Wednesday 28 September 2016

Mary Kenny: bad mothers or bad genes?

The debate about nature versus nurture still rages

Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

There's a remarkable maths teacher at a London school called Colin Hegarty. Mr Hegarty's parents are Irish - his father was a building site worker and his mother a home help, and his background was "modest". But he's been nominated as one of the world's best educators because of his brilliance in teaching maths.

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Colin Hegarty believes that anyone can learn to shine at maths - even if not 'naturally' gifted - if taught in an inspiring way. This is a startling revelation to me: I thought that mathematicians were born, not made. And genetic studies in recent years have tended to reinforce this idea. Your brain is wired up in a specific way. Intelligence is inherited, just like eye colour. And ability at maths is an unerring guide to IQ.

There's been a huge interest in genetic studies over the past few decades, and we've been promised that there's a "gene" to explain everything. A gene for alcoholism. A gene for homosexuality. A gene for depression and schizophrenia. The international Human Genome Project, launched in 1990, set out to map the sequence of genes which would explain so much of human behaviour.

The psychologist Oliver James now says most of what we've been told about genes is balderdash. There's been, he says, a campaign "to sell the genetic explanation" of everything. "Richard Dawkins portrays us as mere carcasses that enable DNA to be transmitted onwards, if we reproduce," he writes witheringly in his new book Not in Your Genes. Yes, he concedes that genes may determine physical traits, such as eye colour and height, but when it comes to personal psychology, 96pc of individual difference is NOT cause by genes.

It's all in the nurturing, he asserts. It's the way you are born and raised.

Dr James takes as one case history that of Paula Yates and her daughter Peaches Geldof - he worked with Paula and has drawn on the published writings of both Paula and Peaches. In September 2000, Paula Yates was found dead from a heroin overdose. Her three-year-old daughter Tiger Lily was alone in the house with the body. In April 2014, Paula's daughter Peaches was found dead, also from a heroin overdose: her infant son was alone in the house.

Surely, this is a blatant example of the daughter repeating the mother's tragic life, because they were genetically so similar?

But Oliver James concludes that Paula Yates was an erratic mother who treated her four daughters differently: Peaches allegedly got off to a bad start and bonded more closely with a nanny than with Paula. Peaches' problems lay in her upbringing, he contends, not in her genes: her sisters' lives are not at all the same.

The case against genetic determinism is that siblings in a family are often very dissimilar. I think of the Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain: although troubled in some ways, she was a high achiever from an early age, an Oxford don and a BBC arts executive in her 20s. Yet she had a brother who died a homeless alcoholic.

The gene boffins say that differences between siblings is caused by genetic chance, similar to shuffling a pack of cards. You cut a pack of cards and it's a matter of chance which one comes out on top.

No, says James: it's the emotional environment into which you are born. Broken families, bad parenting and 'ACE' (Adverse Childhood Experiences) account for most mental illness, prison incarceration, and even prostitution. Most sex-workers have had disastrous childhoods. He even claims that ADHD - the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - is linked with an increase in Caesarean births.

In one way, I want to believe that environment forms our personalities. I want to believe that we could all have been mathematically accomplished, given a Colin Hegarty. I want to believe we can improve on our shortcomings. I dislike the way that whole families could be stigmatised for mental illness or criminality.

But when it's all down to nurturing, this places far more responsibility - and, consequently, guilt - on parents. Especially on mothers. With nurture theory, nearly everything is about the quality of mothering. The pregnancy, the birth, the early years of attachment while your infant brain was being formed: God almighty, one way or another, we were probably all maltreated.

Oliver James does concede there are cultural variations which play their part. People in highly competitive and individualistic societies - such as the United States - have more mental illness than people in more controlled societies such as Japan. Among a primitive tribe in Ecuador, where not much is expected, life may be fairly serene, even though young children are treated quite casually.

Nature or nurture? For me, the jury is still out. I can see, with the passage of time, so many similar family characteristics emerging. I also have repeated, guilt- ridden conversations with an old friend about how heedless and inadequate we were as young mothers and how we damaged our offspring with our mistakes.

Oliver James says that parents dump "a furniture van full of historical baggage" onto their child. Oh yes! Thus, sometimes, I swing back to the view that it's all in the genes, which is but another version of "kismet": the throw of the dice determined our fate.

@MaryKenny4

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