Most of us on hearing the word heredity would think of parents bequeathing their looks and traits to their children. Oscar has his father's nose, his mother's ears; or he is serious like his Uncle Jed. How true all this is is difficult to say. Certainly many children do look like their parents, but many do not. When it comes to genius and talent, that can spring up anywhere. So what is one to think?
In the last three or four decades there have been drastic changes in the outlook on heredity. It is fairly obvious that in the lower kingdoms there is more physical predictability than in the higher, and also that they do not express consciousness and free will in as widely divergent patterns as we do. Hence, researchers have been led to believe that heredity explains the whole process and, having concluded that the lower kingdoms are ruled in all phases by genetic transmission from parent to offspring, it is natural to assume that among human beings the same is true.
But when it comes to the almost infinite diversity of humans, especially in the inner life, the mathematical possibilities are so numerous that genetic predictability is almost nil in individual cases. So we must resort to statistics. The predominant theory seems to be that each person is the expression of certain gene patterns: the DNA possibilities of the parents combine in particular ways to determine the entire physical, mental, and emotional endowment of the child. The whole process is "set" when the germ cell is fertilized, and it is this pattern in the original cell that makes him him or her her. When two people have a child, it is how their gene spirals or DNA potentials come together that determines the looks, character, and endowments of their child. The next child born to the same parents will be the result of quite different combinations, and thus may be an entirely different person in every way.
The whole idea of this physical determinism stems from certain assumptions. The first is that the total person is a byproduct of genetic combinations. He is therefore an aspect of matter, a very complicated aspect, to be sure. Since there is no scientifically accepted evidence of soul survival, it is presumed that consciousness is a flickering emanation of the body itself and therefore dies with the body. The only thing that survives is the germ plasm that parents pass on to each child. That plasm must therefore contain everything necessary not merely to carry on the family strain, so to say, but all the wide varieties of talent and looks within that strain. This is why biologists and geneticists have paid so much attention to it. It is the only physical link between parents and children.
It is just here that uncertainty comes in. We do not know how the strands of DNA, or genetic determinants, will combine. Therefore we do not know what type of person will be born to any set of parents. Statistically there may be a kind of predictability. Out of 100,000 cases of parents in a certain category, the majority of offspring may be, let us say, mentally plus or minus. On the other hand, the fire of genius may show itself at any time, no matter who the parents.
Let us now introduce into the picture the ancient concept that man is primarily a consciousness center, a monad, unfolding its potentials through many reincarnations of the soul or ego. In each life he is himself, that is, what he has made himself to be in former lives and, as he travels through life, he is bit by bit making himself into what he shall one day become. All of this operates through cause and effect or karma, acted on by intelligence, will, and emotion. Among human beings the changes made in ourselves are for the most part interior, in the realm of talent and character. They are unseen, although these inner changes may reflect themselves physically in time, if not in this life, then in subsequent lives. But the main thrust in human life is not physical, which may explain why the human body (with the exception of the brain) remains relatively unspecialized.
Does the possibility of a reincarnating entity that survives from life to life contradict scientific theory? Not really. It conflicts only with the "nothing buts" implied but not stated in scientific theory. Man is "nothing but" a complex organization of matter; "nothing but" a physically based emotional-mental structure, albeit so complicated that we cannot as yet grasp all the details. These "nothing buts" are scientific theory, they are not scientific fact. Other explanations might be devised to explain the same facts, and so long as they cover all the facts they would have validity. Of course if additional facts are discovered that contradict certain theories, scientific or metaphysical, then those theories would have to be modified.
How does the idea of reincarnation of souls fit into the present scientific speculations about the linkage of DNA chains in the fertilized germ cell? Theosophists also place a great deal of importance upon the germ plasm. It is indeed the sole physical transmission from parent to child. This may explain why the Greeks, for example, included what they called palingenesis among their explanations of reimbodying souls. (Ancient thinkers conceived of at least eight modes of reimbodiment to describe the coming and going of souls.) Palingenesis simply refers to the physical passing on of identic life from parent to offspring: the oak produces an acorn, which in turn grows into an oak.
When human death occurs, there is a withdrawal of the consciousness. After the earthly elements are dropped, the higher portion of the soul rests in a dream world, absorbing and bringing to fruition the unfulfilled aspirations and thoughts of the previous life. All is incorporated into the nature, so that in the next life the soul will return amended and enlarged in proportion to the inner forces that governed the last life or incarnation. A still higher portion of his nature, call it the Father within, if you like, enters the circulations of the cosmos, which is the field of its larger life. That is why the ancient Romans said of one who dies, that he sleeps among the stars.
Eventually the reincarnating ego seeks rebirth again and the processes of incarnation begin to take place. A child is drawn to parents with whom it has old ties, old causes to work out, and is almost invariably born in its own family stream from out of the past. The soul about to be born is karmically attracted to a certain couple. It sends forth an overshadowing influence or ray, which is dual in nature: one aspect enters the womb of the mother and the living ovum, the other enters the father, invigorating a particular germ cell. The father and mother-to-be join to provide a psychomagnetic link between the incoming ego and the waking germ cell. Happenings of various sorts often occur to abort this process, in which event the ego has to overshadow another life-atom and start again the reimbodiment procedure.
Where does heredity fit in? The reincarnating ego, drawn to its prospective parents, selects from the gene pool provided by them that which will express itself. There is no chance involved. The child, therefore, inherits first of all — himself. He did not inherit his Self from his parents. He brought that with him, it is he. But the parents provided the genetic possibilities for him to reimbody all his particular strengths and weaknesses, faculties, talents. These may be similar to or different from either or both parents; most important, the DNA pattern in the fertilized germ cell will reflect the unique potentials of the incoming soul. It could hardly be otherwise since this pattern is shaped by and formed around the incarnating energies seeking to express as nearly as possible the multifaceted person coming to birth.
Although the whole process is governed by law, there is no absolute predictability from our vantage point, because the motivating force or consciousness of the reimbodying soul cannot be detected except in the material changes it effects. And who knows beforehand what its particular talents and weaknesses may be, or what inner and outer karma may lie waiting.
It might be asked: "Why is it necessary to bring the idea of the soul into it?" The facts seem to warrant it for those who cannot accept that such an important event as ushering into this world a loving, laughing, sympathetic aspiring, gifted human being can be the outcome of combinations which, if left to chance, might just as well have produced a maniac or a moron. Also, many cannot believe that we are merely aspects of matter that die with the body, that all there is to life is this short period of striving and achieving, after which — nothing. Surely there is more to man and his soul-life than that.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press.)
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