What do old books have to do with cutting-edge science? More than you might think.
This year, the annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium is considering a relatively new scientific field: epigenetics. "Epigenetics refers to the study of traits that are heritable but not caused by changes in the DNA sequence," writes Dr. Karthik Panchanathan, an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Missouri. "In some cases, events that happen during an individual’s life can sometimes result in epigenetic changes that are subsequently heritable. This is a form of Lamarckian inheritance, the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring."
This year's Life Sciences and Society Symposium considers the implications of epigenetics for human health and behavior. Speakers will discuss what epigenetics means, how the environment affects genetic expression, and how the fast-changing field of epigenetics is transforming medicine and society. See a lineup of speakers and register for the symposium on the Life Sciences and Society program website.
Special Collections is participating in the symposium with an exhibition of rare books and an opening lecture to kick off the symposium week. Although the scientific study of epigenetics dates only to the middle of the twentieth century, scientists have puzzled over related questions of heredity and development for hundreds of years. Does it matter whether you inherit a trait from your mother or father? How do your earliest stages of development influence the rest of your life? Which characteristics are inborn, and which are learned? These are questions being asked by epigenetics researchers today, and they are the questions we consider in a historical sense in the exhibition, through an in-depth look at topics such as early theories of generation, maternal imagination, child development, and original sin.
Dr. Panchanathan will open the exhibit with a lecture entitled "Genes, Culture and Evolution." Humans are unique among animals in the degree to which adaptive behavior is shaped by both genes and culture. Cultural transmission is a form of Lamarckian inheritance: individuals pass on cultural traits which they learned during their lifetime to their offspring. In this talk, Dr. Panchanathan will discuss how anthropologists think about and model cultural evolution. In particular, Dr. Panchanathan will discuss how and why natural selection on genes resulted in the human capacity for culture; how cultural evolution is similar to and different from genetic evolution; and how cultural processes have shaped our genes, so-called gene-culture co-evolution.
Dr. Panchanathan's presentation is on Monday, March 9, at 1:00 PM in the Government Documents area in Ellis Library. Generations: Reproduction, Heredity, and Epigenetics will be on display in the Ellis Library Colonnade March 5-30, 2015.