What is Epigenetics and How Do Environments Affect Gene Expression or Phenotypes: The Case of Slavery in Africa

As Africans, we may need to evolve out of the inherited notions that were a result of enslavement.

What is Epigenetics and How Do Environments Affect Gene Expression or Phenotypes: The Case of Slavery in Africa
Photo by Ian Macharia / Unsplash

Epigenetics is a field of study that looks into changes in gene expression without alteration of the DNA sequence. Primarily, heredity is always appreciated as the passing on of characteristics through DNA. However, epigenetics tells us that traits can be passed on without changes to the DNA or genotype and only through phenotype changes. Phenotypes are observable characteristics of an individual that are a result of the interaction of genotypes with the environment. Genotypes, on the other hand, are the genetic components or DNA of an individual organism. It is their genetic makeup or DNA sequence.

The Impact of Environmental Effects on Gene Expression and Phenotypes

The reason I have taken you to class on some biology is that I want to talk about epigenetics and how environments affect gene expressions or phenotypes. The environment, as we all know has been catalytic when it comes to evolution and how species evolve. Evolution happens only when an individual organism gets exposed to the environment, and environmental factors lead to changes in its genes or characteristics.

Until recently, it was thought that changes to phenotypes could only occur when there is an alteration of the organism’s DNA sequence. The idea got disproved, and we now know that phenotypes are altered by other factors including environmental factors, and not only by the alteration of gene sequence or DNA.

The Mathematics of Epigenetics

Biology is kind of like maths in words. Environment plus genotype equals phenotype. Epigenetics equals changes in phenotypes minus gene alteration. Therefore, gene alteration leads to phenotypes, but phenotypes can also change without it, through epigenetics. I want us to think about the environment and what environment means to evolution or the development of an organism. We all know that humankind has evolved since our species came to be.

The Environment as the Main Cause of Evolution

Evolution is mainly affected or caused by the environment. Dinosaurs became extinct as they could not cope with environmental factors. As such, species only survive to the point they can produce offspring if they have survivable environmental surroundings and factors.

In this light, if the environment becomes crude, then species will likely not survive or will evolve to ensure they adapt better. It means that organisms align their characteristics to the conditions of the environment through evolution, to survive. Every organism that makes it to reproductive capacity can then pass on its traits to their offsprings. In the process, offspring can acquire evolved traits and are, therefore, able to cope better with their surroundings.

Are Africans Predisposed to Daily Survival Due to the Slavery Inflicted on them by Colonialists?

Slavery was inflicted upon the African continent and the African people for centuries. It got institutionalized in a way that led Africans or the African enslaved people to believe that they are inferior and to acquire a mindset of day-to-day or daily survival. This mindset meant that due to slavery, Africans would not concern themselves with the future so much as they would only think about surviving another day.

The environment at the time, the persecution, and enslavement meant that the Africans of that period became predisposed to daily survival. The enslavers also weaponized the inferiority complex as a way to ensure that Africans would themselves accommodate the notion which was probably used to justify slavery and their enslavement.

Do Africans have an Inferiority Complex Passed Down after Enslavers Weaponized It Against their Ancestors?

Through what we now know as part of epigenetics, we can question whether these characteristics got passed on to modern Africans and black people. Could we still, as Africans, have acquired this inferiority complex and day-to-day survival mindset from our ancestors as a result of slavery and their enslavement? Unfortunately, the answer could be yes.

Africa not only suffered material exploitation as a result of profit-oriented or mercantile industrialization in the west. Africa also suffered soft or intangible losses and exploitation where the mentality and mindset of the African people got soiled with notions such as inferiority and a mindset to survive just another day, without worrying so much about the future.

Do we Africans disregard the future?

Inherited Characteristics as Part of Epigenetics and How they Can be Seen Today

Scholars say that the inherited characteristics that were a result of slavery and the enslavement of Africans can be observed through several traits we see in Africans today. I am an African, and I think scholars have it right. First, that Africans always try and grab for themselves. That is, when we succeed, the first thing we try and do is ensure that we have kept and taken for ourselves.

It is especially true of the political class and the corruption that has marred numerous African nations and states. Second, due to the ‘survive another day’ mentality or mindset, we try and keep for the future as there is the anxiety that we may lose what we have. We may also disregard or not worry so much about making plans and future facilitation, but only plan for today and the short term.

Do Africans Feel Like They Have No Future, as their Ancestors Were Made to Feel?

Think about it, our ancestors in the time of slavery probably felt they had no future, and this likely trickled down to us. Africans, therefore, lack a sense of the future and this entails preparing for it and thinking a lot about what it holds. Thirdly, what Africans do on succeeding is to eliminate competition. I say eliminate as there is a lot of backstabbing that goes on in the African context.

Have Africans Evolved to Undercut Other Africans?

We take it as jealousy, but Africans have evolved to undercut other Africans.
A good example is what is happening in the United States in terms of black-on-black crime. There are some aspects of this even in police brutality, where black police officers stand by and watch their colleagues mistreat black people. Through epigenetics, Africans have always grabbed for themselves when they succeed, then keep for the future, and lastly, fought competition.

Underdevelopment in Africa Due to Slavery and the Mental and Mental Health Consequences of Slavery that Africans Still face Today

The underdevelopment of Africa today is a result of historical events and the biggest one being slavery. Africans were taken from their homes and villages and taken captive by enslavers. They got shipped to Europe and the Americas, where they became slaves and traded for money. Think of all the pain, the shackles, and even the mental health degradation that came with these events. The horror and pain of going through slavery and suffering beatings, abuse, rape, deaths, losing loved ones, being away from home, and all that, among others.

Scholars argue that through epigenetics, we Africans still suffer the mental and mental health consequences of being enslaved. We have since then evolved to believe we are inferior and have become overly preoccupied with the present, often disregarding the future. Such is seen when Africans cross the Sahara and risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean sea to get to Europe. The sad thing is that on reaching there, we realize that the same racism our ancestors fought is still there today and the same issues ensue.

How Do We Africans Evolve Out of the Inherited Notions that Were Passed Down through Epigenetics?

As Africans, we may need to evolve out of the inherited notions that were a result of enslavement. We need to appreciate our own culture. We need to untangle the webs of pain, suffering, mistreatment, enslavement, and abuse inflicted on our ancestors, and that still leads us to think or feel inferior. Religiosity is an excellent example of inherited characteristics. We need to appreciate our religiosity and not stigmatize what we cannot explain as witchcraft. Think about it. In the West, people see witchcraft as human expression and as an art form. However, here in Africa, we fear the notion of witchcraft and all that it entails.

The Dissertation of Part of African Culture and Heritage as Taboo

We have included some of the African culture and its rich heritage into taboo and stigmatized the practice of our ways and our religion. I am not saying dark magic or witchcraft is good. All I am saying is that we need to dig deeper into our attitudes toward ourselves. We need to realize that we are still mentally enslaved by endorsing or accommodating the negative notions that were brought about by slavery, and the pains our ancestors suffered at the hand of enslavers. Our Africa is ideal, and our Africa is superfluously home and capable of leading the rest of the world into the future.