Mark Jones Jones_M at
Mon Jul 27 00:11:11 PDT 1998

This from the London Times today (no endorsement fro me :))

July 27 1998


New research suggests our genes do not tell

everything about the way we are, says Anjana


The nature of nurture

Robert Plomin shakes his head as he picks

through his salade niçoise and admits he is

embarrassed: "It's unbelievable. Everywhere we

look, we find that genes have a substantial

influence. I'm embarrassed by how important

genetics is turning out to be."

This is a peculiar thing for him to say, because

Professor Plomin is one of the most eminent

behavioural geneticists in the world. Even if you

haven't heard his name, you will know of his


Previously based at the University of Colorado

and now deputy director of the Social, Genetic

and Developmental Psychiatry Research Centre

at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, his

achievements include the discovery of a gene

for intelligence (or, more correctly, a gene which

accounts for a tiny fraction of the variation in

intelligence). It was revealed last week that his

team of researchers had found a gene for

language ability in young children.

You might have thought this would plant him

firmly on the nature side of the nature v nurture

debate in the discussion of how genes and

environment shape individual personality. But

Professor Plomin adopts an unexpected stance.

He thinks the pendulum has swung too far in his

favour: "Once, everybody thought environment

was all-important, and the only thing that

mattered was the way you were brought up.

Then behavioural genetics came along and it

seemed that genes was everything and

environment was nothing. Actually, environment

is terribly important too.

"Take schizophrenia. Identical twins, who have

identical genes, have a 50 per cent concordance

on the condition. That means that if one twin

develops it, the other has a 50 per cent chance

of developing it. Since their genes are the same

whether they develop schizophrenia or not, it

must be to do with environment. It's an amazing


Further support for the significance of

environment comes from a new study by

Professor Plomin of 720 American families,

each featuring a mother, father and two

adolescent children. According to conventional

belief, children brought up in the same home

share the same environment. So one would

expect natural brothers and sisters to share

many traits. However, they can be poles apart in

personality. But Professor Plomin and his

colleagues discovered that the issue of

environment was more complex than previously

thought. For one thing, it turned out that parents

often treated each child differently, or were

perceived as treating each child differently. This

implied that each child in the family was being

nurtured in a slightly different environment.

"For example, some adolescents felt their

parents were more antagonistic to them than to

their brother or sister. So you think: 'This

explains why one child develops antisocial

behaviour.' But when you see a video of the

parent and child together, you realise the parent

is reacting to the child's aggressive behaviour.

How can a parent be loving when their child is

acting like a jerk? Genes are affecting the family


It raises the possibility that people choose or

shape their surroundings according to their

genes. This has led Professor Plomin to think

about nature v nurture not as a tug-of-war

between disparate influences but as part of one

phenomenon. He has renamed it the "nature of


Professor Plomin also thinks that experiences

outside the home for each sibling may be

significant in moulding character traits. "It's a

shot in the arm for the environmentalists. It

opens up opportunities for studying

gene-environment correlations."

Some might suggest that, if environment is so

important, why should we pour in millions of

pounds teasing out genetic influences, especially

if individual genes have such minuscule effects?

"Behavioural genetics is a scientific target but it's

also a practical target," he says.

For example, society could provide preventive

therapy for those at risk from alcoholism or drug

abuse: "Alcoholism wrecks lives. But we wait to

see who develops it and then step in with cures

that don't work. If we have the genetic markers,

we should use them to alleviate suffering.

Preventive medicine is the future."

The concerns raised over possible pre-natal

testing to screen out certain diseases do not

bother him unduly. "When the amniocentesis

test was developed, people thought it was the

end of the world. But women chose to have it.

Why would a woman do it unless she was

prepared to contemplate abortion? If mothers

were selecting for certain traits, that would be


What about discrimination by employers and

insurance companies against those found to be

at risk of developing disease? "That would not

be ethical but I am sure we will have laws to

protect against it."

He thinks most people, provided there are

preventive treatments available, would prefer to

know their genetic destiny, despite the

drawbacks.He also objects to the idea that

geneticists are part of a right-wing conspiracy to

engage in dodgy social engineering. (Professor

Plomin, who grew up in inner-city Chicago, is a

Labour supporter.) He elects not to study topics

such as the differences in intelligences across

race and class. "I'm too chicken to do stuff like

that," he says. What especially bugs him is when

the word "Nazi" is mentioned in the same breath

as behavioural genetics, as happened on the

Today programme last week. "Some of the

media seem to want to protect the public from

the wicked scientists," he sighs. "It's a very

condescending view and I am willing to bet that

the man in the street isn't that worried.

"Geneticists have this anecdote about parents,

which I think has a measure of truth about it:

when parents have one child, they think the

kid's behaviour is down to how they are bringing

them up. When they have a second child and

they start noticing big personality differences,

they begin believing in genetics."

In a way, he says, the ethical concerns

surrounding the field of behavioural genetics

constitute a badge of honour. "All great

advances in science have problems," Professor

Plomin reflects. "So it's terrific that we have

given ethicists so much to think about."

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