Telegony (pregnancy)

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For the ancient Greek epic poem about Telegonus, see Telegony.

Telegony is a 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. Experiments on several species failed to provide any evidence that offspring would inherit any character from their mother's previous mates.[1][medical citation needed] A similar phenomenon, whereby environmental (non-genetic) traits were passed, was later discovered in a species of fly.


The term was coined by August Weismann from the Greek words τῆλε (tèle) meaning 'far' and γονος (gonos) meaning 'offspring'.[2] The name may also refer to Odysseus' son Telegonus, who is mentioned in the ancient Greek epic poem Telegony.[citation needed]

Early perceptions[edit]

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.[3]

The theory, expounded as natural history by Aristotle, was accepted throughout Antiquity and revived with the rediscovery of Aristotle in the Middle Ages.[citation needed]

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;[4] it was only conclusively proved wrong with modern understanding of genetics.[3] The concept of telegonic impregnation was expressed in Greek mythology in the origins of Greek heroes.[citation needed]

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[5] 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.[6]

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."[7]

Understandings in the 19th century and the collapse of the theory in the 20th[edit]

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.[8] Lord Morton bred a white mare with a wild quagga stallion,[9] and when he later bred the same mare with a white stallion, the offspring strangely had stripes in the legs, like the quagga.[10]

Surgeon-General of New York,Professor Austin Flint in his "Text-Book of Human Physiology" (fourth edition, 1888) described the phenomenon as follows:[11]

Text-Book of Human Physiology (fourth edition, 1888) , page 797

"A peculiar and, it seems to me, an inexplicable fact is, that previous pregnancies have an influence upon offspring. This is well known to breeders of animals. If pure-blooded mares or bitches have been once covered by an inferior male, in subsequent fecondations the young are likely to partake of the character of the first male, even if they be afterwards bred with males of unimpeachable pedigree. What the mechanism of the influence of the first conception is, it is impossible to say; but the fact is incontestable. The same influence is observed in the human subject. A woman may have, by a second husband, children who resemble a former husband, and this is particularly well marked in certain instances by the colour of the hair and eyes. A white woman who has had children by a negro may subsequently bear children to a white man, these children presenting some of the unmistakable peculiarities of the negro race."

Austin Flint , Professor of Physiology ,Cornell University Medical College

August Weismann had expressed doubts about the theory earlier and it fell out of scientific favor in the 1890s. 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.[12] 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.[citation needed]

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. Encyclopedia Britannica stated "All these beliefs, from inheritance of acquired traits to telegony, must now be classed as superstitions."[3]

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 some Nazis for propaganda purposes.[4]

Recent developments[edit]

Like father like son? Nongenetic paternal effects reinvigorate the possibility of telegony

"As a first step towards disentangling whether the effect is borne by the sperm itself or by accessory-gland products (ACPs) in the seminal fluid, we mated females initially to a male in high or low condition and then remated the female to a new male in high or low condition two weeks later. Interestingly, offspring size and viability were determined by the condition of the first male, with no effect of the condition of the second mate. Genetic tests confirm this result holds even when the second male is the biological father of the offspring. These findings suggest the paternal effect is mediated by ACPs, and provide a compelling case for reassessing the possibility of telegony as a valid phenomenon."

Crean A.J., Kopps A.M., Bonduriansky R., University of New South Wales

A group from the University of New South Wales[13] has demonstrated the occurernce of a seemingly telegonic phenomenon in a species of fly.[14] These results were initially presented at the 2013 XIV Congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology in Lisbon[15][16] and the recent Australasian Evolution Society’s conference in Geelong.[17] Earlier, a team of scientists from Oxford, Uppsala and UCL had conducted a similar research[18] and obtained a similar result.[19]

In 1979, Professor Leonard Herzenberg of Stanford University proved that fetal DNA can pass into the mother during pregnancies.[20] Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 2012[21] has shown that it is not uncommon for fetal DNA to get through the blood–brain barrier and into the brain of the mother.[22] Leiden University Medical Center in the same year published a result which indicates fetal DNA from previous pregnancies can enter the bodies of younger siblings.[23] In 2013, scientists around the globe demonstrated in animals, the significant effect of incorporating foreign DNA.[24][25]

Apart from the above-mentioned, one Chinese scientist has proposed possible molecular mechanisms that may account for telegony; however, his work is predicated on the beliefs of pre-Mendellian breeders to reinforce the idea that traits are passed from earlier matings.[26][27] 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 fetal DNA in maternal blood, incorporation of exogenous DNA into somatic cells, presence of fetal cells and fetal DNA in maternal blood and sperm RNA-mediated non-Mendelian inheritance of epigenetic changes.[citation needed]

As reported in 2014, experiments with the fly Telostylinus angusticollis showed that "it is possible for a male to transmit features of his phenotype via non-genetic semen-borne factors to his mate's subsequent offspring sired by another male."[28]

Religious motifs[edit]

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 the website, "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."[29] One of the well-known adepts of the concept of telegony Anna Kuznetsova was authorized in 2016 by Vladimir Putin as Children's Rights Commissioner for the President of the Russian Federation.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Burkhardt, RW (1979). "Closing the door on Lord Morton's mare: the rise and fall of telegony". Studies in History of Biology. 3: 1–21. PMID 11610983. 
  2. ^ Bynum, Bill (April 2002). "Telegony". The Lancet. 359 (9313): 1256. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(02)08200-4. 
  3. ^ a b c
  4. ^ a b Jan Bondeson, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, 1999:159.
  5. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece x.6.1.
  6. ^ "Telegony". The Encyclopaedia Britannica. 26. 1911. 
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Darwin, Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868).
  9. ^ The quagga was a relative of the zebra, now extinct.
  10. ^ "Lord Morton's Mare"
  11. ^ Flint, Austin (1888). Text-Book of Human Physiology (fourth ed.). USA: Appleton,New York. p. 797. 
  12. ^ Pearson, K. (1 October 1909). "Statistics of telegony". Science. 30 (770): 443–444. doi:10.1126/science.30.770.443-a. 
  13. ^ "Evolutionary Biology Lab People". Retrieved 28 December 2013. 
  14. ^ Crean, A. J.; Kopps, A. M.; Bonduriansky, R. (2014), "Revisiting telegony: offspring inherit an acquired characteristic of their mother's previous mate", Ecology Letters, 17: 1545–1552, doi:10.1111/ele.12373 .
  15. ^ "Like father like son? Nongenetic paternal effects reinvigorate the possibility of telegony". XIV Congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology. Retrieved 28 December 2013. 
  16. ^ Nakagawa, Shinichi. "ESEB conference in Lisbon". Otago University. Retrieved 28 December 2013. 
  17. ^ "Mia, Frank, Woody and Darwin". Deakin University. Retrieved 28 December 2013. 
  18. ^ "Sex peptide of Drosophila melanogaster males is a global regulator of reproductive processes in females". The Royal Society. Retrieved 1 January 2014. 
  19. ^ "The effect sex has on women: Single sperm molecule 'affects female fertility, behaviour, eating and sleeping'", Daily Mail, 13 September 2012, retrieved 14 September 2016 
  20. ^ Leonard, Herzenberg. "Fetal cells in the blood of pregnant women: detection and enrichment by fluorescence-activated cell sorting.". Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Retrieved 26 December 2013. 
  21. ^ "Men on the mind: Study finds male DNA in women's brains". Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Retrieved 26 December 2013. 
  22. ^ "Many female brains contain male DNA". FoxNews. Retrieved 26 December 2013. 
  23. ^ Dierselhuis, Miranda. "Transmaternal cell flow leads to antigen-experienced cord blood". Blood:American Society of Hematology. Retrieved 26 December 2013. 
  24. ^ "Scientists create the world's first glow-in-the-dark PIGS after injecting them with jellyfish DNA", Daily Mail, 28 December 2013, retrieved 14 September 2016 .
  25. ^ Saul, Heather. "Team of scientists create cloned glow-in-the-dark rabbits". The Independent. Retrieved 30 December 2013. 
  26. ^ Liu, YS (Apr 2011). "Telegony, the sire effect and non-Mendelian inheritance mediated by spermatozoa: a historical overview and modern mechanistic speculations". Reprod Domest Anim. 46 (2): 338–43. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0531.2010.01672.x. 
  27. ^ Liu, Y (Jul 2013). "Fetal genes in mother's blood: A novel mechanism for telegony?". Gene. 524 (2): 414–6. doi:10.1016/j.gene.2013.03.061. PMID 23618818. 
  28. ^ Discussion, "Revisiting telegony: offspring inherit an acquired characteristic of their mother's previous mate," Ecology Letters 2014 Dec, 17(12): 1545-1552.
  29. ^ "Woman's first partner may become genetic father of all her kids, telegony says",


  • "Telegony". The Encyclopedia Americana. 26. 1920. p. 327. 
  • "Telegony"
  • Liu, YS (April 2011). "Telegony, the Sire Effect and non-Mendelian Inheritance Mediated by Spermatozoa: A Historical Overview and Modern Mechanistic Speculations". Reproduction in Domestic Animals. 46 (2): 338–343. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0531.2010.01672.x. PMID 20626678.