Proactive epigenesis: upbringing and education as a method of epigenetic fixation of non-violence

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As we know, the human brain has certain intrinsic and innate predispositions, including a predisposition to inhibit violence, as well as moral emotions such as empathy and sympathy. However, although humans are neurobiologically predisposed to certain values, it is very important to take into account the influence of culture and society. In this case, we should remember epigenetic mechanisms that play an important role in how the structure of the brain develops in response to ethical and social norms. This can greatly help us in the problem of how to eradicate violence from human relationships.

To begin with, it is worth briefly considering what epigenetics is. This branch of genetics studies changes in gene activity during cell growth and division, that is, changes in protein synthesis caused by mechanisms that do not change the DNA structure itself. Such changes can persist during cell division and even be inherited, but this heredity is temporary and is not passed for more than several generations. From an evolutionary point of view, this is a mechanism for creating temporary adaptations to temporary changes in environmental conditions. A good example of this is a study that found that the grandchildren (but not granddaughters) of men who went through a famine in Sweden in the 19th century were less prone to cardiovascular disease but more prone to diabetes [1]. It is also known that factors such as stress, hunger, and environmental temperature that affect the mother during pregnancy determine the epigenetics of the child. However, it is worth noting that unlike mutations, epigenetic changes are reversible.

Understanding the epigenetic influence on human development has led some researchers to the idea of ​​such a concept of upbringing and education of children as proactive epigenesis. This idea suggests that the moral education of children from kindergarten should rely on an understanding of how human neurophysiology works and how it interacts with cultural and social influences. It is also, of course, necessary to understand that inspiring models and gentle encouragement have a strong positive effect, while violence, for example, corporal punishment, can seriously harm a child. And for a better understanding of this idea, we should consider in more detail some of its points [2].

Based on it, if new cultural patterns, such as a better ability to control violence, become epigenetically stored in our brains, then more peaceful societies might hopefully develop. However, it is doubtful that they can be accepted in a society in which inhabitants' nature is in conflict with them. It is unlikely that societies that encourage violence will be able to stabilize non-violent traits. The solution to this is the use of special education programs for many generations, which in any case will have a positive impact.

We should add that there is definitely no conflict at least with the biological nature of humans in an education aimed against violence since they are naturally predisposed precisely to the inhibition of violence. Although the real problem may be authoritarian authorities in many countries, normalizing violence as an acceptable, if not necessary, tool in the control of public order.

Also, the idea of proactive epigenesis in itself does not say which particular neurophysiological mechanisms in humans should be paid attention to in the formation of educational programs. But it is obvious that, first of all, it is important for us to be familiar with the theory of the mechanism of violence inhibition, based on which we can connect the innate predisposition to inhibition of violence with serotonergic system, as well as the genes and enzymes that affect its function. For example, we can think of the MAO-A gene. As one study shows, it mediates the impact of abuse in childhood on violent behavior in adulthood. The carriers of its high-active variant are "immune" to such influence and do not become more violent than the average individual. But carriers of the low-active variant are at risk, maltreatment makes them 4 times more likely to commit violent crimes [3].

The idea of ​​proactive epigenesis involves the search for some universal ethical norm, which must be fixed epigenetically. But, again, it is not clearly stated what kind of norm this should be, although in general, the idea is about creating a non-violent society. Ethics can be a subject of heated debate, so it is important for us to define some sort of minimum standard that everyone can actually agree on, and nonviolence is just that. Moreover, the presence in a human of an innate violence inhibitor points to this norm as a natural part of human behavior, while many other norms can already be more a product of culture and environment, and not our biological predispositions. So, the question of a universal ethical norm can already be considered solved.

The problem that the idea of ​​human biological improvement has negative connotations associated with its use by some dictatorships to create a society predominantly populated by "good citizens" or "racially pure citizens" can also be considered solved. We understand that such formulations can be determined by a long list of points and comes from the subjective opinion of authorities. The norm of non-violence is the minimum possible norm, it is already inherent in the vast majority of people from birth, and the ability to easily commit violence due to the violence inhibitor dysfunction can be clearly defined as pathology and mental deviation. The caution called for by the researchers who put forward the idea of ​​proactive epigenesis is already provided in the norm of nonviolence, the main thing is not to go beyond it and not add any other norms, which is what dictators have always done in practice. The norm of non-violence is a sufficient norm to achieve a better society.

Finally, they are also wary of the idea of a drug and gene therapy solution to the problem of violence due to a lack of understanding of the consequences of this on the functioning of the human brain. Of course, based on the available research and the concept of the violence inhibitor, we can see great promise for this approach, especially given that dysfunction of the violence inhibitor is pathological from a medical point of view and therefore needs to be treated. But nothing prevents the development of both ideas in parallel. While there are no reliable and effective therapeutic solutions to the problem of violence, it can be smoothed out by proactive epigenesis, which is inherently a more cautious solution. Also, keep in mind that epigenetic influences can be temporary and reversible, so we can not drop the search for a more effective therapeutic approach.

Proactive epigenesis is a great idea for those who would like to change society for a better, more non-violent side through social methods and especially through upbringing and educating children. Anyone who does or plans to do this should better study human neurophysiology and become familiar with the specifics of the violence inhibition mechanism. If you understand well what a person needs in order to experience aversion and resistance to violence, to be able to show empathy, and also how exactly the violence inhibitor directs the development of an individual towards non-violence, then your efforts will definitely not be in vain.



1. Pembrey, M. E., Bygren, L. O., Kaati, G., Edvinsson, S., Northstone, K., Sjöström, M., Golding, J. (2006). Sex-specific, male-line transgenerational responses in humans. Eur J Hum Genet. Feb;14(2):159-66. doi:10.1038/sj.ejhg.5201538;

2. Evers, K., Changeux, J.-P. (2016). Proactive epigenesis and ethical innovation: A neuronal hypothesis for the genesis of ethical rules. EMBO reports, Vol 17, No 10. doi:10.15252/embr.201642783;

3. Caspi, A. et al. (2002). Role of Genotype in the Cycle of Violence in Maltreated Children. Science, 297(5582), 851–854. doi:10.1126/science.1072290.