Research into behavioral genetics in its infancy #ahcj13

About Jeannette Moninger

Jeannette Moninger is an independent journalist based in Highlands Ranch, Colo. Her articles have appeared in Family Circle, Parents, Fitness, WebMD and others.

At the Health Journalism 2013 session on Shaping the Pediatric Brain, independent journalist David Dobbs shared insights on researching and writing his 2009 article for The Atlantic, “The Science of Success.”

The article served as a springboard for a book that Dobbs is working on about behavioral genetics, tentatively titled “The Orchid and the Dandelion.” The book title plays off a new theory of genetics based on the hypothesis that “dandelion” children appear to grow up okay regardless of their environment. That is, they’ll be fine in a garden, a greenhouse or a crack in the sidewalk.

“Orchid” children, on the other hand, thrive under good care (a greenhouse), do okay in a so-so environment (garden), and wilt in a bad environment (crack in the sidewalk). Over the past couple of years, this hypothesis has started gaining momentum among child development specialists and behavioral geneticists interested in how environment and genetics shape who we are. 

Dobbs says his challenge, as he researches and writes his book, is that the fields of genetics and neuroscience are still relatively young. “They’re barely out of diapers,” he said.

While attending a neuroscience conference, Dobbs asked researchers to rate where they are in regards to understanding the role of genes and environment on the brain. On a scale of zero (not knowing anything about the brain) to 100 (being able to fix the brain), almost all neuroscientists he polled put their understanding in the single digits.

“Clearly, it’s too early to write this book as a self-help book,” Dobbs says. Before this revelation, Dobbs says he was “paralyzed” as to the best way to structure and proceed with his book. Now, he is on track.

“The difficulty is in tackling this topic so that it is accurate, true to science and compelling, and to not sacrifice one for the other,” he says. Dobbs continues to investigate the topic. Last year, his articles on the orchid-dandelion hypothesis appeared in Wired and New Scientist (the latter requires a paid subscription to access).

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