Apr 1, 2022
Once a kid is born, their genetic fate is pretty much sealed. Or is it? In this episode, originally aired in 2012, we put nature and nurture on a collision course and discover how outside forces can find a way inside us, and change not just our hearts and minds, but the basic biological blueprint that we pass on to future generations.
Support Radiolab by becoming a member of The Lab today.
Radiolab is on YouTube! Catch up with new episodes and hear classics from our archive. Plus, find other cool things we did in the past — like miniseries, music videos, short films and animations, behind-the-scenes features, Radiolab live shows, and more. Take a look, explore and subscribe!
LATIF NASSER: Hey, it’s Latif.
LULU MILLER: It’s Lulu.
LATIF: This is Radiolab.
LULU: In a very real way, we’ve been thinking a lot about inheritance. We inherited this beloved show that we first fell in love with as listeners.
LATIF: And as of 11:01 a.m. on Tuesday, when we’re recording this, we have not broken the show.
LULU: So far.
LATIF: Still, still standing.
LULU: And we’re trying to think about how do we keep it the same in a lot of ways, but also how do we let it grow into something beyond what it was originally built to be.
LATIF: Oh you said it so much more diplomatically. Like I’d be like, “We’ve got the keys, we’re gonna trash the house.”
LULU: Well I mean, you know, yeah.
LATIF: Artfully trash house.
LULU: Artfully trash the house.
LATIF: Anyway, we think about that all the time and I was just talking to Lulu about that and she was just like, “You know, there’s a radiolab about this.”
LULU: A really good radiolab about this called Inheritance. I won’t say too much more except it includes one of my favorite kind of scientific parables that like I’ve ever heard. It’s something I still think about all the time.
LATIF: It’s so good that it makes you not want to trash the house, you know what I mean?
LULU: Yeah, that’s it. Yeah, there you go. And we’ll just let the old yahoos from whom we inheritedededed — inherited it — take it away.
LULU: Oh actually, real thing, before we go, Latif.
LULU: Did you know there is — a part of this show is gonna be like crazy breaking news, like happened yesterday and we already have a deep take on it?
LATIF: No! I did not know that.
LULU: April Fools!
LATIF: Oh. Great.
JAD ABUMRAD: Alright, ‘kay.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Yeah.
JAD: I want to start with a parental day dream for a second.
JAD: It’s an idea that’s been kicking around for me since my kids were born.
JAD: Actually, the idea itself is pretty old. It goes back to the 1800’s.
SAM KEAN: Right around Napoleon’s time.
JAD: To fellow named Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck.
SAM KEAN: Yep.
SAM KEAN: Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
JAD: Who, according to writer Sam Kean.
SAM KEAN: He was really one of the first grand theorists in biology. He actually coined the word “biology,” too.
SAM KEAN: Yep.
JAD: His big idea, as you might know, is that what a person does in their lifetime could be directly passed to their kids.
SAM KEAN: Very easily. His famous example was giraffes.
JAD: Lamarck said, “You wanna know how a giraffe got its long neck?”
JAD: One day this giraffe, mother giraffe, let’s say, was looking up in the tree and saw some fruit, and had to stretch he neck, and stretch again. Whole lifetime of stretching. And when she had a baby…
JAD: Stretching got into the baby. And then that baby would stretch and stretch, and it would give a little more stretching to its baby. And eventually, over the millenia, what you’d get, is a creature with a very long neck.
SAM KEAN: Because they’re reaching for the tops of trees.
JAD: It makes a kind of common sense, really.
SAM KEAN: It does, it does make kind of a folk sense. He thought it worked with humans, too. His example with humans was a blacksmith. He thought that because they’re swinging hammers all day, they got big bulky muscles, and then they’d pass the muscles to their children.
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, toddler cooing]
JAD: The sneaky idea here is that the blacksmiths, the giraffes, they made it happen. They willed the neck to get longer, the muscles to get bigger.
SAM KEAN: And the key point is that it wasn’t something inborn in them. It was something they acquired during their lifetime.
JAD: Which they passed to their kids.
JAD: And that’s wrong [laughs].That’s not how it works. We’re told.
ROBERT: [laughs] We now know that that’s not the case. Yeah.
JAD: But wouldn’t it be nice if that’s how it worked?
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, toddler: Ocean.]
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Jad Abumrad: Well let’s — let’s read the book first.]
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, toddler: Pages.]
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Jad Abumrad: Yeah, let’s read.]
JAD: Because, you know, that I’ve got these two kids, right?
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Jad Abumrad: Do you see the owl?]
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, toddler: Yeah.]
JAD: I find myself thinking like, “Okay, I know these kids have their genes half from me, half from my wife.
JAD: And I know I can’t change those genes.
JAD: And I know fate is gonna give them a couple random mutations in those genes.
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, toddler: There’s the moon.]
JAD: That I have no control over.
JAD: That’s just the cold logic of Darwinian evolution.
JAD: Well, it’s offensive. I mean, the idea that they could be constrained by their DNA, that maybe one of us gave them a bit of DNA that’s gonna hold them back? It’s a terrible thought!
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Jad Abumrad: What’s this letter right here?]
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, toddler: A.]
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Jad Abumrad: How ‘bout this one?]
JAD: And so, what you do...
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, toddler: F]
JAD: I think all parents do this, is that you slip into this Lamarckian delusion that...
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, toddler: No.]
JAD: ...What you do with your kids can somehow rewrite all of that. That you can, somehow, by just being nice to them, reading them stories, or whatever, that you can somehow break them free of all that.
ROBERT: Rewrite their — their blueprint? Like…
JAD: I don’t know. You don’t really say it to yourself that way, but yeah.
ROBERT: You can make a deep difference.
JAD: Yeah, like you can help them overcome you.
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Jad Abumrad: What’s that called?]
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, toddler: I don’t know.]
ROBERT: You can’t!
JAD: I know!
ROBERT: That’s what Darwin says, you can’t.
JAD: I know! I know! Once their born, their genes are fixed and change does not happen in a generation or two. It happens…
SAM KEAN: In really…
SAM KEAN: Really slowly, gradually, achingly slowly.
JAD: One parent stretching isn’t going to do anything, see that’s the bummer of Darwinian evolution. As a parent, you are a tiny blip in a very, very, long story.
ROBERT: But, this hour we’re gonna fight this sort of sad sack feeling of inevitability and impotence.
ROBERT: And rewrite the so-called rules of genetics.
JAD: That’s right, today on Radiolab.
ROBERT: We’re gonna lick some rats.
JAD: Starve some Swedes.
ROBERT: Sterilize some women.
JAD: I mean, we’re not gonna do that ourselves.
JAD: But we’re gonna play you stories where...
ROBERT: These things actually happen.
JAD: Yes. I’m Jad Abumrad.
ROBERT: I’m Robert Krulwich.
JAD: This is Radiolab. Stick around. It’s gonna get messy.
ROBERT: Okay, so let’s get going and stick with your boy, Lamarck, just for a sec.
JAD: [laughs] Mm-hmm.
ROBERT: ‘Cause we were talking to science writer, Carl Zimmer, and he told us that back in the early 1900s, this tension between Lamarck and Darwin got extra tense.
CARL ZIMMER: Yeah.
ROBERT: In a sort of fascinating way.
CARL ZIMMER: Right.
JAD: It all started in Vienna.
CARL ZIMMER: At this really marvelous place called the Vivarium.
ROBERT: The Vivarium.
CARL ZIMMER: Yeah. This was a really radical place at the time because you have to remember that people studying animals up till now, they were basically studying preserved specimens, and so on. At the Vivarium, as the name suggests, they have live animals.
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, bird calls]
JAD: So it was like a zoo, basically.
CARL ZIMMER: Well, it was a zoo where there was all sorts of experiments going on.
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, animal noises]
CARL ZIMMER: You know, the fact is that taking care of animals, trying to keep them alive in a building is not an easy thing, especially if it's 1903.
ROBERT: But luckily for the Vivarium and for our story, they had a guy.
CARL ZIMMER: Paul Kammerer.
JAD: Who was he? And when was he?
CARL ZIMMER: He was born in 1880 in Vienna, Jewish family.
ROBERT: By all accounts a pretty good-looking guy. In pictures, he has that, you know, that crazy Einstein fuzzy hair thing.
JAD: The genius cut?
CARL ZIMMER: He's 22, 23, and he already had this reputation for being amazing at keeping animals alive, that otherwise would just die.
JAD: His reputation was that he could get inside the mind of, say, a salamander and know just what it wanted to eat.
ROBERT: Or how much humidity it preferred.
CARL ZIMMER: Right.
ROBERT: He was a born nurturer and he adored animals.
CARL ZIMMER: He actually named his daughter Lacerta, which is a genus of lizard.
CARL ZIMMER: That's the kind of guy he is.
ROBERT: So, of course the folks at the Vivarium asked him.
CARL ZIMMER: To build these terrariums and aquariums and stock them with animals.
ROBERT: Including a particular amphibian that plays a very big part in this story.
SAM KEAN: The midwife toad.
JAD: The midwife toad.
SAM KEAN: Right.
JAD: It's writer, Sam Kean again, and here's, he says, what you need to know about the midwife toad.
SAM KEAN: Basically, the midwife toad has a strange habit for toads.
JAD: Most toads, he says, love to stay in the water. They like to hang out in the water and the females like to lay eggs in the water. But with the midwife toad, the female...
SAM KEAN: Lays her eggs on land and then the male midwife toad comes along...
JAD: Grabs the eggs.
SAM KEAN: ...And actually kind of sticks them to his back legs, like a bunch of whitish grapes, and then hops around with them basically until they hatch.
JAD: So he's got to live his life as a toad with all this baggage on him?
CARL ZIMMER: Just until they hatch and then 'til they go off.
JAD: Still, that's a burden that, he's carrying a big burden there.
CARL ZIMMER: Is your wife going to hear this?
CARL ZIMMER: She carries your kids for nine months and you're like, "That poor male toad."
JAD: Anyhow, so you got this guy, Paul Kammerer, who's good with animals. You've got these toads who hate water. And in one day, we can imagine, he gets curious. As he's doing his rounds, he stops by the midwife toad terrarium, he looks down at that little male toad with grapes stuck to his legs and he wonders, "How adaptable is that little guy?" I mean, he hates water. Females seem to hate laying eggs in the water, but is that the end of the story?
CARL ZIMMER: What would happen...
JAD: If I made them go...
CARL ZIMMER: ...In the water?
JAD: Could they adapt?
CARL ZIMMER: I know what I'll do, I'm going to set up a terrarium for them and I'm going to make it hot, really uncomfortably hot. But I'm going to give them a basin of water. Nice, cool water.
SAM KEAN: And he would basically turn the heat way, way up in these aquariums until they had to go underwater.
JAD: You can imagine these toads are like, "Dammit, fine. All right, I'll get in the water." Maybe they'd try and jump back out, but it was still hot so they'd have to jump back in. And since Kammerer kept the heat up, toads basically had to stay there, in this watery place that they had not evolved for.
SAM KEAN: Darwin's theory would have said, you know, 90% of the toads are going to die. There's going to be this massacre of toads and only a few lucky ones are going to survive.
ROBERT: And those lucky ones, according to Darwin's theory, they would have had to have been born with some random mutation in their genes...
SAM KEAN: ...That gave them an advantage in this situation.
ROBERT: And that advantage, whatever it was, because it starts with one individual, and then it gets passed onto the kids, and then onto their kids, it would take a long, long, long time to spread through the whole population because, generally, that's how evolution works. It takes a while.
JAD: But according to Kammerer, here's what happened when he heated up the toads little cage.
CARL ZIMMER: They'd spend more time in the water.
JAD: As expected.
CARL ZIMMER: And when it came time to mate, the males and the females, they would mate in the water.
JAD: And at first, it didn't go so well because, you know, if you're a land toad and you're trying to have sex in the water, it's kind of hard. You're slippery, partner's slippery. You just haven't evolved for this and there's no way you can, at least not quickly. But according to Kammerer, shortly after these toads got into the water, they did begin to evolve fast. They began to grow these all puffy things on their hands.
CARL ZIMMER: These rough scratchy pads.
SAM KEAN: What's known as a nuptial pad.
ROBERT: Nuptial pads.
SAM KEAN: Right.
JAD: It was just what the males needed.
CARL ZIMMER: So they can grab onto the female and hold tight while they're mating.
ROBERT: And they didn't have these on land?
SAM KEAN: No, they did not have them on land.
JAD: They just appeared in the water?
SAM KEAN: Yep.
JAD: And how long did it take?
CARL ZIMMER: Right away.
JAD: In just two generations, these toads seem to have done something that should have taken, I don't know, 50, 100 generations? Maybe more. Kammerer thought, "Wow."
SAM KEAN: "They can respond to the environment."
CARL ZIMMER: He was revealing it with experiments.
JAD: They're not trapped by their genes.
CARL ZIMMER: Around 1908, he started publishing all of these results.
ROBERT: And it’s big news.
CARL ZIMMER: And...
JAD: He grabs toads and he hit the road.
CARL ZIMMER: He hit the lecture circuit and he hit it big.
SAM KEAN: He was known for going around and giving, what he called, his big show lectures, where he would wow whole audiences of people.
CARL ZIMMER: And in1923, he actually comes to England. There was a newspaper called The Daily Express and they have these headlines that come out. It says, "Race of Supermen." That's the headline for his talk, and then...
JAD: Race of...?
CARL ZIMMER: Right below the headlines says, "Scientist's great discovery which may change us all."
JAD: What's he talking about? We’re just talking about toad, I thought.
CARL ZIMMER: He's not just talking about toads anymore, he's gone way beyond toads.
SAM KEAN: He extended this idea to people. He thought that you could kind of engineer societies by changing the environment.
CARL ZIMMER: I just have to read this to you. The results make it probable that our descendants will learn more quickly what we know well, will execute more easily what we have accomplished with great effort, will be able to withstand what injured us almost to the point of death. Where we sought, they will find. Where we began, they will accomplish.
ROBERT: And this idea won him a lot of fans, including, not surprisingly, the Soviets.
SAM KEAN: Yeah, it was a very attractive theory to them in Moscow.
ROBERT: Because the Soviets, they believe in Karl Marx's idea that human beings were an improvable species, that if you can change the conditions around people, you change the people. Here, Kammerer's was saying, "You can do this even on a physical level."
CARL ZIMMER: But there were a lot of skeptics.
ROBERT: And there were from the beginning. When Kammerer published his results initially, a bunch of scientists immediately began to say...
CARL ZIMMER: "Wait a minute, hold on here, it would be nice if life was like that but life isn't like that. Life is hard."
JAD: People can't just will themselves into a more perfect form.
ROBERT: According to Darwin, life and changes are ruled by chance.
JAD: And fate.
ROBERT: And to believe anything else, that's naive. This whole toad thing, to the Darwinian faction, it didn't scan really. So some scientists began to ask Kammerer if they could look at his toads. You know, just take a little peek for themselves, and every time...
SAM KEAN: Kammerer said no, they were his specimens.
JAD: Get your own.
SAM KEAN: It was this struggle for a few years. Then World War One came and that disrupted everything.
ROBERT: Kammerer, for one, was sent off to work as a sensor for the Austrian military.
SAM KEAN: And his lab ended up getting destroyed.
ROBERT: Including all his toads.
SAM KEAN: Except he had one. He had one remaining midwife toad.
JAD: So this whole debate, two totally different ways of seeing life.
CARL ZIMMER: It all came down to this jar with his toad in it. And you have to bear in mind that at this point, it only had one hand left.
CARL ZIMMER: The right hand had been cut off for microscopic slides. And so, you could only see one nuptial pad, and it all comes down to this...and all of that was just about to fall apart.
ROBERT: What happened?
CARL ZIMMER: Well, there was an expert on reptiles named G. Kingsley Noble.
SAM KEAN: Gladwin Kingsley Noble.
ROBERT: What a name, you've got to like this guy.
SAM KEAN: Yeah, it is.
JAD: Yes, it sounds like trouble.
SAM KEAN: He was for Kammerer.
CARL ZIMMER: He was mighty skeptical. So he actually went to Vienna.
JAD: Visited Kammerer's lab when Kammerer wasn't there.
CARL ZIMMER: And he makes a very careful study of this hand.
SAM KEAN: And when he examined it, he noticed that there was a syringe hole there.
CARL ZIMMER: And he says, "This isn't a nuptial pad, it looks darkened but that's just ink."
ROBERT: What do you mean, ink?
CARL ZIMMER: Ink.
ROBERT: Like the...
CARL ZIMMER: Ink.
ROBERT: Like squid ink?
CARL ZIMMER: No, like India ink.
CARL ZIMMER: Yes.
ROBERT: He doctored the toad.
SAM KEAN: That was the implication, except Kammerer tried to defend himself by saying...
CARL ZIMMER: "Do you think I'm a Dummkopf, or an idiot, because that's what I would have to be if I left a forgery with ink standing around openly in the laboratory where so many of my enemies would have entry?"
JAD: So how did he explain it?
SAM KEAN: Well, he thought it might have been an assistant trying to frame him because he was Jewish.
SAM KEAN: And, you know, there was kind of antisemitism growing at this time, so he thought that someone had framed him, and six weeks after Nobel published his results in Nature, Kammerer sent a letter to Moscow.
JAD: Turning down a job that they'd offered him.
SAM KEAN: Because it would reflect badly on the Soviet state.
CARL ZIMMER: And then...
JAD: The following day.
CARL ZIMMER: Kammerer puts on a suit and he walks off into the mountains...
SAM KEAN: Outside Vienna on a Rocky mountain trail…
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, gunshot]
CARL ZIMMER: And he shoots himself.
CARL ZIMMER: Lamarckism pretty much died there.
JAD: So then over the next 70 some odd years, Lamarck basically became the poster boy for, like, the big dumb idea, the idea that you want to believe in but that you know isn't true.
CARL ZIMMER: But — but there’s like some hope here because...
JAD: Okay, all right, this is interesting. Then, Carl told us about this research that showed...
CARL ZIMMER: That if, if a mother...
JAD: Well, he couldn't quite remember the details.
CARL ZIMMER: Does what a mother...
ROBERT: Unusual for Carl.
CARL ZIMMER: ...mouse or rat? I'm trying to remember.
JAD: Was it rats or mice?
MICHAEL MEANEY: No, it was rats.
MICHAEL MEANEY: Yep.
JAD: We ended up talking to the guy who did the work.
CARL ZIMMER: Michael Meaney, I think.
MICHAEL MEANEY: Yep, I’m a professor in the faculty of medicine at McGill University in Montreal.
CARL ZIMMER: I think he’s at McGill.
JAD: So here’s the backstory. About 30 years ago-
MICHAEL MEANEY: I was an undergraduate student.
JAD: Michael was in school and he got interested in a very, very basic question about how things get passed down? Like have you ever had one of those moments where you suddenly are your dad and it catches you off guard?
ROBERT: Oh, of course.
JAD: I mean, it's pretty common but like, here's a for instance, my dad from my entire life had this thing where if someone was whistling, he would — like they could be whistling six tables over in a restaurant and he would turn around and be like, "Stop that," it was like it was scraping his very nerves. And The other day someone was whistling and I was like, "Stop it", and it just hit me, I was like, "Oh God, I was him", it's never appeared until now.
ROBERT: You wonder, where did that come from?
JAD: Is that a genetic hatred of whistling that I just had?
ROBERT: Yeah [laughs].
JAD: Or did I somehow learn that? That, in a sort of ass backward way was Michael's question.
MICHAEL MEANEY: How does that happen?
JAD: How do these simple little traits get passed forward? So...
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: So we start looking at maternal care.
JAD: Many years later, he and this woman.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: Frances Champagne.
JAD: Who now works at Columbia University. They decided to explore this question…
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: Looking at...
JAD: ...in rats.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: So, we have our rats in the lab and...
JAD: They thought, "Let's just see if we can figure out how it is the rat mothers pass down their parenting skills?"
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: That's right.
ROBERT: If you were a great rat mommy, what would you be doing with your rat baby?
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: You would be licking them quite a lot.
ROBERT: Uh huh.
JAD: That's what good rat mothers do, they lick their babies a lot. But she says, you can tell right away, just by looking, that some rat moms don't lick their kids a lot.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: There's a normal distribution, right?
JAD: You got your good parents and your bad parents. What they decided to do first was to try to figure out which rat was which, which meant, interestingly, counting all the legs.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: Putting this into context, you know, you have a rat mom and they have about 16 to 20 babies.
JAD: All at once?
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: At once and we're watching 40 litters at a time.
ROBERT: How do you count the [crosstalk]
JAD: Jeez! That’s — that’s too hard!
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: You have to look at one cage, say, are they licking? Yes, no, okay, move on to the next cage, yes, no? Move on to the next cage, yes, no?
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: You have to do that for five hours a day for six consecutive days. Move on to the next cage yes, no? Move on to the next cage, yes, no?
JAD: See, this is the story of science that doesn't get told. It's just a mind crushing tedium.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: Yes, yes. The next stage, yes, no?
MICHAEL MEANEY: Yeah, it drifts into something like a shopping channel.
JAD: In any case, what they saw at the end of all this counting was...Well, first of all, what they saw was this pattern that rat pups who got licked a lot as babies, when they grew up, they licked their babies a lot and the rat pups who didn't get licked a lot, when they grew up, they didn't lick their babies.
MICHAEL MEANEY: So the great rat nightmare comes true where the females become their mothers.
ROBERT: I think that makes a lot of sense.
JAD: Actually, it's kind of obvious.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: Right. Yeah.
JAD: We all know this, that there are cycles of abuse or whatever. You know, like if you're abused as a kid, you were more likely to abuse your kid, but still, you got to wonder.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: Why? Why would that happen?
JAD: How do those cycles perpetuate? I mean like, with the licking, is it a teaching thing where, you know, the babies become good mothers because...
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: They've learned it.
JAD: By watching their mothers.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: They've seen it and they've repeated the experience.
JAD: Or does it get passed on such a deep level that doesn't even require teaching?
ROBERT: What do you mean?
MICHAEL MEANEY: So that’s the reason, of course, that we work with rats because we can get inside the brain.
JAD: Michael and Frances looked inside the brains of these rats and what they saw was that the rats who had been licked a lot as babies, they had more stuff in their head.
ROBERT: What do you mean? More brain cells? More what kind of stuff?
JAD: No, not brain cells. More of this particular protein.
MICHAEL MEANEY: That activates maternal behavior.
JAD: When rats have more of this protein, they will act more motherly. And they had more.
JAD: Well think about what makes proteins.
ROBERT: [unintelligible 00:20:16]
ROBERT: Well, yes, genes and DNA.
JAD: Don't you see, somehow the mother's tongue is getting all the way down in there and going [mumbles] and messing with the baby's DNA.
ROBERT: Is that what you're saying? That the licking is changing the baby's DNA?
JAD: That's what I...
JAD: I'm not quite saying that.
ROBERT: You can’t say that. It's against the rules.
JAD: That's against the rules. You can't change your DNA.
MICHAEL MEANEY: Yeah, you can't touch that.
JAD: It's off-limits. That tongue is doing something to the DNA.
ROBERT: So what is the licking doing then?
MICHAEL MEANEY: That's our challenge.
JAD: Do you have any theories for how this tongue is tickling the DNA, or whatever it's doing?
MICHAEL MEANEY: Um, well so…
JAD: And then, Michael just launched into this thing.
MICHAEL MEANEY: What happens when moms lick their pups is that the pup beccomes aroused. The reason they're more aroused is that the mom's licking activates the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline in the pup.
JAD: He says those two chemicals...
MICHAEL MEANEY: Kick off certain hormonal systems. And one of them is called the thyroid system. Thyroid hormones then get into the brain and they turn on certain neural chemical signals. The neural chemical signal that gets activated during licking, is serotonin.
JAD: As in the mood chemical?
MICHAEL MEANEY: Yes. So mom’s licking activates serotonin, and it's released onto brain cells in the hippocampus.
JAD: You're still with me?
ROBERT: I think I'm with you.
JAD: Started with the tongue. Four or five steps later, we are in...
MICHAEL MEANEY: Brain cells.
JAD: So almost instantaneously, the mother's tongue has reached into the baby's brain cells.
JAD: You know, inside these cells, in the center, coiled up in little spools, is the DNA. So we’re getting close to the moment of truth, because there it is. That's the stuff that makes you you.
JAD: But that you supposedly can't get to. But here's what I did not know about DNA. According to Frances, it's not just sitting up there perfectly preserved, it's in the middle of the cell, it's crowded.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: You know, you've got all these chemicals around.
JAD: Racing by.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: In the cells.
JAD: And very often, one of them will just go crashing into the DNA and it'll stick there like a barnacle or a glob of peanut butter.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: [laughs[ Exactly. Peanut butter, there we go.
JAD: What happens, it'll get stuck to one little part of the DNA and now that little bit of DNA...
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: Is very difficult to get at.
JAD: It's basically unusable.
ROBERT: Because it's got the thing stuck to it?
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: Yes.
JAD: And these things are called, apparently, methyl groups.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: Methyl groups are pretty sticky, they're hard to get off.
JAD: So imagine the DNA in that brain cell. All these chemicals racing by crashing into it, sticking, and one of the bits that gets covered up is that little bit that makes the proteins that create a maternal instinct. The bit of DNA that will give this baby when it grows up the instincts to be nice to its baby, and lick that baby.
ROBERT: And you’re saying that part of the DNA is covered up?
JAD: Yes. And when methyl groups stick to that part of the DNA, the maternal instinct is effectively turned off. But if you've got a mom who licks you…
MICHAEL MEANEY: Mom's licking activates serotonin.
JAD: Serotonin gets into the brain cells, and according to Michael unleashes...
MICHAEL MEANEY: A whole series of molecular events inside the cell. The critical part of this...
JAD: Is that all these changes wake up this little gang of proteins.
MICHAEL MEANEY: Known as transcription factors.
JAD: If they see methyl groups sitting on that bit of DNA, they are pissed. And so, they bring...
MICHAEL MEANEY: A lot of friends to the party.
JAD: They all go down to the DNA, surround that methyl and just, pow! Knock it right off the DNA.
MICHAEL MEANEY: That's it. And then they're going to basically revel at that particular spot and turn on that gene.
JAD: So now, the genes can make the proteins that make the rats a good mom?
MICHAEL MEANEY: Exactly. Exactly.
JAD: [expletive] That was awesome. Wow. That was amazing.
MICHAEL MEANEY: [laughs]
ROBERT: Why are you so thrilled?
JAD: Well think about it, this is nature and nurture slamming into each other. You know, when smart people say, you know, "There's no such thing as nature and nurture it's only interaction of the two," You're like, "What the hell does that mean?" Well, this is it!
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: This is real physical-chemical interaction between what's going on in the environment and what's going on with the DNA.
JAD: Because you begin with a mother's lick that ends up with a deep, deep change in the baby, not just the good, warm, fuzzy feeling, but a fundamental shift in who that baby is, and who that baby will be.
CARL ZIMMER: You're now hearing Lamarck's name invoked these days because there are things beyond genes that we pass down to our children.
JAD: Now, according to Carl, your genes are still fixed.
CARL ZIMMER: We can't rewrite our genes.
JAD: That is impossible, so far as we know, but there seems to be this layer on top of the genes.
CARL ZIMMER: This second channel of heredity.
JAD: If the genes are the bottom floor, then this layer on top is sometimes called the epigenome and that thing can change based on your experiences.
ROBERT: Which, when you think about it, it has a very Lamarckian flavor.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: I think that's where Lamarck's ideas can be woven in and make some sense.
JAD: Do you call yourself a Lamarckian?
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: Not usually because it upsets people and I'm Canadian. I don't like to upset people.
JAD: Plus, you know, Lamarck didn't get all the biological details right.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: He had no idea about DNA.
JAD: Or very many of them right at all, but, you know, his basic idea seems to be true.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: I mean, when you think of Kammerer, there was a report in science outlining a theory about how Kammerer's toads got these characteristics...
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: ...that invoked these epigenetic inheritance and imprinted genes and it made it plausible.
JAD: Oh, so redeeming him?
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: Yes.
ROBERT: Maybe or maybe not.
JAD: Thanks to Frances Champagne and Michael Meany and Sam Kean, who writes about Paul Kammerer in his book, The Violinist's Thumb. Also, thanks to Carl Zimmer whose latest is Evolution: Making Sense of Life.
[Recorded voice: Start of message.]
CARL ZIMMER: Hi, this is Carl Zimmer.
CHARLOTTE ZIMMER: Hi, my name is Charlotte Zimmer.
VERONICA ZIMMER: My name is Veronica Zimmer. I'm Carl Zimmer's daughter.
CARL ZIMMER: She is nine. Are you nine? You're eight, sorry. What do I know? [chuckles]
CHARLOTTE ZIMMER: Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and...
CHARLOTTE and VERONICA ZIMMER: ...The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
VERONICA ZIMMER: ...Sloan Foundation.
CARL ZIMMER: Enhancing public understanding of science and technology...
CHARLOTTE ZIMMER: ...in the modern world.
CARL ZIMMER: More information about Sloan at...
CHARLOTTE ZIMMER: www.sloan.org.
JAD: And go. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.
ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.
JAD: This is Radiolab, and today...
ROBERT: It's inheritance today.
JAD: Yeah, we're exploring questions of lwhat can you pass down to your kids and their kids?
JAD: What can't you? How much of you will echo into the future and how much of you won't? And I've got say, I'm feeling pretty good about this show so far.
JAD: Well, if a mother — a rat mother licking her baby can have such a profound effect, basically change the expression of the genes in the baby, well that's hopeful.
ROBERT: So you think you can get deep down?
JAD: Look, in the end, what do I know? But I take it that we have more control over our destinies and our kids' destinies than we would've thought.
ROBERT: Well, let’s not get too excited too fast because we have a story to tell and this tale leaves me a little queasy.
OLOV BYGREN: Oh, there was a contact.
JAD: Hello, hello.
OLOV BYGREN: Yes, it's me, Olov.
JAD: This is Olov.
OLOV BYGREN: Hi, Olov Bygren. I'm in public health.
JAD: He works at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden where he studies population data.
OLOV BYGREN: Looking for patterns in cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, and such.
ROBERT: But the story he told us begins around 25 years ago.
Sam Kean: Way up in northern Sweden.
ROBERT: That's Sam Kean again. He's the guy who told us about Olov's work.
SAM KEAN: In a little community called Överkalix.
ROBERT: What does it look like? Is it a big town? A little village?
OLOV BYGREN: It's a small forest area, very beautiful.
SAM KEAN: But this was a really, really tough place to grow up.
ROBERT: Very isolated and very...
OLOV BYGREN: Cold.
ROBERT: Are you near the Arctic Circle or...
OLOV BYGREN: North of it.
ROBERT: North of the Arctic Circle?
OLOV BYGREN: Yes.
OLOV BYGREN: My home village was 10 miles North of polar circle. [chuckles]
JAD: Oh, so you grew up in Överkalix?
OLOV BYGREN: Yes, yes. We had an expression here, "Dig where you stand." [chuckles]
ROBERT: And it just so happens this town is a perfect place to dig.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: Okay, I'm here. Riksarkivet. The kingdom archive.
ROBERT: Because there is more data, more information about the people of Överkalix, going farther back into the past than you can find almost anywhere else on Earth.
OLOV BYGREN: Yes, we are really data-rich.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: This is the Överkalix church parish record.
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: Yes, it is.
JAD: Because here's the thing, the churches up in Överkalix kept incredibly detailed records. We actually sent our friend, Pejk Malinovski, to the archives in Stockholm to check it out.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: It says "registrera", register.
JAD: In those books you can read everything about the citizens of Överkalix, going back hundreds of years.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: What's this name?
JAD: You know their names.
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: Jans Olaf, Hanna Kaiser, Heinrik Venvei.
JAD: What year they were born.
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: 1814.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: 1881.
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: She was born 1904 and this is...
OLOV BYGREN: Everything happening in the family...
JAD: Is in these books.
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: Nelson, he was an idiot.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: He was an idiot. [laughs]
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: Oh, sorry.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: What does that mean, he was an idiot? I guess retard.
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: Yes, he was retarded. [foreign language]. He was miserable to look at.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: It's not very politically correct, huh?
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: [chuckles] No.
JAD: In any case, these books tell you when each of these folks died, how they died.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: From disease.
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: Heart disease. From pneumonia.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: Accident.
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: She drowned.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: Oh my God.
OLOV BYGREN: A lot of diagnoses actually.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: Influenza.
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: Cancer. Heart disease. Brain disease.
ROBERT: Interestingly, the church has also kept track of the farmers'...
OLOV BYGREN: Crops.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: Crops and livestock.
SAM KEAN: How much they were growing each year.
ROBERT: Which turn out to be an interesting thing to look at it because the people in Överkalix who were farming...
SAM KEAN: Trying to eke a living out of the soil.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: Here we have how much they harvested.
ROBERT: They would experience these wild changes from harvest to harvest.
JAD: What you see in the records, is that one year...
PEJK MALINOVSKI: Potatoes.
JAD: Crops that do great.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: 100 liters. Oh, that's a lot of potatoes.
ROBERT: A few years later, there'd be a harsh winter.
OLOV BYGREN: The crops failed.
SAM KEAN: And when the crops failed.
OLOV BYGREN: Famines.
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: So sad.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: Yeah.
JAD: They’d basically starve. I mean, when you look at the records, you don't see huge spikes in mortality.
OLOV BYGREN: So they didn't starve to death.
JAD: They suddenly had to get by on a tiny fraction of the food that they were used to.
OLOV BYGREN: They didn't have grains. I mean, they didn't have porridge.
SAM KEAN: And so, they just had to hold on for the entire winter.
ROBERT: But then, a few years would pass, crops would bounce back.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: And we have a lot more grain here.
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: Yeah.
ROBERT: And suddenly...
OLOV BYGREN: Plenty of food.
ROBERT: They could eat twice, three times as much.
JAD: But then...
PEJK MALINOVSKI: Oh, no.
OLOV BYGREN: Total crop failure.
JAD: Famine again, and these changes would just bounce back and forth.
ROBERT: Feast again.
JAD: And looking at these swings in fortune, Olov realized what he had here was...
SAM KEAN: ...A nice, natural experiment.
JAD: Because with all this data, he and his team could follow families forward in time, through the generations.
ROBERT: So if they saw somebody who was starving as a kid in 1820, they could then see, "Well, when those people had children and grandchildren, did anything change? Were there any consequences?
SAM KEAN: They wanted to see basically the effects of starvation on multiple generations.
JAD: What did you discover?
OLOV BYGREN: It was very interesting discovery.
ROBERT: It's a little odd, actually. Here's what Olov says he found in the data. If you were a boy in Överkalix between the ages of 9 and 12 years old, that's the window, 9 to 12, you're a boy, and then we have one of those terribly rough winters, and you're eating much less than normal. Assuming that you can survive the ordeal, and you grow up, and you have kids of your own, the data seems to say that your kids will benefit from your suffering.
OLOV BYGREN: Yeah. Yeah.
JAD: They'll do better?
SAM KEAN: If you have a starving daddy, it turns out that the baby actually gets some sort of health benefit.
OLOV BYGREN: Yes.
SAM KEAN: And these effects, in fact, were so strong that you could trace it to the grandfather.
JAD: The grandfather? Two generations?
SAM KEAN: It seemed to have been passed down for multiple generations.
ROBERT: You mean, if you had a starving grandfather, you would be a healthier boy for the — because you had a starving grandfather?
SAM KEAN: You got to help boost if you had a starving grandfather.
JAD: What sort of health boost?
OLOV BYGREN: Well, for cardiovascular disease...
JAD: Olov told us, take heart disease. He said, "If you were a boy, and you starve between the ages of 9 and 12, and then you went on to become a father, then a grandfather, your grandkids..."
OLOV BYGREN: They were protected.
ROBERT: Meaning that they had less incidence of heart disease?
OLOV BYGREN: Much less.
ROBERT: How much less?
OLOV BYGREN: Well It's one-fourth, we can we say.
ROBERT: One-fourth? Let me say this again. If you're a starving boy between 9 to 12 years old, now it doesn't matter a whole lot what happens to you after this, your grandchildren will have one-quarter the risk of heart disease. And if you were eating a whole lot between 9 and 12, one-quarter.
JAD: Not only that. Apparently, those grandkids...
SAM KEAN: Were less prone to diabetes. They lived longer lives, something like 30 years on average.
ROBERT: 30 years?
SAM KEAN: This was a really, really big effect.
ROBERT: Instead of dying at 40, I'd live to 70? That kind of 30 years?
SAM KEAN: Yes, exactly.
OLOV BYGREN: [laughs]
ROBERT: I wonder. It's such a surprising result. I wonder how much you believe in it.
OLOV BYGREN: The results are there. It's only the mechanisms are not so clear.
ROBERT: But the results are very clear. The results are obvious to you.
OLOV BYGREN: The results are quite obvious.
JAD: Just to be sure, we asked Frances Champagne what she thinks of this data.
FRANCES CHAMPAGNE: I believe it.
ROBERT: Oh, you do?
JAD: And Michael Meaney as well.
MICHAEL MEANEY: I think the Swedish data are really, really strong, and very reliable.
JAD: Everybody we talked to seems to think there's something really interesting going on here. But what exactly — Maybe you can explain this to me, Robert. What exactly happens between 9 to 12 that makes this big difference?
ROBERT: Well, so here's the thing. How old are your boys right now?
JAD: Three and eight months.
ROBERT: Okay. So here's what you're going to notice. Your boys will first grow taller and taller for the next few years, and when they get to be about 9, 10 years old, they're going to stop growing just for a few years.
SAM KEAN: This is what's called the slow growth period.
ROBERT: Just for those years. That's 9, 10, 11.
OLOV BYGREN: Just before puberty.
ROBERT: They won't grow much on the outside, but on the inside...
OLOV BYGREN: That is the time where the sperms are developing.
SAM KEAN: What's happening during this time is that you're setting aside the stock of cells that you're going to draw on in the future to make sperm cells.
OLOV BYGREN: So they are pre-sperms.
ROBERT: So, the thought is, when those little boys in Överkalix were really, really hungry, their hunger started a chemical process that reached all the way down to the DNA inside the boy's sperm.
OLOV BYGREN: Something happens on the molecular level.
JAD: What exactly?
OLOV BYGREN: Well, the DNA, the RNA, micro-RNAs, histone.
JAD: Hey, wait. That you're just renaming it.
OLOV BYGREN: Methylations, phosphorylation, and so on.
JAD: [laughs] You’re just — just judo, that's all this is.
OLOV BYGREN: [chuckles]
ROBERT: Truth is, we don’t know precisely how this happens but somehow the experience of starvation marks the DNA. Maybe like those methyl things we were telling you about with the rats.
ROBERT: Telling some genes to turn off now, other genes to turn on. And the incredible thing is, those marks stick around.
SAM KEAN: The sperm carries these marks to the next generation.
ROBERT: And then the next one after that.
SAM KEAN: Right.
ROBERT: So, somehow, by some chemical mechanism, starving grandpa, back when he was about 9 to 12 years old, turned out to be a good thing.
JAD: So it’s like grandpa's struggle is jumping forward and giving me a leg up?
ROBERT: Well, that's the good news, but unfortunately there is some bad news here.
ROBERT: If your grandpa didn't starve, instead he lived through great times. He stuffed himself silly; 9, 10, 11 years old, so he's a happy grandpa, you the grandson, you then would have.
OLOV BYGREN: Higher frequencies of heart attacks. As to diabetes, it was a four-fold risk.
ROBERT: Four-fold. 400% greater?
OLOV BYGREN: Yeah.
JAD: I got to say this is spooky. This is spooky because it's like...
SAM KEAN: It does get — yeah.
JAD: It means what if grandpa has a bad day? Suddenly you're marked.
SAM KEAN: Yeah.
ROBERT: Frankly, this makes being 9, 10, 11, 12 like a rather crucial.
SAM KEAN: And at a time when you're not making the best decisions anyway.
JAD: Yes, because grandpa's just nine.
SAM KEAN: I should add too. They have found very similar effects for smoking, for instance. If you start smoking when you're 10, 11 something like that, you end up having children with more problems.
JAD: I initially felt very hopeful and excited about this research because it seems to suggest that a body, one body can respond to an environment and change and be flexible in a way we didn't think was possible. But this stuff you're telling me about Sweden feels very grim in a certain way.
ROBERT: Although, you know, sometimes that your grandfather's suffering helps you.
JAD: Even if it helps, it's horrifying. Kinda makes me claustrophobic.
SAM KEAN: You feel kind of hemmed in by what your grandfather did?
JAD: A little bit.
SAM KEAN: I guess the way I would look at it is that you can change your environment a lot more easily than you can change your genes.
ROBERT: I think what's weird here is that — is that we started trying to make a difference in our children and now we're surprise attacked by our grandparents.
JAD: I tell you what I'm going to do though. When Emil gets to be eight, I'm cutting him off. He's not even eating at all.
ROBERT: [laughs] "This may hurt you my son, but I'm doing it for my grandchildren."
JAD: Thanks to Olov Bygren, reporter Pejk Malinovski and...
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: Karin Borgkvist Ljung, and I'm a senior archivist at the National Archive in Marieberg in Stockholm.
SAM KEAN: Hello, this is Sam Kean.
JEAN KEAN: My name is Jean Kean. I'm Sam Kean's dad.
SAM KEAN: Radiolab is produced by WNYC.
JEAN KEAN: And distributed by NPR.
KARIN BORGKVIST LJUNG: Bye, bye.
[Voicemail Recording: End of message.]
[WILL: Hi, this is Will, calling from Northumberland, England. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]
JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.
ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.
JAD: This is Radiolab, and today...
ROBERT: Inheritance, what you can move on to the next generation and what you can't.
JAD: Now the Sweden story from our last segment left us both feeling a little strange.
JAD: Because while you might have a lot of influence, you know, genetically speaking, over your kids and their kids, you don't seem to have a lot of control.
JAD: So we're going to leave you with a story from our producer, Pat Walters, about one woman's radical...
ROBERT: Even troubling.
JAD: ...attempt to regain that control.
SMITTY HARRIS: Audi, come on in.
JAD: A few months ago, Pat made his way down in North Carolina, to a small suburb outside of Charlotte to visit this family.
KALIA HARRIS: Mamaw!
PAT WALTERS: Mamaw was the one I'd come to see. She and I snuck away from the children into her office.
PAT: This great. This is nice and quiet. Well, I guess I was thinking we could just start at the beginning.
BARBARA HARRIS: That's fine.
PAT: What year was it? Where were you?
BARBARA HARRIS: Okay, 1989.
PAT: So this is Barbara.
BARBARA HARRIS: Barbara Harris. I'm the founder and director of Project Prevention.
PAT: And in 1989, when the story we're telling now started, she was living in California, in Orange County.
BARBARA HARRIS: And I was a waitress, I worked for IHOP for over 30 years.
PAT: And she was a mom too.
BARBARA HARRIS: Six sons.
PAT: She and her husband.
SMITTY HARRIS: Smitty Harris.
PAT: What do you do for a living?
SMITTY HARRIS: Surgical technician.
JAD: Six boys is a lot of boys.
PAT: But at that point just two of the six boys were living at home, Brian and Rodney.
BARBARA HARRIS: They were seven and eight at the time.
PAT: And Barbara found herself returning to a thought she'd kind of always had. She started to wish again that she could have a daughter.
BARBARA HARRIS: Yeah.
PAT: And by this point, she's 37 years old.
BARBARA HARRIS: And I knew that the only way I was going to get a daughter was if I went and became a foster parent and asked for one. So.
PAT: She did. She filled out the forms went...
BARBARA HARRIS: Through all the training that we had to do and first aid, fingerprinted and had a background check done.
PAT: And then they waited for the call.
BARBARA HARRIS: I already knew that if I ever got a little girl, I was going to name her Destiny. And um...
PAT: That summer...
BARBARA HARRIS: It was July.
PAT: They got the call.
BARBARA HARRIS: I had asked for a newborn, so when the social worker called me, she said, "I have this cute little baby girl for you but she's eight months old. Is that too old?" I said, "No, no, that's okay." She said, "Well, she's just beautiful and she has lips like a baby doll." That's what I remember her saying.
PAT: So Barbara and her son got in the car and drove across town to the foster home where Destiny had been living for the past eight months.
BARBARA HARRIS: Since birth. We went to the foster home and went in. The lady knew why we were there. And Destiny was in the other room, sleeping or something, I'm not sure. We talked to her for a little while and...
PAT: At a certain point the social worker pulls out a stack of papers.
BARBARA HARRIS: With a child, they give you a whole folder full of information, tells you all about them.
PAT: And she told Barbara, "There's something you need to know about this baby."
BARBARA HARRIS: "She's born and tested positive for PCP crack and heroin." And um...
PAT: Doctors would later explain to Barbara that Destiny's mom had been addicted to drugs while she was pregnant.
BARBARA HARRIS: And the psychologist...
PAT: Who gave Destiny her first checkup told Barbara...
BARBARA HARRIS: That she was delayed and she was always going to be delayed because of her prenatal neglect.
PAT: Did that scare you at all? That’s like, I mean, that seems like a thing that would be frightening.
BARBARA HARRIS: No, it didn't scare me.
PAT: Because she says as soon as she saw Destiny...
BARBARA HARRIS: Sat her on my lap, with her little dress on and her little curly hair.
PAT: She just knew, "This is my daughter."
BARBARA HARRIS: A couple of days later, I had already bonded with her so much, it was as if I gave birth to her.
DESTINY HARRIS: Honestly, I think it never seemed like she was anything but my real mom, if that makes sense.
PAT: This, of course, is Destiny. She's 22 now and she's never even met her birth mom.
DESTINY HARRIS: No.
BARBARA HARRIS: No.
PAT: Barbara says they've reached out to her many times but they never heard back. And Destiny says she doesn't really care...
DESTINY HARRIS: I mean…
PAT: At all.
DESTINY HARRIS: I got these genes from somewhere, but I kind of feel like she was a surrogate, like she carried me for my real mom. That's how I've always looked at it. You know? My mom needed a girl and, boop! She got one. It’s just —That's just how I've always looked at it.
PAT: And even though they look basically nothing alike. I mean, for one thing, Barbara's white and Destiny's black. They both say that they actually often forget that they're not biologically related. They told me a bunch of these stories, one of them involving, well...
DESTINY HARRIS: I don't have the biggest boobies in the world. You can't see that on the radio but, hey, it's a fact of life.
PAT: Destiny says one day, she and her mom were in the car, and her mom said...
DESTINY HARRIS: She said, "I don't know, you know, maybe they'll grow bigger? Like, mine are bigger, you know." Then she goes, "Oh wait, I didn't give birth to you. That doesn't matter. Never mind, you're stuck with small boobies." Okay, and then I just had to accept it.
PAT: But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. The event that really sets this story in motion, the set of events, happened a few months after Barbara had brought Destiny home. When they got another call from a social worker saying that same mother, Destiny's birth mother, had given birth to another child.
BARBARA HARRIS: Yeah, the social worker called and told me the mother had given birth. Birth mother's name was actually the same as me, so, Barbara.
BARBARA HARRIS: Yes, she has the same name as me. So she told me Barbara had another baby and...
PAT: A boy.
BARBARA HARRIS: Did we want it? I went to the hospital and picked him up.
PAT: You picked him up right from the hospital?
BARBARA HARRIS: Yeah.
PAT: And as soon as she got there to pick him up, she could tell that something was wrong.
BARBARA HARRIS: He wasn't a little happy baby.
PAT: Because when a woman uses heroin while she's pregnant, the fetus gets hooked on it too. So for Isaiah, being born was like just being cut off. And he was going through withdrawal.
BARBARA HARRIS: Light bothered him, noise bothered him.
SMITTY HARRIS: Eyes that beaded out.
PAT: This is Smitty again.
SMITTY HARRIS: Projectile vomiting.
BARBARA HARRIS: Because he couldn't hold formula down. He'd fall asleep and just wake up screaming.
SMITTY HARRIS: He was just — You know, most babies are kinda peaceful, he was never really peaceful.
PAT: And day after day.
BARBARA HARRIS: Literally for months.
PAT: Isaiah would sleep and he would scream. That was it.
BARBARA HARRIS: It was just — no baby should have to come into the world like that. Nobody has a right to do that to a baby.
PAT: But a year later, the social worker called again.
BARBARA HARRIS: Saying the mother had given birth to a baby girl, did we want her?
JAD: This is the same birth mother?
PAT: Yeah. And again, Barbara thinks, "Come on, but if this little girl is here, she should be with her brother and sister. She should be with me."
BARBARA HARRIS: And I called my husband again at work and said, "They want to know if we want to take the baby." And he said, "Barbara, I'm not buying a school bus." Because we had already had to upgrade from a car to a van, from a condo to a home. I said, "This will be the last one. We'll just get one more."
PAT: A year later, she gets another call.
PAT: Another little boy.
BARBARA HARRIS: That's how we ended up with four of them.
JAD: These are four kids from the same birth mother?
PAT: So by now it's 1994, and Barbara is thinking...
BARBARA HARRIS: "I just don't get it."
PAT: You know? Like, "How did this happen? How was this woman allowed..."
BARBARA HARRIS: "To walk into the hospital and drop off a damaged baby and just walk away with no consequences?"
PAT: "Over and over again."
BARBARA HARRIS: "How dare you do this?"
PAT: The way she saw it, the state, the federal government, somebody...
BARBARA HARRIS: Should say, "You're not doing this. You're not leaving this hospital unless you have long-term birth control."
PAT: Barbara tried to get a law passed requiring just that. But it failed.
BARBARA HARRIS: And when I found out the bill didn't pass, I just thought, "I have to come up with something else. I have to be creative."
PAT: And she says, one day, this idea just came to her. She was thinking...
BARBARA HARRIS: "Everybody's motivated by money.”
BARBARA HARRIS: “Can I offer these women money to use birth control?"
PAT: In other words, "Could I pay women who have drug problems to stop having babies?"
BARBARA HARRIS: I decided to have a press conference in my front yard to announce what I was doing. In my naive mind, I didn't have a clue what a big deal this was.
PAT: The story exploded.
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: Barbara Harris's solution is simpler than anything else out there.
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: She's offering $200.]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: $200.]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: 200 bucks.]
BARBARA HARRIS: It's $300 now.
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: ...To any drug-addicted woman who will agree to have no more babies.]
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, BARBARA HARRIS: I'm going to go out into the streets and offer addicted women money to use birth control.]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: This could mean sterilization, it could mean getting an IUD.]
PAT: Like she’d give the women a choice. If you've already had a kid, you can be sterilized. And if you haven't, you can choose to have an IUD, or an implant put in which will last for several years.
JAD: Wait, when you say they can choose to be sterilized, you mean permanent?
PAT: Yeah, permanent, like tubes tied.
BARBARA HARRIS: Sounds bizarre, but it's a solution.
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: Harris says her program, children requiring a caring community, or CRACK...]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: CRACK.]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: Can prevent thousands of unwanted births to drug-addicted women.]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, Daytime Talkshow: I'd like everybody to meet, please, Barbara Harris. Please welcome Barbara.]
PAT: As Barbara made the rounds on the daytime talk shows, the reaction was split right down the middle. On the one hand, she says, immediately, cheques started arriving.
BARBARA HARRIS: This is 25, this is 50.
PAT: From all over the country.
BARBARA HARRIS: This is 750 and this is 200.
PAT: And all over the political spectrum, from Hollywood lefties to social conservatives.
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: Who, together, pledged more than $150,000 to her program.]
PAT: And that number, by the way, has grown a lot.
BARBARA HARRIS: It's at one million.
PAT: Uh, yeah.
PAT: Over the past five years, if you look at our tax return.
PAT: But along with the support came attacks, particularly as drug-addicted women began to sign up.
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: Barbara Harris says she's convinced more than a dozen women...]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: 14 women.]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: 45 women.]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, News: ...Have accepted her offer to be sterilized in return for money.]
PAT: Right away, people accused her of targeting women at their weakest moment and enabling their drug abuse.
[ARCHIVAL Clip, Daytime Talkshow: You know what they're going to go do with that money.]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, Daytime Talkshow: You get them $200 each, which they can spend on crack.]
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, BARBARA HARRIS: That's their choice, but the babies don't have a choice.]
PAT: Barbara started finding herself on panels with women who'd use drugs during their pregnancies.
[ARCHIVAL Clip, Panel: You don't think that they should have their children back?]
PAT: And that's when things would start to get out of control.
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, BARBARA HARRIS: I feel that they should all be sterilized.]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, Panel: Sterilized? Who are you? You are not God.]
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, BARBARA HARRIS: Like you said, when you were in your addiction like she is...]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, Panel: You are not God.]
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, BARBARA HARRIS: I didn't say I'm God. She asked my opinion and that's what I'm giving. This lady right here is still taking drugs and she could be pregnant again next month.]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, Panel: She mad!]
PAT: When you first hear about this, what goes through your mind?
LYNN PALTROW: I think I was really horrified and terrified.
PAT: That's Lynn Paltrow.
LYNN PALTROW: I'm Executive Director and Founder of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, BARBARA HARRIS: These people are paying millions of dollars to take care of your children!]
PAT: Lynn has become one of Barbara's fiercest critics. Full disclosure, she's Robert's sister's partner.
LYNN PALTROW: Well, her explanation is that these women are having, in her terms, litters of damaged babies and society forever will be responsible for them.
JAD: She said litters?
PAT: In this magazine article, Barbara even said, quote, "We don't allow dogs to breed. We spay them. We neuter them."
BARBARA HARRIS: I'm not saying that these women are dogs but they're not acting any more responsible than a dog in heat.
LYNN PALTROW: Are there people whose drug use is so out of control they can't parent? Yes, but creating an assumption that there is a class of people who don't deserve to procreate, who aren't worthy of procreating the human race, leads you down a path that we should have great concern about.
PAT: That path is basically called...
LYNN PALTROW: Eugenics?
[ARCHIVAL Clip, Panel: Well, I mean, Hitler thought that if you were Jewish, that you had given up the right to be a mother and he’d sterilize people as well.
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, BARBARA HARRIS: Well, I just want to eliminate drug-addicted babies from being born. I don't think that puts me in the same category as Hitler.]
[ARCHIVAL Clip, Panel: What's the worst thing you have been called by one of your critics?]
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, BARBARA HARRIS: Probably racist.]
BARBARA HARRIS: I mean, I'm married to a Black man. So that was just funny to me.
PAT: And according to Barbara, the majority of the women she pays are white.
PAT: Do you think like...
PAT: I asked Barbara about some of the things that she'd said because, to be totally honest, they kind of turn my stomach.
PAT: I like you, I get the sense that there's a lot of warmth in you. You're obviously a great mom, but that feels cold to me.
BARBARA HARRIS: I was just pissed at what they have done to my children. All the babies I had seen and all the people that have called me to tell me about their babies that were damaged. I had everybody's abuse on my back and I didn't care how we said it, or how we did it. Just don't have any more children because, at that point, I didn't really know any of them. I didn't see them as people. I just saw them as child abusers. It might be a mixture.
PAT: But she says she doesn't feel that way anymore.
BARBARA HARRIS: After I've gotten to know so many of the women.
PAT: Barbara has this drawer in her desk.
BARBARA HARRIS: "Ms. Harris and staff."
PAT: Filled with dozens of letters from women that she's paid.
BARBARA HARRIS: "I want to thank you for your support and kindness as always." She said, "Thank you so much for the gift, I bought my son an excavator truck, remote control and some summer outfits." This is from 2002. "To Whom It May Concern, I have been doing very good. I just got custody of my eight-year-old son. I'm so proud and I have four years clean. Anyways, God bless you. Sincerely, Jennifer."
PAT: Have you ever had someone call or write you and say that they regret their decision?
BARBARA HARRIS: No, I've only had somebody call and say they regret that they didn't stay on birth control.
PAT: Which I find kind of hard to believe but, then again, I must have read at least 100 news articles as I was reporting this story. And I didn't find a single case of someone saying that they regretted what they've done.
PAT: How many women have you paid?
BARBARA HARRIS: We have paid 4,266.
PAT: That's a lot of people. That's a lot of people.
BARBARA HARRIS: Yeah.
PAT: She actually emailed me afterwards and adjusted that number down a couple hundred.
JAD: So, in the end, where do you come down on this?
PAT: I ended up finding myself really conflicted about it. I agree with Lynn, that this program does perpetuate a stereotype.
LYNN PALTROW: Tell me what your image of a drug-using pregnant woman is. Who are they?
PAT: It would be wrong to assume the women Barbara talks about on TV...
[ARCHIVAL CLIP, BARBARA HARRIS: These women don't just have one and two babies. They have six, seven, eight, ten, fourteen.]
PAT: All these women who have so many babies and never try to seek drug treatment. It would be wrong to think that they represent all women who use drugs while they're pregnant.
LYNN PALTROW: The women who I've worked with, who've had a history of drug problems, aren't like the examples that she gives. These are women who love their children, who sought help.
PAT: And she says oftentimes the women who want help have a really hard time finding it. And Barbara is not offering that. She's not offering treatment, she's not offering counseling, and there are programs that do that. But, I said this to Lynn, "Despite all the things that trouble me about Barbara's program, I feel like what she's trying to do is to stop a kid from getting born into a childhood that's going to suck."
LYNN PALTROW: The fact that you're motivated by a really beautiful, important value, that we want healthy kids, doesn't mean the mechanism you're using is going to end up helping those kids.
PAT: Because the truth is, you have no idea how these kids are going to turn out.
PAT: Nobody's arguing that women should do drugs when they're pregnant. That is a bad way to start a kid's life but that's just the beginning of the kid's life. So much can happen after that.
KALIA HARRIS: [unintelligible 57:08]
DESTINY HARRIS: He doesn't want you.
PAT: For me, this whole story really shifted...
BARBARA HARRIS: Where you at, Destiny?
PAT: ...When I started spending some time with Destiny, Barbara's 22-year-old daughter.
DESTINY HARRIS: As you can see, I like to talk.
PAT: Even though Destiny's mom was doing all sorts of drugs during her pregnancy and the doctors told Barbara that Destiny was going to be mentally and physically delayed...
DESTINY HARRIS: Not feeling the way I'm supposed to feel.
PAT: ...She just isn't.
PAT: Could you just tell us what you are doing now? You're finishing college, right?
DESTINY HARRIS: Yes. I'm almost done. I'm graduating in December.
PAT: It's exciting.
DESTINY HARRIS: And right now, I'm student teaching. So that's fun.
PAT: The moment I really felt like, "Whoa," was when we started talking about...
PAT: ...The little baby that we keep hearing in the background of everything.
DESTINY HARRIS: That's my little girl. She's 20 months old. She'll be two in January. And so, her name is Kalia. And she's a complete nut. I don't know where she gets that from. So yeah, she keeps me busy.
PAT: Were you planning to have Kalia?
DESTINY HARRIS: No, she was an oops kid. She was totally an oops kid. We'll just be honest. I just didn't think. I just didn’t think. You know? You know, they say it only takes one time. Well, yep, that is so true. One time, and I'm on flighter. [laughs[ So yeah, it's embarrassing, but I believe everything happens for a reason. And I think that no, I didn't plan on it but I wouldn't take her back for anything because she made me better. I want her to be able to look back on her life one day, maybe when she's getting interviewed, I don't know, and be able to say that, "Yes, my mom was there for me 100% without a doubt." And, I mean, I have straight A's and I'm making it work. I'm going to graduate with honors and one day I'm going to be able to tell her, "Look, I did this. You can do this. Push yourself and you got it."
PAT: That's really impressive. I mean, you’re just — you’re saying a lot of things that are really impressive.
DESTINY HARRIS: To her, I matter. I make a difference to her.
PAT: Alright, we can stop.
PAT: So we did stop. And I packed up my stuff, it's pretty much done. And Barbara and Destiny walked me out to my car. Kalia came too. I had a little basketball for her.
DESTINY HARRIS: Oh my goodness. Can you say oh my goodness?
KALIA HARRIS: Oh my goodness.
DESTINY HARRIS: Here.
PAT: And at a certain point, I noticed over my shoulder Barbara's crouched down and she's got her phone out and she's taking a picture of this just perfect little scene.
DESTINY HARRIS: Can you kick it?
PAT: They're training her already.
DESTINY HARRIS: Are you going to kick it?
KALIA HARRIS: Yeah.
PAT: And I just felt like it was in one of those moments that contains everything that's good about us as people.
DESTINY HARRIS: Kick it to him. Go to him.
PAT: Watching this, I couldn't help but think that Destiny's very existence is probably the most interesting argument against what Barbara is doing.
DESTINY HARRIS: You missed it. You got to kick it back.
PAT: If Barbara had gotten to Destiny's birth mom, Destiny, Kalia, this moment, none of it would exist.
DESTINY HARRIS: You want to kick it?
KALIA HARRIS: Yeah.
PAT: And I told Destiny I was thinking about this and asked her about it.
DESTINY HARRIS: My situation turned out positive. Like, I mean, as far as positives can go, I think I hit the jackpot. A lot of times that's not the case. You just have to weigh it, is it worth it? I could have turned out like some of the other kids.
PAT: Destiny says before she was born, her mom had four other girls.
JAD: These were kids that didn't end up with Barbara?
PAT: Yeah. Three of them ended up in other foster homes and seem to have done pretty well, but one of them...
DESTINY HARRIS: Okay, well of them, don't really know what happened to her. She's somewhere, but it's not good from what we've heard.
PAT: Last I heard she was living on the streets in LA.
DESTINY HARRIS: And that could have very easily have been one of us. I mean, yes, I might get a great family, but I might not.
PAT: The question that was stuck in my head right then was, "If you could choose between being born knowing that your life might end up like that and not like it is now, or not been born at all, what would you have done?"
DESTINY HARRIS: Not been born at all. I wouldn't want to put it up to chance, because what kind of life is that?
PAT: You mean that?
DESTINY HARRIS: I do mean that. Yeah. All jokes aside. I know I've been joking a lot in this interview, but I mean it with all that I am.
KALIA HARRIS: See?
PAT: She wants to see it.
KALIA HARRIS: [unintelligible 01:02:17]
DESTINY HARRIS: Back together.
PAT: What's she saying?
DESTINY HARRIS: Taylor Swift's Never Getting Back Together. [laughs] Can you say, "Never, ever?" Baby, be careful. Just sing. Okay, you want to say bye?
KALIA HARRIS: Bye.
KALIA HARRIS: Bye
BARBARA HARRIS: Aw, you blew him a kiss? That was nice.
DESTINY HARRIS: Okay.
ROBERT: Remind me this. Destiny has, what, three brothers and sisters that also were raised with her?
PAT: Yeah. Two brothers and one sister.
ROBERT: What happened to them?
PAT: Isaiah's in college and Taylor and Brandon, I met them at Barbara's house and they seemed to be fine.
JAD: And what about the four kids that weren't raised with Barbara?
ROBERT: Do you know anything about the other four?
PAT: Just a little. There were four girls and Barbara and Destiny told me that a few years ago they found three of them and they all either were in college or had finished college.
ROBERT: So then the one that's in trouble, so that’s one of — one of eight?
PAT: Yeah, one of eight.
JAD: So I guess you could say to yourself, "Seven out of eight of these kids did all right?"
ROBERT: That's interesting. I mean that's a different kind of odds, but it’s...
JAD: Producer, Pat Walters.
[Voicemail: Start of message.]
DESTINY HARRIS: Hi, this is Destiny Harris.
PEJK MALINOVSKI: This is Pejk Malinovski
PAT: This is Pat Walters.
PAT'S DAD: This is Pat's parents.
PAT: Hi Mom and Dad.
PAT'S DAD: Calling in to help read the credits.
PAT'S MOM: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad.
DESTINY HARRIS: Our staff includes Alan Horn, Soren Wheeler, Pat Walters...
PAT'S MOM: That's my boy.
PAT'S MOM: Tim Howard.
DESTINY HARRIS: Brenna Farrell.
PAT'S DAD: Malissa O'Donnell.
DESTINY HARRIS: Dylan Keefe.
PAT'S MOM: Molly Webster.
DESTINY HARRIS: Andy Mills.
PAT'S MOM: Lynn Levy.
PAT'S DAD: And Sean Cole.
DESTINY HARRIS: With help from Matt Kielty, Chris [unintelligible 01:04:17]
PAT'S DAD: And Kenny [unintelligible 01:04:18]
PAT: Special thanks to Martin [unintelligible 01:04:21]
PAT'S DAD: Rory McDonald.
PAT: And ...
PAT'S DAD: Dinah Ortiz Adams.
PAT: Thank you.
PAT'S DAD: Cheerio.
[Voicemail: End of mailbox.]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.