Telegony is a discredited theory in heredity, holding that offspring can inherit the characteristics of a previous mate of the female parent; thus the child of a widowed or remarried woman might partake of traits of a previous husband. Although popular in the 19th century, this view is inconsistent with our current understanding of heredity and genetics. Experiments on several species failed to prove any evidence that offspring would inherit any character from their mother's previous mates, and the idea was also rejected based on a statistical investigation of parent-offspring resemblance in human families.
The term was coined by August Weismann from the Greek words τῆλε (tèle) meaning 'far' and γονος (gonos) meaning 'offspring'. The name may also refer to Odysseus' son Telegonus, who is mentioned in the ancient Greek epic poem Telegony.
The idea of Telegony goes back to Aristotle. It implies that the signs of the individual, not only inherited from his parents, but also from other males, from which his/her mother had a previous pregnancy.
This was part of the resistance to the marriage in 1361 of Edward, the Black Prince, heir to the throne of Edward III of England, with Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, who had been previously married: their progeny, it was thought, might not be completely of his Plantagenet blood.
Both Schopenhauer and Herbert Spencer found telegony to be a credible theory; it was only conclusively proved wrong with modern understanding of genetics. The concept of telegonic impregnation was expressed in Greek mythology in the origins of Greek heroes.
Such double fatherhood, one father immortal, one mortal, was a familiar feature of Greek heroes like Theseus, who had a human and a divine father, doubly conceived in the same night. By the understanding of sex in antiquity, the mix of semen gave Theseus a combination of divine as well as mortal characteristics; this explained the hero's more-than-human nature. Sometimes in Greek myth the result could be twins, one born divine of a divine father, the other human of a human sire: see Dioscuri. Of a supposed Parnassos, founder of Delphi, Pausanias observes, "Like the other heroes, as they are called, he had two fathers; one they say was the god Poseidon, the human father being Cleopompus."
Telegony, or the more general doctrine of "maternal impressions", was known in Ancient Israel. The book of Genesis describes Jacob inducing goats and sheep in Laban's herds to bear striped and spotted young by placing dark wooden rods with white stripes in their watering troughs.
The Gnostic followers of Valentinius characteristically took the concept from the physiological world into the realm of psychology and spirituality by extending the influence even to the thoughts of the woman. In the Gospel of Philip, a text among those found at Nag Hammadi:
Whomever the woman loves, to him those who are born are like; if her husband, they are like her husband; if an adulterer, they are like the adulterer. Often when a woman sleeps with her husband, but while her heart is with the adulterer with whom she is accustomed to unite, she bears the one whom she bears so that he is like the adulterer."
Understandings in the 19th century and the collapse of the theory
In the 19th century, the most widely credited example was that of Lord Morton’s mare, reported by the distinguished surgeon Sir Everard Home, and cited by Charles Darwin. Lord Morton bred a white mare with a wild quagga stallion, and when he later bred the same mare with a white stallion, the offspring strangely had stripes in the legs, like the quagga.
Although August Weismann had expressed doubts about the theory earlier, it did not fall out of scientific favor until the 1890s, when a series of experiments by James Cossar Ewart in Scotland and other researchers in Germany and Brazil failed to find any evidence of the phenomenon. Also, the statistician Karl Pearson pointed out that, if telegony was true, later children of the same couple should increasingly resemble their father, which is not the case. Biologists now explain the phenomenon of Lord Morton's mare using dominant and recessive alleles: the result observed by Morton would be explained in modern terms as the display in the offspring of recessive genes inherited, but not displayed, in the mare or the stallion.
In mammals, each sperm has the haploid set of chromosomes and each egg has another haploid set. During the process of fertilization a zygote with the diploid set is produced. This set will be inherited by every somatic cell of a mammal, with exactly half the genetic material coming from the producer of the sperm (the father) and another half from the producer of the egg (the mother). Thus, the myth of telegony is fundamentally incompatible with our knowledge of genetics and the reproductive process.
Nevertheless, telegony influenced late 19th-century racialist discourse: a woman who had once had a child with a non-Aryan man, it was argued, could never have a "pure" Aryan child again. This idea was adopted by the Nazis.
Recently, a single author have proposed possible molecular mechanisms that may account for the reported cases of telegony. The proposed mechanisms include the penetration of spermatozoa into the somatic tissues of the female genital tract, the incorporation of the DNA released by spermatozoa into maternal somatic cells, the presence of foetal DNA in maternal blood, incorporation of exogenous DNA into somatic cells, presence of foetal cells and foetal DNA in maternal blood and sperm RNA-mediated non-Mendelian inheritance of epigenetic changes. However, none of these proposed mechanisms have been tested or validated.
Soviet biologist and agronomist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was able for close to a quarter of a century, roughly between 1938 and 1963, to make his special brand of Lamarckism the official creed in the Soviet Union and to suppress most of the teaching and research in orthodox genetics.
At the end of the 20th century in Russia’s Orthodox circles the idea of telegony sprang up again. In 2004, a book "Virginity and Telegony - The Orthodox church and modern science of genetic inversions” came out. According to Pravda, "It is highly likely that the Orthodox church arrived at an idea to employ telegony to make the parish not to break one of the Ten Commandments that prohibits adultery."
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- Pearson, K. (1 October 1909). "Statistics of telegony". Science 30 (770): 443–444. doi:10.1126/science.30.770.443-a.
- Bynum, Bill (April 2002). "Telegony". The Lancet 359 (9313): 1256. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(02)08200-4.
- Jan Bondeson, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, 1999:159.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece x.6.1.
- "Telegony". The Encyclopaedia Britannica 26. 1911.
- Gospel of Philip, p112. Noted in Robert M. Grant, "The Mystery of Marriage in the Gospel of Philip" Vigiliae Christianae 15.3 (September 1961:129-140) p. 135.
- Darwin, Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868).
- The quagga was a relative of the zebra, now extinct.
- "Lord Morton's Mare"
- Liu YS. "Telegony, the sire effect and non-mendelian inheritance mediated by spermatozoa: a historical overview and modern mechanistic speculations.", Reprod Domest Anim. 2011 Apr;46(2):338-43
- Liu, Y. Fetal genes in mother's blood: A novel mechanism for telegony? Gene. 2013 Jul 25;524(2):414-6. doi: 10.1016/j.gene.2013.03.061. Epub 2013 Apr 23.
- "Telegony". The Encyclopedia Americana 26. 1920. p. 327.
- Liu YS. (2011) "Telegony, the sire effect and non-mendelian inheritance mediated by spermatozoa: a historical overview and modern mechanistic speculations." ,Reprod Domest Anim., April, 46(2):338-43
- "Woman's first partner may become genetic father of all her kids, telegony says", Pravda.ru