As parents, and more lately grandparents, my wife and I are prone to look upon our children and grandchildren and attribute some of their physical features to genetic inheritance. A dimpled cheek, distinct eyes, colour and texture of hair, body shape, the curves of the face, the way they smile – these are frequently ascribed as being reminiscent of the features of our own parents or grandparents, or aunts, uncles or other ancestors. There is, of course, sound scientific basis for the passing on of such benign cosmetic physical traits to succeeding generations through the passing on of chromosomes to our progeny.
Medical science has also made us aware that we can also be the recipients of somewhat more malicious physical inheritances. There are many diseases that have been shown to have a strong genetic causality. Cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, various heart disorders, cancers, diabetes and obesity, amongst others. Obviously, physically inherited characteristics can play either a beneficial or a challenging role in our lives, and in many cases a major deterministic one.
There is also another category of inheritance, that can play a significant role in our lives, and that is the cumulative store of social and cultural values we acquire from our environment, primarily through our parents and the people we have frequent contact with during the course of our mortal existence on this planet. It is primarily through these channels that we acquire the personal set of ethics, morals, opinions and judgments that guide our lives and our reactions to the world around us.
Although it is true that certain individuals are born with psychopathic or other mental disorders that predestine them to lead aberrant lives, the vast majority of people’s personalities and their subsequent destinies, are shaped primarily by the people, environment and culture they are raised within. We learn how to live and behave by following the role models set by our parents, siblings, friends and other people with whom we come into frequent contact. We acquire the intellectual and civilizational legacy of previous generations through our educational system and the vast store of knowledge that is available in various media formats. We absorb the ethos of our surrounding society through religious channels, mythology, literature, art, music and all the various manifestations of culture.
For the most part, such non-genetic inheritances have a constructive and positive influence in our lives, and over the long historical span of human existence, have led to continuing progress in how our human civilization has evolved. Nonetheless, this mechanism is also capable of a dark side. There continue to be no shortage of manifestations of prejudice, bias, racism, hatred, cruelty, misogyny and other evils that are passed on from generation to generation, by the very same societal and cultural processes that shape our inherent makeup. Misogyny and the notion of male superiority, for example, are still painfully common in our society, propagated not only by parental role models, but more broadly by traditions, established social hierarchies, archaic religious beliefs and the ever-present media.
Racism in general and anti-Semitism in particular are other examples of this. I personally know of no small number of people that subscribe to these views because they were brought up in a family or social circle where such views were held to be an accepted natural fact. Even more damaging on a global level, are deeply held beliefs in the natural superiority of certain nations, races or ideologies who have a pre-ordained mission to lead or rule over others. The British Empire, the Nazi Ubermensch philosophy of Aryanism, the Soviet cancer, the resurgence of the Russian Mir, fundamentalist Islamism and Christianity, and the American Manifest Destiny are prime historical examples of this. What is particularly dangerous with these is that they usually have the backing of large and powerful nation states and all their associated resources in propagating their goals and ambitions.
We inherit many things both physically and culturally from our ancestors, and we should all make an effort to examine these legacies and determine which are worth preserving and which run contrary to rational civilizational values and morality. History is full of mistakes, dead ends and just plain evil. We owe it to our future generations to do all we can to learn from them and make sure they are not passed on to wreak further havoc.