Passing It Down

I was looking through old photos recently and came across a picture of my grandfather on my father’s side. It is very obvious I am his descendant. That is genetics. I never met him as he died right before my father was born, but I look like him. We inherit physical attributes from our parents who inherit them from their parents and so forth. Likewise, we will pass our genetics on to our children.

Interestingly enough, research into epigenetic inheritance indicates that in addition to physical attributes, you can pass down impact from significant experiences to the next few generations through your DNA. Epigenetics is where the readability, or expression, of genes is modified without changing the DNA code itself. Tiny chemical tags are added to or removed from our DNA in response to changes in the environment in which we are living.

Epigenetic inheritance is an unconventional finding. It goes against the idea that inheritance happens only through the DNA code that passes from parent to offspring. It means that a parent’s experiences in the form of epigenetic tags can be passed down to future generations. These tags turn genes on or off, offering a way of adapting to changing conditions without inflicting a more permanent shift in our genomes.

Maybe communities are a little like this. Each community has an encoded set of attributes that causes it to look and feel a certain way. You could say that the culture is determined by the DNA. The DNA is the beliefs, practices, and people within the community. Changing any one of these things will certainly change the outcome, much like when you add the DNA of a mother to the DNA of the father and the children are a combination of the two.

Typically, the dilution that occurs within a community by adding new members is slight (not 50% as in the case with parents) so the resulting culture looks and feels very much the same even after new members are added, or even initially when new parameters are introduced. Those events will impact the genetics of the culture over time, and this must be anticipated and managed.

However, it is the cultural “epigenetic tags” that made me think more deeply. When a community experiences something significant—good or bad—it leaves markers that alter the way that culture reproduces. The changes can be in the form of expectations, fears, aversion or attraction to risk, resistance to or over attention to change, and on and on. The experience doesn’t change the base DNA (we don’t rewrite our mission or values), but it definitely alters practical behaviors.

In genetics, the epigenetic tags are not permanent. Researchers found that rats who were shocked while being exposed to a particular scent passed an aversion to the scent on to their offspring. However, when the second-generation rats were exposed to the scent without the negative result of a shock, it undid the marker, and their offspring were born without any aversion to the scent.

In community culture, the same thing is true. Significant events can create temporary markers that alter the behavior of the community, but the DNA is still intact. Simply unlearning the behavior removes the marker, and the culture moves on intact. This has some really important ramifications.

First, an individual can create these markers—good or bad, and their absence will eventually lead to the marker fading. If the person is creating a problem, removing them will move the culture toward healing in significant ways. If the person is an agent for good but that good is not added into the DNA of the culture, it will also fade once that person is gone.

Second, events will create resulting behavioral changes. A downturn that leads to layoffs could erode trust. A period of growth and high bonuses could lead to an expectation of continued payouts. However, these behaviors can change when the right environment is created. We can effectively retrain ourselves and stop the transmission of these temporary markers.

Finally, each of us is part of the DNA of the culture in the communities we belong to. Our individual behavior does modify the genetics of our culture, and, over time, those changes can become permanent. The leader’s impact on the DNA is substantial and lasting. Ask yourself, “Am I helping to create a DNA that results in a healthy culture?”

The way we impact the DNA of our culture is by our actions. Small things repeated consistently over time create deeply ingrained structures that reproduce themselves reliably and consistently. Each of us will eventually move on. Like my grandfather, I will impact people I will never meet by the actions I take today. I want to pass down the DNA of a healthy culture. I want to pass down the Bison Way.