In the Assassin's Creed series, one of the major plot devices involves using a machine to explore the memories of the main character's ancestors. The theory behind it is that your DNA stores all the memories of your ancestors within it, and by tapping into them with the Animus machine, you can experience them again. Dr. Warren Vidic, one of the scientists who developed the Animus, explains that it is like an animal's instinctual ability to know where to migrate to, or how to hunt food, without being taught. The knowledge, through the memories of their ancestors, is stored in their DNA.

Is this concept original to Assassin's Creed, or has it appeared previously in a scifi/fantasy work? What is the history of the idea?

  • 1
    My guess is, a google search for "dna" and "memory" brings up one of the Wikipedia articles on Genetic Memory (The biology one). It doesn't have history, but it's simple to jump to the disambiguation page, and the Genetic memory (psychology) page does have history. This is a borderline "general reference" question, since the obvious Wikipedia page doesn't have history, but it is easily findable.
    – Izkata
    May 6, 2012 at 4:00
  • 5
    It's ridiculous to judge a question general reference by how easy it is to find on Google, that's going to be different for everyone who tries to find it. May 6, 2012 at 4:08
  • FWIW, I had to research quite a bit to get my answer, it wasn't just a simple search. May 8, 2012 at 6:49
  • The notion of the collective unconsciousness has shades of this as well, so any story dealing with a hive mind concept could also fall in with the genetic memory idea.
    – Monty129
    Nov 23, 2014 at 18:57

8 Answers 8


The idea of a genetic or racial memory is very old. The first literary reference to it that I can find in fiction is from J. R. R. Tolkien, who explores the idea of a linguistic race memory in The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers, and speculates about the real world in English and Welsh. Prior to that, Carl Jung talks about it in great detail in Psychology of the Unconscious, which is a Psychology book. Even before that, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck offered a theory that's become known as Lamarckism which asserts that organisms pass memories on to each other.

In antiquity, the Vikings believed that they had the memories of their ancestors as well, but in reverse: They thought that they themselves were able to influence their offspring after they were dead. Essentially they are the same thing, only they attributed the effect to a supernatural cause and not RNA or Memory. The upshot is that their offspring would have access to their own memories, the same condition which would result from any of the theories above, despite the superstitious mechanism and the essential reversal of point of view.

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    +1 for Lamarckism and Tolkien, and overall great answer. May 6, 2012 at 2:20

The concept is absolutely not original, in both fiction and actual science.

In fiction, it goes at least as far back as Bene Gesserit's ancestral memory in Dune (1965) (though Nathan's answer takes it even more back, to Tolkien!).

In science, the idea is as old as Nathan-mentioned Lamarckism and on through modern Epigenetic memory via meiosis.


1935: "Seeds from Space", a novelette by Laurence Manning; first published in Wonder Stories, June 1935, available at the Internet Archive; reprinted in Famous Science Fiction, Spring 1967, also available at the Internet Archive; perhaps the earliest story of an alien race (of intelligent trees in this case) in which each individual starts life with all of its ancestors' memories. From p. 16, a conversation between an earthman and a tree creature:

"The tree creatures looked at him a moment in sober silence. 'You did not even know what food trees live upon,' suggested the Babbler. You seem intelligent, but strangely uniformed.'

"'Ah, but I am not a botanist,' answered Blenkins. 'This is the age of specialization. One man knows only one subject.'

"'But your ancestors — some of them at least — must have known botany.'

"'What has that to do with me?'

"'You have, of course, all the knowledge and experience of your ancestors stored in your mind.'

"'Nonsense! Who ever heard of such a thing!' exclaimed Blenkins.

"'I do not understand. Did you not hear my words?'

"'I mean, what our ancestors knew has died with them.'

"'This is extraordinary! Do you have to learn all your facts over again each time a child is born?'

"'Why, of course! How else can anyone learn?'

"'Among us,' remarked Shorty quietly, 'we emerge from the seed with a precise memory of every thought that ever passed through the minds of our ancestors. I understand now, however, why you have so many books. It is to preserve the thoughts of one generation so that the next may learn them quickly.'


1928: "Unlocking the Past", a short story by David H. Keller, M.D., published in Amazing Stories, September 1928 (available at the Internet Archive) and apparently never reprinted, is an early example of the type of story which posits that human beings have ancestral memories which are unconscious until the mad scientist character invents a way to awaken them. Here is an excerpt from Everett F. Bleiler's review in Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years:

The professor makes them an offer. As he explains it: Ancestral memory has been demonstrated many times; indeed, the first sounds that babies make are not random noises, but words from ancient tongues spoken by their ancestors. If one could study a child who had perfect memory of the lives of his/her ancestors, instead of tiny fragments, it would revolutionize history. And such a study is possible with the professor's discovery of a process to awaken such memories in the "empty" areas of the brain. The process is based on radium-arcturium gas passed through neon. The professor offers twenty-five thousand dollars per year in perpetuo to Robert for the use of Angelica.

Despite misgivings, the parents finally agree. The child undergoes the treatment, but that evening, she awakens Anise, talking learnedly of past events, gradually revealing the horror of memory of things past. Angelica is glad that her parents are spared such terrors.

But then Anise awakens; it was all a dream, but a veridical dream that causes both parents to refuse the professor's offer. They will struggle along as before, without submitting their child to such pain.


The carrier is usually RNA.

The earliest example that pops to mind is Larry Niven's short story "The Fourth Profession" from 1972 "Rammer" from 1971, but I believe the trope is older than that.


Here is another early example of ancestral memory in science ficition.

In E.E. Smith's Lensman series the Eddorians would reproduce by fission and each new body would have all the the memories of the "parent". This is some kind of hereditary ancestral memory, though I don't know any details of how it was supposed to work.

They were asexual: sexless to a degree unapproached by any form of Tellurian life higher than the yeasts. They were not merely hermaphroditic, nor androgynous, nor parthenogenetic. They were completely without sex. They were also, to all intents and purposes and except for death by violence, immortal. For each Eddorian, as its mind approached the stagnation of saturation after a lifetime of millions of years, simply divided into two new-old beings. New in capacity and in zest; old in ability and in power, since each of the two "children" possessed in toto the knowledges and the memories of their one "parent."


For much of the Lensman the second highest Eddorian is Gharlane.

Gharlane is killed in the era of Kimball Kinnison. He searched his ancestral memories for an suppressed memory during the era of Triplanetary, hundreds or thousands of years earlier. The era of Triplanetary is when Earth has recovered from a devastating atomic war hundreds of years before.

in First Lensman Gharlane is said to have activated human forms of flesh to make trouble and hold back Earth's development. They include the Tyrant of Asia (perhaps responsible for World War III), Hitler (1889-1945), Mussolini (1883-1945), Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941), Genghis Khan (c.1162-1127), Attila (c. 406-453), Menocoptes of Egypt, Alcixerxes of Greece (Possibly Alcibiades c.450-404 BC), Sulla (138-78 BC), Marius (157-86 BC), Mithridates of Pontus (135-63 BC), and Hannibal of Carthage (247-183/181 BC).

So Gharlane's activities seem to be spread out over at least 2,000 or 3,000 years.

In fact Gharlane's first assignment to mess up Earth's development is in the era of Atlantis thousands of years earlier than the Roman Republic!

Chapter 2 "The Fall of Atlantis"

So that makes Gharlane's span of activity on Earth closer to 10,000 years and possibly much more.

And why is Gharlane's span of adult life as the second highest of Eddore important?

I believe that in the revised version of Triplanetary first published in 1948, Gharlane realizes that his memories of first meeting the Arisians have been suppressed. He seeks to find and uncover the suppressed memories of the encounter, going back life after life after life of his ancestors, going back through the memories of many ancestors to two billion (2,000,000,000) years ago when the planets in Earth's solar system were forming.

My memory is reading that Gharlane searched the memories of millions of his ancestors.

If there were at least two million ancestors in 2,000,000,000 years the average Eddorian life span would be less than 1,000 years which is not consistent with the long lifespans of attributed to Eddorians. If there were at lest two million lifespans in the 4,500,000,000 years since the currently accepted date for the formation of the Earth, the average lifespan in Gharlane's ancestry would be less than 2,250 years.

I suspect that E.E. Smith momentarily forgot that Eddorians have one parent each, not two. So a human has 1,024 ancestors in the tenth generation and 1,048,576 ancestors in the twentieth generation. 21 generations or more would give a gendered being at least 2,097,152 ancestors in the 21st generation. So searching memories millions of ancestors back, covering all members of 21 or more generations, would make an average of less than 95,238,095 years per generation. That could certainly make the average Eddorian lifespan long enough.

But since Eddorians only have a single parent each, at least two million (2,000,000) ancestors in two billion (2,000,000,000) years gives an average generation of under 1,000 years.

Maybe by a billion E.E. Smith meant a billion on the long scale, 10 to the 12th power or 1,000,000,000,000 - what is usually called a trillion - instead of a billion in the short scale, 10 to the 9th power, or 1,000,000,000. That would make the average Eddorian lifespan one million (1,000,000) years or less, plenty long enough.

Or if we change Smith's two billion (2,000,000,000) years to about four and a half billion (4,500,000,000) years, the correct age of our solar system, that makes the average Eddorian lifespan 2,250 years or less, which comes closer to being adequate.


Or perhaps Gharlane didn't know when the suppressed event happened and searched the memories of all his ancestors back as far as he could. Perhaps the average Eddorian lifespan is 10,000 years and Gharlane searched for over 2,000,000 generations back for over 20,000,000,0000 years before finding the suppressed memory only 2,000,000,000 years earlier. Or maybe the average Eddorian generation is 100,000 years and Gharlane searched his ancestral memories back for over 2,000,000 generations and over 200,000,000,000 years before finding the suppressed memory only 2,000,000,000 years earlier.

Today (26 March 20017) I searched the Project Gutenberg E Book of Triplanetary and found in Chapter 17 "Roger Carries On" the description of Gharlane searching his ancestral memories.

Back and back went Gharlane's mind. Centuries ... millenia ... cycles ... eons. The trace grew dim, almost imperceptible, deeply buried beneath layer upon layer of accretions of knowledge, experience, and sensation which no one of many hundreds of his ancestors had even so much as disturbed. But every iota of knowledge that any of his progenitors had ever had was still his. However dim, however deeply buried, however suppressed and camouflaged by inimical force, he could now find it.


So that indicates that Gharlane was only "many hundreds" of generations after his ancestor 2,000,000,000 years ago. If we assume that "many hundreds" are between five hundred and two thousand generations, the average length of an Eddorian generation should be about 1,000,000 to 4,000,000 years. If the time interval was the 4,500,000,000 years that is believed to be the actual age of the solar system instead of 2,000,000,000 years, the average length of an Eddorian life span would be 2,250,000 to 9,000,000 years.

So if all versions of that scene in all editions of Triplanetary say "many hundreds" of ancestors instead of millions the Eddorian life span can be long enough for Gharlane's activities over at least ten thousand years to be a short phase of his life. And Gharlane's ancestor's average life spans can agree with the unspecified millions of years of life mentioned in chapter one of Triplanetary.


Per the part of your question asking where else this idea has appeared: Piers Anthony's 1970 book Orn has an intelligent prehistoric bird with racial/genetic memory.


1926: "The City of Spiders", a novelette by H. Warner Munn in Weird Tales, November 1926, available at the Internet Archive. This is about a community of telepathic giant spiders hidden away in the jungles of South America. They have memories of a prehistoric time when they ruled the world and kept humans as slaves and livestock, memories which they project as visions into the mind of a captive human who in the end escapes to tell the tale. The subject of ancestral memory is discussed only briefly in the passage quoted below.

"I stood again before the spider king, through whose memory I had searched the past, as through mine he had explored the present. The blood began to circulate through my numbed limbs, prickling like a thousand needles. I felt as though I had traveled far.

"My guards carried me to the dungeon, dropped in a shoulder of venison and left me alone. I fell upon the raw meat, wolfing it down in great mouthfuls, and as I ravenously satisfied my hunger I tried to imagine the reasons that led the king to learn of the outer world and to give me, in turn, glimpses of the past.

"Clearly, this was his method of relating his people's history, but why trouble himself at all? Why not slay me as he had the natives? I could only decide that I was being reserved for a guide to the outer world! They had relished the taste of my blood!

"On pondering over the visions, I recognized the chant of the brass-hued people to be a quotation from one of the poems of Baudelaire, but in the age when those beings fought the spiders, unthinkable periods of time would yet elapse before men began to dream of rime. I eventually reached the conclusion that if I had seen a vision and made a promise, the impression that the pleading voices had desired to convey to me struck a chord in my subconscious mind that nearly equaled that eery verse, so that in semi-stupor I fancied they chanted in the words of the French poet. I still believe that my theory is correct, but I wonder often what they really did say? The vision was so very real!

"I decided that each episode took place in the life of a different spider, and by the clearness of each vision, it would seem to indicate that the spider king recalled the incidents in his various reincarnations, or that lacking the written word to preserve history, this race had developed the ability of storing facts in their brain cells that were passed from one generation to another as physical attributes sometimes are with men.

"In all of these glimpses, I saw as a spider; I thought as a spider; I looked upon men as beasts of burden, created for the well-being of the spider people, an unclean miserable race, but necessary for our slaves.

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