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The aggression will not stand
Jordan E. Rosenfeld

We Are What Our Ancestors Ate

October 29th, 2007
by Jordan E. Rosenfeld




The world is on fire (at least part of it) and as if in harmony with flames, the moon was orange last night. Beneath it,  my neighbors were whooping it up in a Cervesa-fueled dance, like Sendak’s Wild Things, just outside my bedroom window. My other neighbor was doing some kind of strange calisthenics up and down his staircase while his wife ranted in Chinese as she does at least twice a week. There are plenty of opportunities for my attention to be drawn outward–to the noise and heat and energy of the world which seems to be trying to shoulder its way into my quiet and calm lately. The truth is, I barely notice. All of my energy is channeled inward. I have attempted a half dozen posts lately, on subjects ranging from my crush on a goth guy in high school to my ribald memories of beauty school, but each time I try my words are pulled inward, dissipated.

You see, I’m making a person right now. 


Well, I shouldn’t take all the credit. The person is, with the help of genes supplied by daddy and me, making itself, but I’m providing the housing unit, the food, the free entertainment. I’m paying the price too: the fatigue, the persistent feeling of sea sickness, the swollen boobs, the strangely gummy joints.  And damn if I promised I would not be one of THOSE women, who can talk of nothing else but fetal development for nine months, and then of course, infant products and developmental stages until you’re ready to puke. But I gotta tell you–this is one wild ride.

It’s all I all I can talk about.

I’m not a religious girl. I have fairly new-age explanations for the BIG QUESTIONS that can all generally be distilled down to “energy is neither created nor destroyed.” But when I go to sleep one night and my tiny person has buds for arms and legs,  and wake up and that person has now formed fingers and toes–well it’s kind of hard to take anything lightly after that. What a program. What a system. How brilliantly designed are we (except for the size of the delivery canal. God–can we talk?).

But as marvelous and strange as simple fetal development is, it’s positively boring next to the science of epigenetics, which, in essence tells us that we are what our ancestors ate and how they lived their lives. Or if you’d like to have that in more direct terms: your bad habits will adversely affect not only your immediate children, but your great and great-great and so on grandchildren. How do you like them apples?

Of course it’s more complex than I can possibly explain, but it makes me feel linked to my grandparents on their Palestinian Kibbutz (that is to say before the state of Israel existed), eating only what they grew, and I presume killed–I think they ate some animal flesh. The way they worked the land and kept their bodies in good health might be responsible for my tougher immune system. But on the other hand, my mother’s mother drank and smoke–while she was pregnant with her two children. And half of me was an ovum in my mother’s ovary inside my grandmother. Mind boggling! How did all that boozin’ and smokin’ affect me? Does it have anything to do with my heightened sensitivity to all things intoxicating, legal or not? I have to wonder.


And the real kicker is, it might be what an ancient ancestor did or ate or did not do or did not eat that has more of an effect on disease and health of my unborn kid than my own short life span.

Now that’s food for thought (c’mon who could resist that pun?).

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Comment by Dawn C.
2007-10-29 19:19:44

Oh my God, that means I’m made of cigarettes and hard candy and drama.


And is that really true about the fingers forming in one day? Cause that’s nuts.

Normally I find THOSE women kind of annoying, but reading along as you talk about making a person is quite pleasant.

Comment by My Little Pony
2007-10-29 19:40:45

You acknowledge this is dangerously overdone territory but you handled with a new angle and zero saccharine. Nice job.

Comment by jennifer white
2007-10-30 06:05:15

I often get annoyed by baby/pregnancy talk, but this I loved. Well done.

Comment by Kaytie M. Lee
2007-10-30 07:39:59

Mind boggling indeed! Reading this is like watching one of those montages that goes from organisms at the cellular level and expanding ever outward until our solar system, our galaxy, becomes the size of a pinhead in the universe.

Comment by 1159
2007-10-30 07:42:57

Gosh babies change everything don’t they?

There is no meaning of life.
Only the moment.

Comment by Emma R
2007-10-30 10:16:06

Congratulations on your baby-making. I think you should take all the credit - you’re doing all the work.

I second Dawn’s fear about ancestry. Help! My grandparents and parents were themselves made of cigs and booze and white bread, jam and beef dripping. It is amazing I’m here at all.

Comment by noria
2007-10-30 21:01:08

Congratularions, Jordan. You are not one of those women, not at all. Reading this reminds me that I was there once, sprouting fingers and toes overnight. Mind-boggling indeed.

Comment by noria
2007-10-30 21:03:36

Congratularions? Uh, long day. Congratulations.

Comment by reno
2007-10-31 14:45:28

this was a nice pleasant read. but first: congratulations, jordan. my sis is carrying child and the excitement and wonder in her voice is unbelievable.

good luck. you’re gonna have a blast.

and thanks for the story. too. even if, like dawn (dawn, that was hilarious), i’m made up bits and scraps.

oh, well. the show goes on.


Comment by Jordan
2007-11-01 16:52:32

Thanks to all of you. I went out of town the day after I posted this so haven’t had time to respond (am still out of town). More soon!

Comment by caitlin
2007-11-09 11:50:31

I hate to rupture the bubble, but you have made a gross and very misleading mistake in saying this: “your bad habits will adversely affect not only your immediate children, but your great and great-great and so on grandchildren.” Nothing any of us do in our lifetimes will be passed onto our children or grandchildren genetically. You cannot alter the genome by what you do with your life, what you eat, or how educated you become. Your baby will not inherit any of that biologically. It’s impossible. A fetus is affected by the Mother’s habits because the fetus is part of the Momma’s body. So, if you smoke you are hurting your kids lungs, but you’re not altering their genes in any way. Epigenetics is the study of how gene expression effects the phenotype (interaction of genes with the environment).

However, I read your blog because the title “We are what our ancestors ate” is true, but that is meant toward our far-far distant ancestors that lived in the hunter-gatherer environment that we adapted to for such a long period of time. So, we like fats, sweets, and salts because eating those things was beneficial for survival in the past and we don’t like bitter things because that usually meant poisonous. Acquiring those genetic traits happened through the process of natural selection though.

Sorry for giving a lecture, I’m not a scientist, just a student! I just like to correct pop science where I see it.

Comment by Jordan
2007-11-15 13:52:20

Actually Caitlin, that’s exactly what epigenetics suggests…Keep in mind if my child is a girl, for example, she already has all the egg cells (ovum) she will ever develop inside her body while she is still INSIDE ME. In other words, not only is she affected by what I eat and do, but her potential offspring and so on and so forth also are affected by my actions and choices. But the same is true for male fetuses. As I understand epigenetics, the way we live and eat and behave absolutely set up genetic triggers in our offspring and their offspring.

I highly recommend the NOVA special–it will say what I did not say very eloquently.

Comment by Caitlin
2007-11-21 00:42:20

Thank you. I will check out the NOVA special.

My point was that your offspring cannot inherit anything you do biologically (code into their genes), which your blog seems to suggest. But yes, the environment (including the womb) interacts with genes to affect gene expression. In other words, you cannot change the heredity of your offspring, but you can affect what that heredity produces. There is an important distinction.

And I suppose it is possible that some epigenetic features show transgenerational inheritance. Interesting!

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