It’s pretty clear that organisms pass some form of knowledge down in their genes. Newly hatched sea turtles automatically move towards the sea, while baby kangaroos climb into their mother’s pouch when born.
The term we use for such behaviours is ‘instinct’ but some researchers believe it may be possible to transfer more than just instinct through genetics. They propose that knowledge, including learnt abilities and the rules that govern them, can also be embedded in our genetic code.
“There is ample room on DNA to store phenomenal amounts of information,” says Dr Darold Treffert, psychiatrist who specialises in the study of savants. “The entire Library of Congress, for example, could be recorded on a speck of DNA.”
Savants are people with developmental disorders such autism, who also demonstrate remarkable capabilities certain areas. They may be a musical genius, an exceptional artist, have a photographic memory or be able perform complex maths calculations in their head.
Treffert says that the ability of savants to display prodigious skills without learning them is proof of ‘genetic memory’, the ability to pass memories down in the genes. “We do not start with a blank disk,” he says. “Beginning with much inherited software applies to us all.”
The idea isn’t new. Eminent Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung proposed the idea of a ‘cosmic consciousness’ that some people could tap into. The concept of reincarnation deals similar principles.
These ideas tend to be rejected outright by modern mainstream thought, in favour of a ‘nurture’ approach to we acquire knowledge. But there is some experimental evidence to the contrary. Scientists at Emory University trained mice to fear the scent of cherry blossom by giving them a small electric shock every they smelt it. After several repetitions, the mice began to cower whenever they smelt the scent, regardless of whether they were shocked or not. This be exactly what you would expect, but the team found that two subsequent generations of rodents whose parents had been trained to fear a smell similar cherry blossom would avoid the scent, despite never having experienced the associated electric shock.
Treffert believes that his research is key to understanding how this process works. “I think savants, congenital and acquired, are irrefutable evidence the ‘nature’ side of the argument,” he says. “I am just reporting what I have observed in so many savants now, I’m searching for an explanation. Genetic memory makes the most sense to me.”