Wednesday 19 December 2018

Mary Kenny: Doomed by DNA?

A new study finds it's nature not nurture that informs who we are

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Notice how carefully and conscientiously most young parents raise their children these days. The attention they pay to the child's needs! The ferrying around between swimming lessons and Spanish lessons and music lessons and sports coaching: the urgent struggles to get the kids into the best schools and the outraged resentment if a school with a fine reputation is over-subscribed.

But most of these parenting endeavours, says the geneticist Robert Plomin of King's College, London, is for the birds. It doesn't much matter how you bring up your kids, because they are born with the characters they will have all their lives, and formed, mostly, not by parental care, but by their own DNA.

The response of some older mothers (and fathers), might be: "Phew! Thank heavens for that!" Those of us who might, looking back, feel guilty that our parenting was somewhat chaotic can now say, with authority, "It's all in the DNA".

Professor Plomin's study, 'Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are', provides the evidence that our personalities come mostly from our genes, and whether our parents were loving and attentive to us or whether they were drunk and disorderly makes little difference to the final outcome. (Though if your Ma and Pa were drunk and disorderly, you have a fair chance of inheriting drunk and disorderly genes.)

Plomin's study - based on 46 years of research and the accumulation of hundreds of studies - may have the effect of absolving us from our own sins. All those foolish mistakes I made? All those bad decisions? It was in my genes. I was born like that.

If Plomin's ideas gain traction, I can see the day when the criminal justice system will take DNA into consideration when faced with offenders: the accused who has previous form of 456 other offences? It's in his genes. He couldn't help it.

Ah, but it's dangerous territory, this biological fatalism. It's always been rejected by progressives (and Christians), who have insisted on the improvability of human nature. The Jesuit saying, "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man" is sometimes mocked as a malign example of brainwashing, but it was intended as a recipe for a positive early formation, whatever a child's DNA.

The influence of genetic science is growing - sperm banks now describe the genetic profiles of their donors - and there are certainly useful outcomes in the application of medicine. But in another way, the triumph of genetics leads us backwards, back to old prejudices that existed in many peasant societies: when some families were shunned because there was mental illness, TB, eccentricity, alcoholism or just plain bad luck in their family tree.

It's seldom now remembered that adoption was once stigmatised because "you didn't know where the child came from". In modern language, the DNA inheritance might be questionable. It seems mean-spirited and pessimistic, whatever case can be made by biological science.

Granted, Plomin concedes that nurture and the environment do have some influence on our characters. You're hardly likely to thrive if you grow up in a war zone, in a cruel orphanage or an abusive atmosphere.

Yet, like other researchers in this field such as Judith Rich Harris - who claims that most parents have no impact whatsoever on how their children turn out - he insists that traits like kindness, honesty and "agreeableness" cannot really be taught. They are either in your character or they are not.

I imagine most of us can see both sides of this major question about parenting, family influences and human nature. We can see family traits - good and bad - being inherited. "Ah, he's a curmudgeon like his father before him". But we can also see other variations: very different siblings in the same family, and personality development over the course of the years, too.

A small example: I was chronically unpunctual for the first 45 years of my life. But I came to see how much stress this causes, and mostly, now, I turn up on time. Once I valued impetuosity: now I've come to see that "preparation is everything".

I have another personal experience that is relevant to the debate: I am strikingly similar to my mother physically, and in personality. But I spent formative childhood years living with an uncle and aunt, and I can still hear my aunt's voice in my ear at certain moments. "If you can't afford it, Mary, go without!" I hear her say when perusing a purchase beyond my budget. Although she was no blood relation, my aunt had an influence in shaping my character.

From which I conclude that we are all living laboratories of the interplay between nature and nurture.

Ever since Benjamin Spock wrote his classic best-selling book on childcare, back in 1947, nurture has held the dominant position in parenting. Countless books have since appeared, emphasising the importance of parenting skills. Now the boffins are saying children are born with the inherited characters they will always have. Maybe they are right, but only, I'd hope, in moderation, still allowing us potential to self-improve.

Weekend Magazine

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss