Lamarckism reassessed – can acquired characteristics be inherited?

Lamarckian evolutionary theorythe notion that acquired characteristics can be passed on to offspring – was dismissed (and roundly mocked) in light of Darwin’s theories of natural genetic selection. But new research shows that, in rodents at least, the environment in which a creature is raised can affect its offspring quite profoundly:

In Feig’s study, mice genetically engineered to have memory problems were raised in an enriched environment–given toys, exercise, and social interaction–for two weeks during adolescence. The animals’ memory improved–an unsurprising finding, given that enrichment has been previously shown to boost brain function. The mice were then returned to normal conditions, where they grew up and had offspring. This next generation of mice also had better memory, despite having the genetic defect and never having been exposed to the enriched environment.

If the same applies to humans, the implication is that an enriched nurturing environment – or, conversely, childhood abuse – could have effects that reach beyond generations.

It’s pretty much accepted that childhood poverty will have a negative effect on someone’s prospects as an adult, but if Lamarckism turns out to be valid we have an even stronger argument for striving to improve the lot of the world’s least fortunate. [via SlashDot]