On the Panel: Reproductions: Eugenics and Genetics
Program arranged by the Division on Literature and Science
Love’s-Coming-of-Age: Epigenetics in Wharton and Wilde
1. Epigenetics
In 1999, biologists Eve Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb, the authors of Epigenetic
Inheritance and Evolution: The Lamarckian Dimension, were invited to write a preface to its
paperback edition. “We naturally asked ourselves,” the explain, “what has changed since [our
book] was first published [in 1995]. The most obvious thing… is that the initially strong and
almost unanimous opposition to some of our ideas has been replaced by a general…. acceptance
of them.” Biologists had come to acknowledge the reality not only of traditional genetics—
Mendelian genetics—but also epigenentics—a non-Mendelian system of inheritance with a
“Lamarckian dimension.” By 1999, Jablonka and Lamb point out, “many cases of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance” “have been unraveled,” “new cases of epigenetic
transmission in plants and mammals have been discovered,” and nobody can deny that
fundamental shifts have been made “in a gene-centered version of Darwinism.” “We often
thought that the most controversial part of our book,” they confess, was the “use of the word
Lamarckian in the title,” where the word Lamarckian signifies the belief in the long-discredited
belief in the transmission of acquired traits, and has long been a “dirty word in biology.” But the
“historian in us” insisted that “we acknowledge our debt” to Lamarck. In this second edition,
“we advocate a more comprehensive Darwinian theory with a still unrepentant Lamarckian
dimension.” An epigenetic neo-Lamarckism, the authors maintain, stands in no contradiction to
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classical Darwinism; selection is necessary for adaptation, and epigenetic systems merely
provide “additional heritable variations on which selection can act.”
It’s 2011, over a decade since the printing of the paperback with its unrepentant preface,
and the field of epigenetics has flourished and gained ground. (One scientist has even introduced
the term “dual inheritance” to cover both genetic and epigenetic systems.) How does epigenetics
differ from traditional genetics? Traditional Mendelian genetics, the science with which most of
us are the most familiar, assumes that the biological legacy we acquire from our parents and
grandparents is a result of the individual genes they pass on to us unaltered, barring the rare
changes in gene sequences called mutations. This is a genetics based on cell lineages and clonal
inheritance; environmental influences do not alter the genotype and there is no Lamarckian
mechanism—no inheritance of acquired characters.
Epigenetics, on the other hand, endorses the transmission of environmentally-acquired
traits. Epigenetics assumes that some changes in genes do not involve mutations—changes in the
DNA sequence—but rather “changes to the chemical adornments that attach to the naked gene.”
These alter what a gene does, sometimes disabling its expression, sometimes causing it to be
overactive. In epigenetic systems, the environment of a cell is crucial in determining its
properties or fate: a hormone or morphogen, for instance, can affect the genome. An epigenetic
state of a gene, moreover, can be established not only in vitro but also in vivo. It’s now welldocumented that something an organism experiences early in life, especially, alters the DNA she
passes on to offspring. The attentive maternal grooming of a baby mouse, for example, effects
changes in a chemical in its brain that regulates stress hormones. But the mouse deprived of such
grooming overproduces stress hormones, which modify specific genomic regions. The stressedout mouse then transmits the effects of its experience, in molecular memory, to offspring.1
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My talk today is taken from a larger project about telegony, a XX of biological
inheritance encompassed by epigenetic theory. More specifically, my talk addresses the
controversy surrounding telegony in the early 1900s, and the literary productions the battle
shaped. Telegony is the ancient hypothesis—long accepted in animal husbandry—that the sire
first mated to a female will have an influence upon that female’s later offspring by another male.
Thus the phenomenon is sometimes called the “sire effect,” and the term telegony is Greek for
“offspring at a distance.” As the renowned nineteenth-century naturalist Louise Agassiz put it,
“later pregnancies…. Do not efface that first impression.” A female acquires the traits of her
male mate as a result of the mating process; if and when she reproduces, no matter with whom,
she passes them on. Descriptions of how she acquired his traits vary: either her reproductive
organs are directly modified by the seminal fluids of a mate; or intercourse affects her entire
system; or perhaps her fetus “infects” her, so to speak, with paternal traits by way of the blood
that circulates through both fetus and mother. A model of inheritance with a Lamarckian
dimension, telegony comes under fire at the turn of the century when what the novelist Edith
Wharton called “the war over the transmission of acquired traits” was engaged and Lamarckian
assumptions were aggressively challenged. During the decades that saw August Weismann’s
discovery of the germ-plasm, the rediscovery of Mendel, the rise of genetics, and the growth of
eugenics, the pro-Lamarckian science of telegony was debunked. My paper originated in an
effort to recover this neglected historical model of heredity by demonstrating its presence and
potency in short stories by Edith Wharton and a pornographic novel attributed to Oscar Wilde.
But I quickly discovered that research biologists in our own generation had already
recovered telegony, not as an artifact of history but an empirical possibility. New research
reveals several mechanisms that make telegony plausible; evidence now shows that “foetal cells
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and DNA” can be found circulating in maternal blood; spermatozoa are “able to penetrate the
somatic tissues of the female and may deliver RNA to cells where it may have regulatory and
genetic effects”; and “sperm-mediated reverse gene transfer (SMRGT) can lead to the generation
and propagation of new genetic information” by mature spermatozoa, independent of the
information carried in the genome.” Thus in a 2010 edition of the research journal Reproduction
in Domestic Animals the author of an article on the “non-Mendelian inheritance of epigenetic
changes” concludes that the “time has come when further progress in our understanding of
heredity requires that we reconsider the case of telegony.”
Maybe I’ve lost your attention as you now consider the case of telegony in your own life
(have you acquired the traits of your first sexual partner?), or ponder other epigenetic changes
(do you find the MLA stressful because, like the much-sited mice, your early grooming was
neglected?). But let me turn to accounts of telegony at the end of the nineteenth-century, not the
least because they seem prescient about discoveries in our own. Some turn-of-the-century
scientists and novelists were ahead of us in the belief that the individual exists in recursive
rapport with her environment, while their theory that experience affects the genome has been
confirmed.
2. telegony
In 1899, zoologist James Cossar Ewart wrote the in journal Nature that “no problem
[today] claims wider attention than what is generally known as telegony.” On one side,
authorities like Agassiz, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel endorsed telegony
and its Lamarckian paradigm. Darwin cited numerous cases of telegonic transmissions in pigs,
dogs, sheep—and horses like Lord Morton’s notorious mare. (First mated to a quagga, Lord
Morton’s chestnut mare was put to a black Arabian stallion years later; the offspring of the
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stallion and mare bore the distinct stripes of the quagga, [an animal by then extinct]). But, on the
opposing side, the cytologist August Weismann claimed that his discovery of the germ plasm
disproved the possibility of any Lamarckian operation, including telegony, since hereditary
material fixed in the germ plasm was unaffected by external influences. The zoologist Ewart
hoped to decide the battle. Determined to replicate the case of the mare and the Quagga, Ewart
mated horses and zebras—since, sadly, there were no more quaggas—on his farm in Scotland.
The findings of the so-called Penycruik Experiments did not support telegony. Ewart concluded,
however, that the science was still too inconclusive to rule it out.
The results of experiments on telegony mattered not only to zoologists but also, of
course, to anyone who’s considered the “problem” it posed human beings. For while breeders
and farmers had recorded cases of telegony for centuries, it was “just the same in the human
species,” as French psychologist Theodule Ribot put it, that the “children of the second bed,
resemble the first husband, long since dead.” For Darwin, telegony explains not only the
likeness between a re-married widow’s new children and her long-dead spouse, but also “what
we all know from observation: how wives grow like their husbands.” Although he cautions that
it’s “impossible to eliminate the effects of imitation, diet, habits of life, etc.” Darwin’s own
provisional theory of heredity, called pangenesis, was telegonic; in it, the body of the female
absorbs the hereditary characteristics of the male through the material in his seminal gemmules.
(Here, the “one flesh” doctrine of marriage is a fact of life.) But telegony made Herbert Spencer
anxious about the implications of these human fusions in modernity, specifically, in the context
of modern divorce. For if the widow “carriers within her the flesh of her former husband,” so
must the divorcee. As divorce and re-marriage skyrocketed in the 1890s, Herbert Spencer argued
that the re-marrying woman threatened civilization itself by undermining monogamy. A divorced
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woman was not practicing serial monogamy but, because of telegony, only “primitive
polyandry.”
For the dramatist August Strindberg, the scandal of telegony was not that it entailed
polyandry or promiscuity but that it was queer. In his diaries, Strindberg confesses his fear that
his lovers carry off parts of himself, against his volition, into the beds of strangers. “Through
her,” he frets, “I am entering into forbidden relationships with men and other woman… this
torments me, for I have always had a horror of intimacy with my own sex.” In his drama To
Damascus, a husband turns the table on the man for whom his wife has left him by saying:
“Through the women you stole from me, I will lead you like a Bullock… I lie in your bed! I am
in your blood your lungs your brain!”
But even as Strindberg and Spencer feared the implications of telegony, whether for
themselves or for society, the activist Edward Carpenter celebrated telegonic transmission for its
utopian potential. Agreeing with Charles Darwin that through telegony “wives grow like their
husbands,” Carpenter writes that it is not just wives but rather “all lovers” who, “after some years
come to resemble each other”—in features, facial expression, bodily carriage, tone of voice and
“even handwriting.” A glance back at the “love affairs” of the Protozoa, he writes, explains it all.
Even “when two cells which are about to unite approach each other,” the chromatin from one
cell dispels half its cargo and the other does the same. So, too, even in the approach of humans
toward sexual union there are “radiations and reactions… fusions and exchange,” as one”
“internal economy” “melt[s] and is removed.” In telegony, “Spermatozoa pass through the
tissues and affect the body of the female”—but “the male,” adds Carpenter, also “absorbs
minutest cells from her.” Carpenter agreed with John Addington Symonds, who wrote in their
personal correspondence about sex between men that there is “no doubt that the absorption of
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semen implies a real modification of the physique of the person who absorbs it…& that this
constitutes an important basis for subsequent conditions, both spiritual & corporeal.” In
Darwinian telegony, wives “grow like their husbands,” but for Carpenter, Symonds and
Strindberg, the biological effects of physiological passion—Carpenter calls it “sex-love,” an
“interchange of vital and ethereal elements” always occurs, “so that it might be said there is a
kind of generation taking place within each of the persons concerned.”
Thus in the works Love’s-Coming-of-Age (1897?) and the later Drama of Love and Death
(1912), Carpenter sets out to “indicate the inner laws which, rather than the outer, guide Love,”
and to correct the “tendency of medical and other authorities,” to “overlook… the important
physical actions and reactions and even corporeal modifications” which may “ensue upon sexual
intercourse between two people.” These authorities, he opines, too often in the service of the
state, focus only on the “more specialized generation which consists in the propagation of the
race.” They suppress the fact that when love finally comes of age, when it matures into sex-love,
it “takes the form before all else of a desire for union, and only in a lesser degree” in a “desire
for race-perpetuation.” “The idea… that the great and primal object of union should be sought in
the next generation,” Carpenter concludes, “has something unsatisfactory about it. Why not in
this generation?”
3. sex-love in Wharton and Wilde
When Edith Wharton draws our attention to cases of telegony in two stories about marital
relations, “The Other Two” and “His Father’s Son,” she takes up the gothic visions of Spencer
and Strindberg but nods in Carpenter’s direction. I’ve argued elsewhere that in “The Other Two,”
a bridegroom named Mr. Waythorn comes to realize that when he sleeps with his twice-divorced,
yet miraculously “fresh” bride Alice, he’s sleeping with the other two husbands, too. (The text
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playfully indicates that she carries them within her, and the ex-husbands repeatedly “cross the
threshold” of this blushing bridegroom and “squeeze through” his “nuptial portals.”) But if
Waythorn initially finds his situation “beastly” and the men “obtrusive,” they eventually occupy
his domestic interior and dwell in what he calls the “inmost parts” of himself. The tale ends on a
dramatic climax in which Alice interrupts her husband and her exes while, suggestively, they are
in the middle of enjoying cigars; stripping off her gloves and boa, she rings for tea, and we leave
them to what looks like a very cozy and even very sexy group marriage in which it is impossible
to trace or separate “radiations and reactions” “fusions and exchange.”
Wharton takes up telegony more directly, and more inventively, in “His Father’s Son,” a
story that arguably alludes to the novel Teleny: A Physiological Romance, a pornographic text
some attribute to members of Oscar Wilde’s social circle, and some to Oscar Wilde himself. In
“His Father’s Son,” the dull sex life of the dull Mr. and Mrs. Mason Grew gets interesting when
they attend a concert and hear a foreign musician, Fortune Dolbrowski, play Chopin. Back in
their hotel room—still wrapped in a “transfiguring mist of sound”—they go to bed, but not
before Mrs. Mason expresses a desire to write Dolbrowski to tell him how he has made her feel,
and Mr. Mason eagerly composes the letter she copies and sends. Dolbrowski writes back to
Mrs. Mason, enclosing a portrait of himself that the couple hangs on the wall above the bed. This
correspondence proceeds for months in just this fashion—but with Mr. Grew XX to Dolbrowski
as if he were Mrs. Grew—and soon enough, a beautiful son is born to the Masons who seems to
be the child of Fortune Dolbrowski.
Oscar Wilde’s Teleny, written several years before Wharton’s story, shares similar traits.
Here, our narrator, named des Grieux, and the exotic musician Renne Teleny, share an exchange
“of thoughts of feelings of sensations,” at first acoustically, then telepathically, and then as
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lovers. When later the musician Teleny makes love to a Countess, he fantasizes that she is des
Grieux, while des Grieux experiences their liaison at a distance, as if he is in on it as well, from a
distance. Nine months later, the Countess gives birth to a son who resembles des Grieux. Writing
about Teleny in her work on literature, technology, and magical thinking at the century’s end,
Pamela Thurschwell suggests that in Teleny, telepathy seems to function as “trope and ground
for male homosexual sexuality based on narcissism and non-differentiation.” But in the medical
and literary histories I’ve been tracing, the males’ telepathy is inevitably queer, not in the
Freudian context of narcissism but in the biological context of telegonic transmission. Telegony
and telepathy cohere in Teleny: a Physiological Romance, as forms of telecommunication that
entail affective responses between partners, materially transfiguring each person and leaving
heritable epigenetic marks.
At first blush, women seem to serve in these narratives merely as copyists or mediums
between men: same-sex desire gets expressed through the bodies of women who own identity
and agency are effaced, even as they deliver a child who inherits its two fathers’ traits. But if this
is true in the text attributed to Wilde, close readings of Wharton’s “His Father’s Son” and “The
Other Two” reveal female characters as involved as men in the subversion of erotic norms.
Following Wharton scholar Richard Kaye, we can read Wharton’s writing in the context of her
life in Paris and within a specific male coterie. Her group of intimate friends included not only
Henry James but also Wharton’s bi-sexual lover, Morton Fullerton, who was himself a member
of Wilde’s circle. Read more closely, the queer disruptions or reinventions of erotic properties or
reproductive norms do not appear to go unnoticed nor are they merely tolerated by female
protagonists like Alice Waythorn and Mrs. Mason. Instead, the women value and manage them
to the benefit of their own illicit and amorous impulses. In Wharton’s letters to and poetry about
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Morton Fullerton, she suggests that precisely what frightens Strindberg about his partner—that
she inevitably brings others into his bed or carries parts of him off to strangers—Wharton marks
as the occasion for an ecstatic self XX her language associates with the sublime. When she fell in
love with Fullerton in her late middle age, Wharton fell into sex-love. In poems like “Terminus,”
written for Fuller and about a liaison in a train station hotel—a liaison that is, oxymoronically,
interminable—the speaker expresses that the “great and primal object of union” is her own vital
origination, not the next generation’s. The speaker suggests that she is sleeping not only with her
lover, but all the lovers he has had and even all the former occupants of the room, “faces
innumerous and vague of the endless travelling automata,” and the “shadow-mouths melted to
one.”
Both Wharton and Wilde wrote passionately about the way the intimate material
environment—especially the decoration of the houses—affects the body and mind; in their texts,
the aesthetic impressions yield biological effects, producing epigenetic traits. Their writings
about telegony similarly reveal that they see love affairs and marriages as environments,
ecologies, biomes in which we adapt and re-adapt to, and live in recursive rapport with, the
bodies and minds, habits and tastes of our partners. Writing recently about New Women writers
in Great Britain, like Mana Caird, Regina Gagnier persuasively argues that what’s crucial about
their fiction rests in its “psychological assessment of the scope and limits of autonomy and
interdependence, solubility and separation within relationship, much more than polemics about
marriage or art.” I’d add only that not only their psychological but also their biological
assessment of the limits and scope of marriage marks the work of New Women like Edith
Wharton. Critics have recently characterized Wharton’s fiction as compromised by its complicity
with the politics and policies of early-twentieth century eugenics and the rise of genetic science.
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But her literary project is, I argue, not about genes, genetics, and the genome but experience,
epigenetics, and the epigenome, and how they shape our encounters with husbands and lovers as
well as houses and rooms.
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On the Panel: Reproductions: Eugenics and Genetics Program