Kids a Complex Cocktail; Genetics, Environment Interact to Help Shape Way Children Turn Out

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 29, 2009 | Go to article overview

Kids a Complex Cocktail; Genetics, Environment Interact to Help Shape Way Children Turn Out


Byline: Karen Goldberg Goff, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Go ahead and play those Mozart CDs, teach a toddler to hit a tennis ball or tutor him in advanced algebra.

In the end, you might have listened to some good music or spent some time bonding in the sun or the library. What you probably can't teach, though, is the drive or motivation to use whatever skills a child has to get to the top of the class or the pro tour. That's where genetics come in.

While the nature-vs.-nurture debate has been waged for generations, researchers at the University of Iowa published a study earlier this year arguing that the discussion should be tossed out altogether. The researchers said since genes and environment are constantly interacting and changing, it is not an either-or situation.

The nature-nurture debate has a pervasive influence on our lives, affecting the framework of research in child development, biology, neuroscience, personality and dozens of other fields, said psychologist John Spencer, the study's lead author. People have tried for centuries to shift the debate one way or the other, and it's just been a pendulum swinging back and forth. We're taking the radical position that the smarter thing is to just say 'neither' - to throw out the debate as it has been historically framed and embrace the alternative perspective provided by developmental systems theory.

The Iowa researchers say they support evolution - but not the idea that genes are a one-way path to specific traits and behaviors. Instead, they argue that development involves a complex system in which genes and environmental factors constantly interact. Those environmental factors can be everything from proteins and chemicals to the socioeconomic status of a family. These ideas are unified by a perspective called developmental systems theory.

Mr. Spencer's theory is similar to what psychologist Judith Rich Harris has been saying for years. When her book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do, was published a decade ago, it was somewhat controversial as she made the point that parents mattered less than previously thought. The book was reissued this year with a new introduction, showing that the nature argument has gone mainstream.

There is greater openness to the idea that genes affect behavior, and more research studies that properly control for the effects of genes, Ms. Harris wrote in an e-mail. In many cases, these better studies have not confirmed the researchers' expectations. It turns out that if you take account of the role of genes, the expected effects of parenting generally aren't found.

Ms. Harris uses this example: Emotionally expressive parents tend to have emotionally expressive children. It has long been assumed that this similarity is due to the children following the example set by the parents. Research studies that compare two children reared in the same home, however, have shown that such personality resemblances are due almost entirely to genes the children inherit from their parents.

If you want to understand how children's experiences affect their behavior and personality, you have to take genes into account, Ms. Harris says.

Steven Pinker, author of the book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, agrees. He puts it even more simply: Parenting is overrated, he says. The overall environment - the community, schools, peers and culture - have much more influence than most people think. …

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