Nature, nurture – or not able to be bothered?


I’ve read a number of articles recently about genetics that have profoundly altered my view of who we are and how we go about our daily lives. It seems that genetic analysis now verges on what I’d previously regarded as personality profiling and an example goes something like this.

Person A has a propensity to:

• Require more sleep than average;
• Run and be agile;
• Eat a balance of carbohydrates and protein; and
• Be self-disciplined.

Person B has a propensity to:

• Require less sleep than average;
• Be sedentary;
• Eat sweet foods; and
• Lack self-discipline, in spite of considerable self-awareness.

And the point is that these propensities are all part of the genetic make-up of Person A or Person B.

The implication would seem to be that Person A doesn’t need to try to be more disciplined, because self-discipline is already there in spades. Poor Person B could try all he or she likes, but is doomed to slip back into sedentary pursuits and shun healthy nutrition in favour of the sugar food-group.

If you extend this further, does it mean that every high-achieving person has a genetic nest-egg that pre-determines their achievement? Can someone achieve beyond their genetic inheritance only if they experience significant patronage or luck – or possibly both? How much of what we do in life – and, potentially, how content we are with our lot – depends on the genetic hand we’ve been dealt?

I’ve always been a strong believer in there being no such word as can’t and that, with effort, everyone can overcome tremendous obstacles. But these articles have caused me to wonder about that and the extent to which there are things that we just have to accept and work with, rather than battle and seek to overcome. It’s made me hopping mad.

That’s partly because of my natural (and for that, I suspect, read genetic) inclination, but it’s also because the potential consequences of any future genetic profiling along these lines give me a sharp dose of the heebie-jeebies. At a basic level, could children be selected for schools on the basis of genetic analysis? Would children be directed to sports to play according to their genetic predispositions? But would advancement be available only to those who are considered to have the best genetic chance of exploiting that to the full? Worse, could parents, ultimately, pre-select a genetic cocktail for their offspring?

Of course, there are health benefits to being able to identify disease and suggesting particular types of exercise to people. But I no longer think that health benefits to genetic testing necessarily marks the frontier of this topic.

And if you’re sceptical, how many job applications now involve psychometric assessment? And do you remember when you thought of that as dubious and the thin end of the wedge?

Comments welcome.

One thought on “Nature, nurture – or not able to be bothered?

  1. mrtrench

    I’m at somewhat of an advantage in discussing matters such as this, albeit no better qualified to understand my observations. Adopted at age 2 months, I have recently found my half-siblings on both sides. I would say that we do share certain characteristics: there is a common love of music and the performing arts on both sides for example. However in other areas we couldn’t be more different. I seem to be far more driven than my siblings; I pursued a science and a high pressure career and they did not. In both of these cases I recognise the influence of my adoptive father guiding me away from the arts towards a “proper job”.

    So, in conclusion I would say that we don’t come as a tabula rasa, all the ingredients come in the packet. Nevertheless, the end result will very much depend upon nurture.

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