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01 Dec, 2009 – 5 comments

the orchid hypothesis

I was reading this article from The Atlantic, about recent studies into children with key behavioral genes that predispose them to certain mood, psychiatric, or personality disorders and it reminded me of the articles I read on time perception a couple weeks back. Recent studies had suggested that these children possessed a kind of frailty, that their genetic vulnerability meant that certain triggers during early childhood development could cause irrevocable harm and lead them to certain ‘inevitable’ fates (like a life of depression and anti-social behaviors).

But very recent work showed that these children, the orchids, may not be as doomed to their fate as once believed.

The genetic sensitivities to negative experience that the vulnerability hypothesis has identified, it follows, are just the downside of a bigger phenomenon: a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience.

At first glance, this idea, which I’ll call the orchid hypothesis, may seem a simple amendment to the vulnerability hypothesis. It merely adds that environment and experience can steer a person up instead of down. Yet it’s actually a completely new way to think about genetics and human behavior. Risk becomes possibility; vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness. It’s one of those simple ideas with big, spreading implications. Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival, with selection favoring parents who happen to invest in both dandelions and orchids.

The article is a fantastic read – especially for someone that has always been labeled as one of those poor, unfortunate children – but it also just adds to my mounting concerns that we too often paint a bleak vision of the future for ourselves and for those that will inherit the future. How we envision the future directly affects our choices in the present – and for that matter, how we recall the past affects how we imagine the future. We’re constantly waging bets with ourselves and we as a culture (in my opinion) are playing it far too safely.

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  1. Allen Taylor
    Allen Taylor December 1, 2009 at 8:43 am .

    Nice writing. You are on my RSS reader now so I can read more from you down the road.

    Allen Taylor

  2. Joshua Kahn
    Joshua Kahn December 1, 2009 at 9:42 am .

    Bud, thanks for sharing the article. I would have to agree with your sentiment on this. It seems a very human compunction to want to slot everything, especially people and their peculiarities into buckets labeled with highly deterministic phrases. Troubled child, attention deficit, or other labels that carry with them a heavy emotional suggestion that determines, once and for all, their fate. The troubling part is that once a person is bucketed, no further thought to other possibilities for that person or thing is given. Its like the act of categorizing allows a person to not have to remain aware and open, check it off a list so to speak. I guess I’m saying its an outgrowth of an epidemic of mental and intellectual laziness on the part of many. I agree with your stance, I think whatever hand a person is dealt, it can be played to positive, productive and happy effect, provided you pay attention, stay open, stay creative and stay out of the buckets.

  3. Johanna
    Johanna December 1, 2009 at 9:47 am .

    Ah, I’m Instapapering that. Interesting implications for the directions self-fulfilling prophecies can take re: parenting and development/growth…

  4. Subbu
    Subbu December 2, 2009 at 1:48 am .

    Thanks for the nice post and a very useful link about children and behaviour. I have shared this with friends of mine who were having serious concerns about their childrens behaviour. It is true that we sometimes fail to be sensitive to the childrens feelings (and views) as we have stopped being children.

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