In this age of ubiquitous genetic data and ease of sequencing, the unraveling of genetic determinism continues to be a popular aspect of research. The ability to say that possession of Gene X or Mutation Y leads to Disease A or Behavior B is powerful and wide-ranging in scope, and appeals to many who seek to understand life.
Indeed, many human behaviors and conditions have already been linked to certain gene variants. Mutant forms of the BRCA gene have been widely publicized as indicators of breast cancer susceptibility. Another example includes the SERT gene, for which a certain variation increases a person’s susceptibility to serious depression.
Of course, it is widely accepted that genetic (or biological) determinism is not the only determinant of human phenotype – environmental (or social) determinism plays a role as well. However, it is still common and accepted to see studies which support the idea that a certain gene will “increase risk” for a certain disease or behavior. Thus, if one possessed a “bad gene” and was exposed to a “bad environment”, the outcome would likely be negative.
But what happens if you have a “bad” gene but had a “good” environment? Or even, some sort of “ideal” environment?
An article in The Atlantic, published late last year by David Dobbs, highlighted a non-human primate facility in the United States which studies genetics, behavior, and the so-called “orchid hypothesis”. Researchers found that these “bad genes” are perhaps more accurately classified as “genes for potential”. Researchers found that, given the right environment, individuals possessing these genes could excel far beyond the capabilities of a “normal” individual. In the primate facility, this was illustrated by the ability of one family of primates to completely take over dominance of the colony after years of being submissive to another family. This was made possible by a change in the social and environmental conditions.
A similar result was seen in a study of children’s behaviour. This study put mothers and children through a program designed to foster good social behaviour in young children by encouraging positive interactions between mother and child. The authors found while all of the children improved, the children who had an ADHD “risk” allele improved the most, and indeed, did better than their “normal” counterparts.
So what could this mean for other aspects of human health? For example, do autistic children have the potential for greatness that a normal children lack? We’ve all heard of autistic piano or math prodigies. These studies suggest that we might find ways for all autistic children to excel. And if so, how do we find the right environment to foster this behaviour?