Asia before being chased out into modern-day China and Japan due to decreasing rains.

    As a result, they maintain an atavistic Lamarckian node of memory that both animates their dreams and haunts their nightmares.

    Asians, what is it like to dream of open steppes that you have never visited before, but can see just as clearly as though they surrounded you?

    What is it like to dream of “The Great Thirst” that drove your people across the mountain ranges of western China? Or when you dream of empty streams and dying horses?

    There are many accounts of far-flung Asians (like Japanese-Brazilians) visiting the steppes of Kazakhstan for the first time, and collapsing to their knees with overflowing tears, as though they have returned to a homeland of their dreams.

    Asians, what is it like to bear along these ancestor memories of grasslands and endless steppes that constantly intrude into your mindspace?

    • ursiform says:

      Wouldn’t Asians going to the trouble to visit Kazakhstan be, in many cases, those who believe it, for whatever reason, to be the homeland of their dreams? There is extreme self-selection there. You might get a different result if you randomly selected 1000 Asians and took them to Kazakhstan.

      • Uqbar says:

        The celebrated poet Wu-Ping Liu (considered one of the “Five Great Masters of Fujian” and also the most lyrical among them) wrote in “The Book of Nine Waters” that “My day is the day of ceaseless rivers and reeds, and the turtle in the sedge. My night is the night of riverbeds and lone ducks dying on dry flats of mud.”

        Western scholars tried to interpret this as a veiled political argument, but new research indicates that he was speaking of ancestor memory and pan-Asian drought dreams.

      • dave chamberlin says:

        That is what I was thinking. The opposite is true, if archaic memory existed than people living on the plains ought to be longing in their hearts to get the hell out of there because it was virtually depopulated before the domestication of the horse. What is it with trolls on the internet and why are there so many of them. What is the reward in being annoying. I could see it if there was just a few of them like smelly psychotics who come up and babble at you until you walk away but it seems like there are armies of them.

    • ursiform says:

      That a poet speaks of something doesn’t make it factual.

    • IC says:

      You sounds like a professional troll.

    • Yeah, but that happens in Billerica, too.

  11. aisaac says:

    As an example of poverty not causing low IQ, I like Nobel Prize winner Mario Capecchi.
    From wiki:
    “At four-and-a-half years old he was left to fend for himself on the streets of northern Italy for the next four years,[12] living in various orphanages and roving through towns with groups of other homeless children.[16]

    He almost died of malnutrition. His mother, meanwhile, had been freed from Dachau and began a year-long search for him. She finally found him in a hospital bed in Reggio Emilia,[12] ill with a fever and subsisting on a daily bowl of chicory coffee and bread crust. She took him to Rome, where he had his first bath in six years.[16]”

    Those conditions were worse than what most of his generation had to deal with, but there was an entire generation in Europe that grew up in the Depression, the war, and post-war chaos which was far worse than anything any EBT-card wielder has to deal with in developed countries today.

    • TWS says:

      Poverty can lead to low iq. For instance, bad nutrition or if your mother’s lifestyle includes alcohol or sucking on the glass dick. I’ve seen kids with resin coated brains too.

      Can anyone think anyway to actually pass on memories? Wouldn’t such memories become instinct? It all seems dodgy to me.

  12. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    Is it possible that some humans (other than Manny) don’t have a capacity for abstract thought?

    • Having grown up near the white underclass I long ago was convinced that many (most?) of them are actually children in adult bodies. Although you article focuses on the racial angle of it all, I suspect that the truth is there is actually a good variance of how human cognition works.

      I first started to notice this when I would hear people explain events as though “they just happened”. For a long time I thought this was a ploy to avoid responsibility, and for some perhaps it was, but over time from interacting with them I started to think “what if they are reporting their *actual* subjective experience”. What if: in their subjective experience of the world some things really do “just happen”. Like they can’t perceive causality or they can’t separate thought from feeling. This could explain people’s belief in such things as superstition and magic.

      But this has also convinced me that we are living with a large population of humans, regardless of race, who are basically zombies.

      • Bill says:

        Thought experiment. I walk into their house and unplug their TV. Do they blame me for the lack of TV on-ness? If so, why? How long do they sit on the couch, waiting for the TV to “just come back on.”

        Another thought experiment. I ask them why Uncle Larry is in the State Penitentiary. As part of their explanation, do they do or do they don’t mention that unfortunate incident involving Larry, the .22, and the liquor store clerk?

      • @Bill


        Does no one understand how to troll anymore?

      • reiner Tor says:

        regardless of race

        The thing is, poor white kids outscore non-poor black kids. If you consider even the white trash zombies, then average blacks are ueberzombies.

        OTOH I don’t think they are actually zombies. 11 year old white kids are not zombies either. But of course they are less advanced than adult whites.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        The thing is, poor white kids outscore non-poor black kids. If you consider even the white trash zombies, then average blacks are ueberzombies.

        OTOH I don’t think they are actually zombies. 11 year old white kids are not zombies either. But of course they are less advanced than adult whites.

        It does seem possible to view it as their brains have stopped developing, as if the environment did not require them to be able to deal with abstract concepts.

        However, there does seem to be evidence that micro-nutrient deficiencies among Sub-Saharan Africans have lead to IQ deficiencies as well.

    • Harold says:

      The discussion of abstraction in language in the linked to article is nonsense.

      For example, from the article:

      “Note the Zulu entry for obligation: “as if to bind one’s feet.” An obligation binds you, but it does so morally, not physically. It is an abstract concept, which is why there is no word for it in Zulu. So what did the authors of the dictionary do? They took this abstract concept and made it concrete. Feet, rope, and tying are all tangible and observable, and therefore things all blacks will understand, whereas many will not understand what an obligation is. The fact that they had to define it in this way is, by itself, compelling evidence for my conclusion that Zulu thought has few abstract concepts and indirect evidence for the view that Africans may be deficient in abstract thinking.”

      Obligation comes from the Latin “obligare” meaning “to bind, bind up, bandage.”
      Could the Latin speakers then not “grasp” abstract concepts?

      • Harold says:

        Ooh, ooh, ooh! Maybe I sould have said:
        “Following” his “line” of reasoning are we not then “bound” to “admit” this is evdence that Latin speakers lacked the “capacity” to “grasp” abstract concepts.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        Obligation comes from the Latin “obligare” meaning “to bind, bind up, bandage.”
        Could the Latin speakers then not “grasp” abstract concepts?

        It seems that someone doesn’t know that obligare is the present infinitive of obligo, and that it has both literal and figurative meanings. See

        Whereas the example used by the article referred to seem to admit of only a literal meaning.

      • Harold says:

        The author of the article does say that he was told by a black guy at the University of South Africa that the definition of obligation was not an indigenous Zulu idiom. It therefore couldn’t have had a customary figurative use (if we trust the black guy was right). I missed that on my initial, cursory reading.

        It might be argued that this lack of an indigenous idiom meaning “obligation” is evidence of a deficiency in abstract thinking. That they had to define an abstract concept in terms of the concrete, is not. Using concrete terms figuratively is how all languages work.

        Out of curiosity I looked up “oblige” in my dictionary, wherein it is defined as “make legally or morally bound”, bind is defined as “impose a legal or contractual obligation on”, so we just go round in a circle. Of course, “bind” also means to tie or fasten tightly, and we understand the obligation meaning is just this meaning in a figurative sense.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:


        The guy has a PhD in Philosophy and went to Africa to help Africans.

        I think we can be sure that he knows how to think and that he harbored little animus towards Africans, at least when he started.

        I imagine that he understands that shifting meaning from concrete to abstract (as in the word concrete, which can refer to something concrete, ie, concrete, or the abstract concept.)

        Perhaps you were thinking of this:

        when you decided that “as if to bind one’s feet” expresses an abstract concept.

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      The guy has a PhD in Philosophy, which perhaps counts against him.

      My criticism of his article is that it is all anecdotal. It would be more useful if he had developed a set of tests we could use to determine if an individual is capable of abstract thinking and whether or not there are levels of abstract thinking.

      Then we could apply this test to children of different ages and compare the development paths of kids of different races.

      Of course, I doubt that such research will ever be reported if done.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        It is also possible that lower IQ (through whatever cause) is the reason for a lack of ability to think abstractly.

        This seems like an unsatisfactory explanation, but lacking a good definition of what it means to think abstractly and how it is supported in the brain, it might be the best we can do.

  13. Jim says:

    Uqbar – I think reading tea leaves is probably more reliable.

    • Uqbar says:

      one of the interesting behaviors among asians is something called “seeking the plain,” which has been noted by sociologists for decades.

      if you have a housing development of asians in a forested area, but there is a large treeless hilltop or plain nearby, the asians will migrate out of the trees, to the plain, and will even set up restaurants and shops and tents there.

      when asked why they are “seeking the plain,” they simply do not know – just that it “feels right.”

      • gwern says:

        “”seeking the plain” sociology” in Google: 133 results, none on the first page remotely relevant.

        Clearly this has been “noted by sociologists for decades”…

      • IC says:

        Yeah right. I wonder why so many Chinese love their mountain house. Different memory? And a lot of ancient prestige royal retreats built on mountains. Higher and better. Guess they are descendants of cave men. lol.

        Next time, troll better. lol.

      • Anonymous says:

        Han means “peoples of the forest,” or something of the like, and from what I’ve read they were fairly unsophisticated way back… So they should be having dreams of the woods right? Maybe dreams of beer wenches in leather dresses serving them too?

  14. ziel says:

    This comment thread seems unusually thick with irony. But I think Manny is being 100% serious.

  15. This paper seems to fulfill all six points in John Ioannidis’ classic 2005 paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”:

    1. The smaller the studies conducted in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.
    2.The smaller the effect sizes in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.
    3. The greater the number and the lesser the selection of tested relationships in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.
    4. The greater the flexibility in designs, definitions, outcomes, and analytical modes in
    a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.
    5. The greater the financial and other interests and prejudices
    in a scientific field, the less likely
    the research findings are to be true.
    6. The hotter a scientific field (with more scientific teams involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true.

    The author’s of the Nature paper claimed to have found a difference in methylation of the sperm between scared and non-scared mice. I wonder how that methylation would tell mice to feel alarmed at the smell of a certain chemical, as opposed to say amorous or elated.

  16. JayMan says:

    Ah yes I was waiting for the Cochran treatment on this rubbish. I suspected as much the minute I heard of it (for the record, so did quite a few others).

    I also called the “your brain on poverty” bullshit as well.

    I tell people that “epigenetics,” and for that matter “neuroplasticity” are special types of terms. In that while they refer to real and important phenomena, 95.8% of the time you hear them invoked, it’s being used in a complete bullshitological way (almost always in an attempt to diminish the importance of heredity).

    In fact:

  17. Patrick Boyle says:

    Someone please correct if I’m wrong. But it seems to me that Lamarckian inheritance had at least a certain forgivable plausibility when the mechanisms of heredity were unknown. But epigenetics is supposed to provide a mechanism – methylation. So if someone today wants to claim that Lamarckian inheritance is occurring, shouldn’t they be expected to demonstrate physical evidence in genetic material rather than just animal behavior observations?

  18. ziel says:

    Shouldn’t this also work in reverse? Shouldn’t the uninfected descendants of rats infected with t. Gondi be unafraid of cat urine?

  19. One of the great advantages of being raised with (or perhaps, having inherited) trebly-distilled puritanism, is that you are immediately suspicious of any research result that tells you what you want to hear, and think it’s 3:1 likely that any idea you hate is likely to be true. That alone is enough to make one wary of social science research.

    Unitarians didn’t reject Reform theology so much because it was too harsh, but because they feared its grace was wildly optimistic. Approach all science in the same way. Any research that if true, destroys my career, deserves my special attention. Research that pats me on the back and tells me what a fine fellow I am is a trap. See also, politics and politician.

  20. N.b. singular of “tnuctipun” is “tnuctip”.

  21. Anonymous says:

    This reminds me of a very similar “amazing” find from back in the early 1960s. Several researchers claimed that planaria who were fed the bodies of other ground-up planaria somehow acquired the learned maze-traversing capabilities of those they dined on. After an extended period of excitement the research was unobtrusively but utterly debunked by more sophisticated scientists. The more things change ……

    • aisaac says:

      I remember that experiment being referenced in Alan Moore’s swamp thing as if true over twenty years after it had been debunked – the swamp ate a guys dead body and absorbed his memories, hence the swamp thing. The experiment was explicitly mentioned.

      Maybe this new story will have legs after it’s debunked too.

      • Old fogey says:

        No one, least of all anyone connected to the press, ever even hears when a research study that gives hope for progress – without much effort – has been debunked.

      • meh says:

        Interesting. In an issue of Alan Moore’s “Tom Strong”, the hero declares a non-fallacious belief in Lewontin’s Fallacy, for instance that there’s no difference between someone of Japanese ancestry and someone of ancestry of another race.

  22. Pingback: Genetic Memory is Bullshit

  23. JayMan says:

    Two things:

    1. There was this October paper that claimed DDT led to “epigenetic” inheritance of obesity in 3rd generation rats. Two criticism that come to mind are the standard problem with motivated researchers, and why can’t this effect – if real – not be genetic in nature? Don’t mutations happen, especially thanks to mutagens?

    BMC Medicine | Full text | Ancestral dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) exposure promotes epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of obesity

    2. Woodley has a new paper out, where he invokes multi-level selection to explain the rise and fall of average IQ in Europe in response to climatic changes:

    Psychological comments: ISIR closes on dysgenic note

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  25. Rex May says:

    Good stuff. I’ve reblogged it and made you a nice quibcag from it here:

  26. Pingback: Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics | Those Damn Liars

  27. Brian says:

    I’ll take a wild stab at the ‘motivation’ of Ressler. He thinks slavery and Jim Crow, as well as the modern stepchildren ‘institutional racism’ and ‘stereotype threat’, hurt the feelings of poor black Americans and caused psychological damage, which then causes epigenetic, germline damage. That causes the cycle of dysfunction in ghetto blacks, from crime rates to poor SAT scores. Yet hope remains! If we can come up with the perfect cocktail of shoehorning heroic blacks into sitcoms, hire more social workers, improve education and nutrition, and clean up the ghetto-adjacent toxic waste dump…voila…the psych damage and epigenetic damage are healed. Could Ressler actually be drinking this high-molarity Kumbayah Koolaid?

  28. Anonymous says:

    accepted in “nature neuroscience”, impact factor 15; meaningless “peer-review” is meaningless. (who exactly reviewed this??…)

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