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Inherited Traits vs Acquired Traits

 Reviewed 16 November 2018 share-a-picture Or go to discussion?join-the-discussion dogphoto

This is another critical subject area of core medical definitions and again there are contradictions, ambiguity, and imprecision widely in use.

That is, once we look beyond the narrow "inherited". Because inherited is Latin, and so interpretations of what means inherited are quite consistent. This includes inherited traits:


Inherited Traits

Inherited Traits vs Heritable Traits

Acquired Traits

Inherited vs Acquired: Clarification

Genetic Predisposition

Inherited Traits Examples

Acquired Traits Examples

The Argument: "Runs in Families"

Biological Transitions

Inherited Traits

Inherited traits are all the characteristics of an organism passed on by one or both direct ancestors at conception.

Be aware that none of the core medical definitions here lose their precision and consistency if you prefer to draw the line at birth rather than at conception?

Just be consistent then, and accept that you would widen the scope for inherited traits and narrow the scope for acquired traits.

Like with the Google results linked above, earlier my own definition too said: "passed on with the DNA". Then the newest research results in the realm of Epigenetics made me realize that such notion is superfluous and makes inherited traits definitions needlessly contradictory.

Because "epi" is Greek and can have several meanings: "near", "above", "before", "after",... - giving Epigenetics the semantic meaning of "in addition to changes in genetic sequence".

This is because Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression (ie which genes are active vs which genes are inactive) that do not involve changes in the underlying DNA sequence (a mutation).

In other words, Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in phenotype without underlying changes in genotype.

A change in characteristics without a change in genome.

And so, if epi traits can be inherited in addition to genetic traits then we must not restrict inherited traits to those passed on with the DNA. You see that?

And either way there is no need for such restriction, see below.

What I always miss in Epigenetics studies is the consideration of triggers. Because in many or all(?) studied cases it may be the triggers that lead to gene expression and shape the phenotype after conception.

Meaning: At least some studied cases did not actually look at inherited traits but at acquired traits.

take-thought This may well be the case indeed because: When you review trigger you realize that medical research papers most often discuss symptoms, less often the cause, and hardly ever triggers.

take-note And a lot that has been published in Epigenetics studies suggests that what has been looked at was in fact triggers, not heritable changes in gene expression.

take-action Regardless whether that's the case, this shows yet again the necessity to understand cause vs symptom vs trigger, so as to more completely study all three.

Either way, you see there is no need to stuff the definition of inherited traits with the notion how they get inherited:

The fact that we clarified here "passed on at conception" is sufficient to obtain the clear, precise, and consistent medical definitions.

Inherited Traits vs Heritable Traits

Also be aware that inherited traits is not the same as heritable traits:

  • heritable traits are characteristics of the ancestors that may pass on to offspring - without regard to whether the ancestors acquired the characteristics or inherited them themselves
  • inherited traits are characteristics of the offspring that one or both direct ancestors shared.

Acquired Traits

The understanding of acquired traits is fairly consistent too, as Google shows for acquired traits:


Contrary to earlier accepted knowledge, the newest research results in the realm of Epigenetics suggest that certain acquired characteristics can be inherited by offspring. For your interest I have included a few links in the footnotes.

Acquired traits are all the characteristics of an organism gained after conception.

Note that again there is no need to stuff the definition of acquired traits with the notion whether or not they can be passed on to offspring.

(This is what Epigenetics looks at: identifying traits that can be passed on to offspring although they are not coded in the DNA)

The fact that we clarified "gained after conception" is sufficient to obtain the clear, precise, and consistent medical definitions.

Inherited vs Acquired: Clarification

Let's bring more clarity to the terminology mess out there!

  • Only a defect can be inherited:
    • because only bacterial, fungal, viral, protozoal, or parasitic infections can constitute a disease, and infections can only be acquired, not inherited
    • and because disorders too can only be acquired: Once acquired, they bring the organism "out of order". If the organism was already "out of order" at conception, then obviously the organism had a defect already at conception, it never was "in order"!
  • An inherited mutation can be cause or trigger of the defect in question, and it is the cause only if it has the same effect on every organism (here person or dog).
  • An acquired mutation can be cause or trigger of the defect or disorder or disease in question, and it is the cause only if it has the same effect on every organism (here person or dog).

Genetic Predisposition

take-note Overall, inherited defects are much rarer than commonly perceived, see Genetic Predisposition.

At this point you may be wondering "Where are the contradictions, ambiguity, and imprecision relating to Inherited Traits vs Acquired Traits?"

I decided to "outsource" them to standalone chapters for the same reason why I introduced the word "traits" in this chapter: There is significant search volume only for:

yet no search volume for inherited defect. Although a defect actually is the only illness or condition that can be inherited. At least as per these clear, precise, and consistent medical definitions.

For the reason of search volume, I use trait here as "a particular characteristic of an organism". And so any illness of the organism (defect, disorder, or disease) can be viewed as a trait too.

Inherited Traits Examples

When a newborn baby or puppy carries a defect this by itself does not mean that the defect is inherited: Many defects (and indeed disorders and diseases too) are acquired prenatal in the uterus or through the umbilical cord.

To be an inherited defect there has to be a mutation existing in the genetic code that one or both direct ancestors also have, and that causes the same defect in every affected organism.

Because if not, it is an acquired condition, and all that has been found is one of many triggers, or worse: coincidence.

Acquired Traits Examples

The Argument: "Runs in Families"

When it was found that a certain ailment "runs in families" this by itself does not mean that the ailment is an inherited defect, not even that it is a defect at all.

Great examples, and all relevant for both people and dogs:

Truly GREAT EXAMPLES! Because:

  • all of these "were found to run in families"
  • yet all of these are not inherited
  • and all of these are not even a defect at all

Arthritis, Diabetes, Obesity, and Cancer all are acquired disorders!

Hugely important to understand, in order to value prevention and to choose the right treatment!

None is an inherited defect nor an "inherited disease" nor an "inherited disorder".

Unless the cause of a condition is a (known or yet unknown) mutation existing in the genetic code of one or both direct ancestors, the discovery "it runs in families" may mean that the family's behavior is adopted rather than a defect inherited.

Is the defect inherited, or rather the behavior adopted that causes the disorder?

Pronounced living characteristics are sometimes (consciously or subconsciously) adopted by children, grandchildren, and so forth. Only pronounced living characteristics can lead to a disorder, and disorders cannot be inherited.

Alternatively it may mean that the affected descendants are affected by the same (or another) pathogen or chemical substance (in medication, "food", household, or environment) that causes the observed condition.

If an ailment other than a disease shows only later in life, and outside the biological transitions, it almost certainly is not an inherited defect but an acquired disorder or an acquired defect (in this order).

Inherited defects exist at conception, and so they either show right from birth or they start to show with biological transitions.

Biological Transitions

Biological transitions are the obvious puberty, pregnancy, and menopause, as well as less obvious transitions like teething, end of hypertrophy (increase in cell size), end of hyperplasia (increase in rate of cell division), atrophy (wasting away of an organ or other tissue structure), and others.

A truly inherited defect that does not show from birth (obviously) needs a strong trigger in order to suddenly show later in life.

The kind of trigger that can activate an inherited defect is either:

  • a biological transition
  • or an acquired progressive disorder or acquired progressive disease.

Footnotes: See for example as per your preference:



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