Sunday, February 07, 2016


Several years ago, I read a fascinating article by David Dobbs called "The Science of Success," in which he discusses the influence of certain genetic factors on social/psychological development. Dobbs recounts the studies of Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg, who set out to test a dominant hypothesis of psychiatry and behavioral science known as the "stress diathesis" or "genetic vulnerability" model. That hypothesis speculates that people who suffer from mood, psychiatric, or personality disorders do so because of variants in key behavioral genes that make the sufferers more susceptible to things like depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, increased risk-taking, and antisocial, sociopathic or violent behavior. However, according to the current understanding of the model, the mere possession of these gene variants is not enough to bring about the undesirable effects. Rather, the problems have been observed to ensue "if and only if the person carrying the variant suffers a traumatic or stressful childhood or faces particularly trying experiences later in life." Consequently, these psychological and behavioral phenomena are given a combination genetics-and-environment explanation.

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. 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" offers 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, it is a genuinely productive 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 two-fold: first, the manner in which some scientists are recontextualizing human "risk" and "vulnerability" as possible strengths and, second, the resonance these studies have with my own work on what I've called weak humanism.

I tend to resist what seems like the increasingly-insistent cultural pressure to treat people, especially young (college-aged) people, as delicate flowers. I hardly get through the first two class sessions of any semester without informing my students: You are not a snowflake. For the most part, I think I do this because I want to encourage them-- forcefully, if necessary-- to think about themselves as part of a common, a polis, a shared world.  I want to make it as difficult as possible for them to think of themselves as an exception. I want cultivate the habit of their seeing themselves in others, and seeing others in themselves.

But the orchid hypothesis has given me pause and reason to consider, several times over the last five years since I first learned of it, that not everyone is of the constitution to flourish in "the equivalent of a sidewalk crack." So, last year, I began making a conscientious effort to praise students more often (and in public), to repeat to my friends and colleagues good things I heard about them (or thought about them), to compliment or or congratulate strangers when given the opportunity. Now, I try to do this at least once every day. I don't always meet that daily quota, but I definitely water and feed spirits more than I used to.

I've often been really, genuinely shocked how much positive effect a simple commendation or encouragement-- That was a really smart point. You did a fantastic job. I am really impressed by you. Others speak very highly of you.-- can have on a person. This is not a world-shattering insight, I know, but it is one that I had to make an effort to bring to my own attention. Especially this past summer, when the media was all a-buzz with cartoonish stories of "coddled" students, "entitled" millennials, "retrograde" trigger warnings and campus political correctness "run amok," even I (a card-carrying member of the Tough Love Club) found myself thinking: c'mon now, give them a break already!  In the end, none of us ever really know what sorts of pains and vulnerabilities others struggle with, how much or what kind of baggage others are carrying around with them, We ought endeavor to lighten each others' loads, not add to them, as much as we are able. That goes for me, in the classroom and the hallways, as much as it does in the world with my friends.

Not everyone is a dandelions, after all.

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