Author Oliver James. Posted on 6-April-2016
From intelligence to mental health, nurture is the crucial influence on human development
Are poor people poor because of inferior genes? This notion is especially popular with members of the ruling elite, who like to think their position is the result of genetic superiority rather than the fact they have privileged backgrounds.
Low intelligence and high rates of mental illness are more common in poor people. Geneticists maintain that genes play a major role in causing both. But if they were right there would be an inexorable logic that suggests inferior DNA caused poor people to sink to the bottom of the gene pool.
In the light of the findings of the human genome project, however, that idea is no longer defensible – as the leading psychologist Ken Richardson recently pointed out in the house magazine of the psychology profession. On the contrary, the implication of the unimportance of genes is that if we changed society in the right ways, we could virtually eradicate not only low academic performance and mental illness but also criminality and problems such as substance abuse.
Since the project published its results 16 years ago, genes have been found that have a significant influence on physical traits like height and weight, so you might have expected the same for psychology by now. But Britain’s leading geneticist – Robert Plomin, of King’s College, London – hasn’t found any specific DNA variants that have a significant effect on differences in our psychology.
Scientists call this the missing heritability. But there are strong grounds for supposing the heritability is not actually missing – it’s non-existent.
Of course, even if DNA variants are not found, it does not mean it’s all down to nurture. For instance, we know for sure that what happens in the womb can have a big effect on childhood problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It’s also clear that many autistic children are born with brain abnormalities. So if you have children who are rubbish at maths, knowing it’s not their genetic destiny increases the likelihood of improvement.
A classic study provided a large sample of children with the lesson that their maths ability was not fixed. Two years later their maths had improved significantly: the more children had initially believed their abilities to be fixed, the greater the improvement. Moreover, if parents and teachers believe children’s abilities are flexible, pupils are more likely to improve.
As has been shown in Finland, if it’s assumed that every child has the potential to do well and the right resources are put into your educational system, you can end up doing well in the international league tables. The Finns achieve that without the coercion and hothousing techniques used in Singapore.
There is similar evidence regarding people with mental illness. If they buy into the idea that they have an incurable genetic problem, they do worse. Their prospects are worse still if their families or carers believe it. But the crucial ingredient that passes down the generations is not genes but patterns of nurture. Around 70% of maltreated children become maltreating parents.
But let me be clear: no parent should feel guilty if their children are struggling. They need to be helped to understand how their own parents and grandparents had problems that have been passed down by maltreatment. That way, cycles of underachievement and distress can be broken. Sticking with the genetic story holds out no hope.
Mental health is largely improved by loving and playful parenting. Equally, mental illness is often caused by maltreatment and social disadvantage. In one study, a person who had suffered five or more kinds of maltreatment was 193 times more likely to become schizophrenic compared with someone who suffered no maltreatment. It’s the same for other mental illnesses. In the best study following children from an early age, nine out of 10 who were maltreated had developed a mental illness by the age of 18.
This contrasts with the fact that, by 2011, there had been 115 genetic studies unable to find any convincing evidence of a connection. It is the same with studies since then, including those for intelligence and personality.
We need parenting classes that help mothers and fathers identify how they are repeating the negative patterns of their forebears. As the world’s fifth richest society, Britain can afford to put in place the necessary support. Austria, for instance, has long provided substantial finance to parents who want to take time off work to care for their children.
Politicians often play on our desire to improve children’s material circumstances. If only we could see that once a basic level of material security has been achieved, it is far more important to pass love and playfulness down the generations than property, or stocks and shares.
(This post originally appeared 30th March 2016 on www.theguardian.com)