Yes, claims Michael Skinner, the infamous Washington State University molecular biologist, I'm quite possibly to blame. Though to be fair, culpability could be spread around to any number of her grandparents too. A recent article in Newsweek reports that Skinner has indeed confirmed that certain epigenetic changes in sperm are not only carried forward genetically, but can even result in potentially permanent reprogramming of one's future progeny. Thus, rat-fathers not genetically diabetic but who chowed down on junk food produced severly diabetic children by a healthy rat-mother, with notable genetic alterations discovered in their pancreas' and insulin resistances, while in Sweden, similar results have been observed in human generations. While such a view of genetic transmission has long been considered heretical in the bio-genetic world, this new evidence
raises the intriguing possibility that the childhood-obesity epidemic is at least in part due to alterations in sperm caused by fathers-to-be eating a high-fat diet. After all, while it’s fine to blame kids’ couch-potato ways and fattening diets, that does not explain why obesity in babies has risen 73 percent since 1980.
Thankfully, positive environmental factors and enriching decisions by fathers can likewise prove beneficial to future generations. So Abigail gets my love of iced chai lattes laced with Starbucks-brand cocaine, and is also a musical genius, a lover of books, and has a natural affinity for churches and prayer. You win some, you lose some.
I'm no scientist, but I know enough to want further confirmation of such findings beyond the sensationalism of desperate news magazines like Newsweek. Even so, an article like this one, entitled "Sins of the Grandfather," begs theological questions. Family systems theorists like Edwin Friedman and Ronald Richardson have already reflected on the transmission of anxiety, instability, addictive tendencies and damage within families in light of texts like Exodus 20.5, maintaining the tension with more hopeful texts like Ezekiel 18.20, where grace and forgiveness offer the possibility of redemption and reconciliation unto the future. While Skinner's research may seem to affirm an interpretation of, say, original sin, in which all are utterly imprisoned to the predeterminations of their parents' past, it also affirms the value and dignity of human decisions of faithfulness, revealing the profound possibilities of Gospel-transformed acts of holiness and love - in other words, it provides genetic contours for the advance of both the Flesh and also of the New Creation. What science cannot detect, however, is what only a theology of the cross can offer: that even those ill-decisions chosen and those adversities faced by our ancestors might hold within them not only damage and damnation, but also gifts and resources, raw materials by which grace creates life out of chaos. My great-grandmother may have endured great distress as an immigrant from Macedonia to the United States, resulting in permanent stress to my genetic line. But the sustenance of God in bringing her through this time, and the faith it thus nurtured in me, is by far the more transformative reality. Our past ugliness may well become our present blessedness. Such experiments might also provide helpful metaphors for how we reflect corporately on the "genetic" alterations made to Body of Christ via church division or failed witness (for one such challenging assessment, see Ephraim Radner's The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Church Division.) Our actions are bigger than ourselves; therein lies their great and terrifying dignity.
All that speculation done and said, I'm certainly thinking twice about my continued allegiance to the caffeine queen. Not just for my own health, but also, for the sake of the witness of both my actions and my genetics, and for the future life, to those who I have yet to be given to love. Thanks be to God whose grace, mercy and love, and not merely the machinations of our appetites, determines their futures and holds them in the palm of God's hand.