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.