The Culture of Law (8): Bleak House and Epigenetics (Really!)

We looked last time at the slow pace and uncertain outcome of evolutionary cultural change. Just how slow is slow? How about no fundamental cultural change in the past 160 years? I’d say that’s pretty slow.

Law professor Benjamin H. Barton opens his recent book Glass Half Full:  The Decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession with these observations:

“Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House as a serial in the 1850s and published it as a single volume in 1853. It is a blistering assessment of the English Chancery system and remains one of the most trenchant critiques of the common law system.

“Given the bewildering series of technological and societal changes over the last 160 years, there is something remarkable about Dickens’s portrait of lawyers in Bleak House:  it is utterly familiar to a modern reader.

“Bleak House portrays a legal profession little changed from then to now. Dickens describes lawyers meeting in person with clients, or drafting papers, or investigating their cases. English lawyers in 1850 practiced an individualized and bespoke professional service that consisted of paying a lawyer for his time, sometimes in court, sometimes in consultation, sometimes in drafting documents or conducting research.”

If we want change faster than cultural evolution can give it to us, we might try analogizing to another scientific concept:  epigenetics. David Perlmutter, neurologist and author of bestsellers Brain Maker and Grain Brain, describes epigenetics this way:

“Even though genes encoded by DNA are essentially static (barring the occurrence of mutation), the expression of those genes can be highly dynamic in response to environmental influences. This field of study, called epigenetics, is now one of the hottest areas of research.

“There are likely many windows during one’s lifetime when we are sensitive to environmental impacts.

“Epigenetics, defined more technically, is the study of sections of your DNA (called “marks” or “markers”) that essentially tell your genes when and how strongly to express themselves.

“[O]ur day-to-day lifestyle choices have a big effect on our biology and even the activity of our genes.

“Now that we have evidence to suggest that food, stress, exercise, sleep… affect which of our genes are activated and which remain suppressed, we can take some degree of control in all of these realms.”

Epigenetics explains why your kids aren’t like you. They have your DNA, but the choices they make in their contemporary cultural context alternately activate or shut down certain aspects of their genetic coding. No paternity test needed; they’re your kids alright, they’ve just been practicing epigenetics.

By analogy, law students and lawyers who are “sensitive to environmental impacts” — either because their brains are still developing while they’re in law school or because they’re committed to cultural change — have the ability to turn off their Bleak House cultural coding and embrace something new.

And get this:  radical cultural shift doesn’t have to be driven only by technology, which was behind much of the change we looked at in the Future of Law series earlier this year. Instead, cultural change can be driven by “day-to-day lifestyle choices” involving things like “food, stress, exercise, sleep.” Think about that for a minute:  lawyers committed to self-care could turn the whole institution and enterprise of law into a place of brand new vibrancy, creativity, and wellbeing.

That’s not pie-in-the-sky, that’s epigenetics.

In the next couple installments, we’ll look at a topic where lawyers routinely choose historical cultural DNA over epigenetic change:  their paychecks.

Intrigued by epigenetics?  Here’s an entertaining video on the basics. And here’s an overview.

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for over 30 years. Drawing on insights gathered from science, technology, disruptive innovation, entrepreneurship, neuroscience, and psychology, and also from his personal experiences as a practicing lawyer and a “life athlete,” he’s on a mission to bring wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law.

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