The hypothesis that Bakersman-Kranenburg and her associates were going to challenge is known as the "vulnerability hypothesis," because what it hypothesizes is not about predetermined certainties in development, but rather risks and liabilities. But what if those same risks and vulnerabilities, which are disastrous if activated by negative life experiences, were also indicators of a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience? If the subjects' environment presented them with particularly positive nurturing or cultivating experiences, then wouldn't the "vulnerability' now present itself as a great strength? Bakersman-Kranenburg's studies seemed to show that this was, in fact, the case. As Dobbs explains, borrowing a metaphor from developmental psychologists Bruce Ellis and W. Thomas Boyce, most "healthy" or "normal" children-- they call these children "dandelion" children-- have pretty resilient genes, the consequence of human biological evolution. Dandelion children will do well almost anywhere, "whether raised in the equivalent of a sidewalk crack or a well-tended garden." But Ellis and Boyce argue that there are also "orchid" children, who "will wilt if ignored or mistreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care."
Dobbs claims, and I am inclined to agree, that this "orchid hypothesis" is more than just an addendum to the "vulnerability hypothesis" (merely tacking-on the observation that genes can steer a person up as well as down). Rather, this is a radically new way to think about the relationship between genetics and behavior, as well as a critical amendment to our dominant understandings of human evolution. Dobbs writes:
Risk becomes possibility; vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness. It’s one of those simple ideas with big, spreading implications. Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival, with selection favoring parents who happen to invest in both dandelions and orchids.
What's more, the orchid hypothesis (also called the "plasticity hypothesis," the "sensitivity hypothesis" or the "differential-susceptibility hypothesis") answers an important evolutionary question that the vulnerability hypothesis could not: if variants of certain genes create mainly dysfunction and trouble, how have they survived natural selection? Again, from Dobbs:
This is a transformative, even startling view of human frailty and strength. For more than a decade, proponents of the vulnerability hypothesis have argued that certain gene variants underlie some of humankind’s most grievous problems: despair, alienation, cruelties both petty and epic. The orchid hypothesis accepts that proposition. But it adds, tantalizingly, that these same troublesome genes play a critical role in our species’ astounding success.
Needless to say, the better part of Dobbs' article follows scientists' studies on children and Rhesus monkeys that seem to prove the validity of the orchid hypothesis. I won't go into the details of those studies, but I recommend your taking a look at them. What interests me in this story is the manner in which some scientists are recontextualizing human "risk" and "vulnerability" as possible strength. More specifically, what interests me is the posssibility of incorporating this hypothesis into my own work on weak humanism. So, take this post as a kind of precursor to an upcoming post, in which I think I may be able to recast some of my earlier speculations in terms of delicate flowers.