Inheriting sour grapes

There is an old saying that fathers who have eaten sour grapes let their children pucker at the taste. The expression is usually interpreted as meaning that the consequences for our actions today can burden future generations tomorrow. Research on epigenetics, particularly studies on the effects of paternal behaviors on offspring fitness, put an interesting spin on the old saying: it seems that the “puckering” can happen in a very literal sense when we look at how fathers’ behaviors translate into effects on their children.

Last year, the New York Times ran a piece on fatherhood, Why Fathers Really Matter, which cited a particular research study that examined the effects of over- and under-eating fathers on the health statuses of their children and grand-children. Males that lived in times of food scarcity (under-ate before they reached puberty) were more likely to have children and grand-children with lowered risks of cardiovascular disease. Males that lived in times of plenty (over-ate before they reached puberty) were more likely to have children and grand-children with higher diabetes risk. How do we inherit these benefits or risks?

A number of studies in the 1990s suggested that fathers who smoke increase the risk that their children will develop certain cancers and their offspring have a higher risk for birth defects. Our parents decisions can affect our health, and similarly our health decisions can impact future generations. I suppose then we should follow words for the wise: avoid sour grapes.

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