I have come across the concept of genetic memory in two books I recently read:

  1. In the book 'Call of the Wild' by Jack London, a dog called Buck has memories of a primitive hairy man who presumably domesticated one of Buck's ancestors.

  2. In the book 'Congo' by Michael Crichton, a female gorilla called Amy draws pictures of places from 'genetic memory'. The author goes on to say,

Genetic memory was first proposed by Marais in 1911, and it has been vigorously debated ever since.

To me, this sounds a bit like Lamarckism, which we know is incorrect. So is there such a thing as 'genetic memory'?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "The Call of the Wild" was written in 1903, at which time little or nothing was known of genetics. Presumably the author was extrapolating from the idea of animal instinct. "Congo" was written later (1980) but as a science fiction novel. And fiction it certainly is: the idea that memories can be passed on in one's DNA is complete nonsense. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Nov 9, 2022 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ I want to emphasize that actual memories passed on genetically are pure fiction as far as we know. However, there are genetic markers such as methylations, induced as a part of stress responses, that are thought to be inheritable, but they do not cause actual memory, just induce different cellular responses in the person inheriting them. $\endgroup$
    – bob1
    Nov 10, 2022 at 0:40
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    $\begingroup$ Certain innate animal behaviors could be rationalized as a kind of genetic memory, just not in the sense described in these passages. Domesticated dogs may instinctively fear strange people approaching their social unit, leading to aggressive displays towards strangers. Drawing pictures of specific places may seem far fetched (and was certainly fictionalized in this case), but there are some complex behaviors driven by genetic instinct. Food caching (and recovery), nest building, courtship displays, parental care, some migration patterns, and even communication behaviors. $\endgroup$
    – MikeyC
    Nov 10, 2022 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ You may want to read this $\endgroup$ Nov 11, 2022 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ It's probably worth mentioning that genes are precisely "memory", but in a different sense to what is implied by the common usage. Genes are memory of all the past evolution. $\endgroup$
    – Zeus
    Nov 15, 2022 at 0:01

1 Answer 1


There is an accepted form of "genetic memory" known as "epigenetics (wikipedia)", provided the concept is applied in accordance with scientific guidelines.

For example, from this study, we learned that

Epigenetics is the branch of genetics that studies the different mechanisms that influence gene expression without direct modification of the DNA sequence. An ever-increasing amount of evidence suggests that such regulatory processes may play a pivotal role both in the initiation of pregnancy and in the later processes of embryonic and fetal development, thus determining long-term effects even in adult life.

In simple words, a mother's (especially, during pregnancy) experience may "carry on" to, and affect her child's future (through epigenetics). But nothing so specific as a hairy man or a scene etc.

Further detailed information can be found in a vast amount of literature e.g., in this review, the author concluded

In C. elegans, the transgenerational inheritance of temperature-induced changes in the expression of heterochromatic genes was associated with altered trimethylation of H3K9 over fourteen generations. In addition, H3K9me3 is critical for establishing heterochromatin and essential for normal meiosis. Gestational exposure to bisphenol decreased H3K9me2 and H3K9me3 in germ cells of the neonatal testis., suggesting a possible role for these marks during early developmental stages.

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  • $\begingroup$ Please cite one specific molecular aspect of a mother’s “experience” that is passed on in the manner you state, describing the mechanism. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Nov 11, 2022 at 8:13
  • $\begingroup$ @David I found some more illustrations, but I believe the reader would benefit more from reading the original research articles (many of which were published on high profile journals like Nature and Science) listed in the review. I've read over a few pages and concluded that the QA format on Stack Exchange is not suitable for scientific publications. $\endgroup$
    – X Zhang
    Nov 11, 2022 at 8:53

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