The grumpy poet Philip Larkin wrote about families: "They fuck you, your mom and your dad / They may not want to, but they do." That was in 1971.
Now, almost half a century later, the latest science is proving that he was right, but not in the way he was referring.
Larkin's bitter and guilty verse was picking up on the popular notion, going back to Sigmund Freud, that it is the things that happen to us, like our relationships with our parents as we grow up, that make us who they are.
DNA represents at least half of the variance in people's psychological traits, much more than any other individual factor
The environment is everything; Nourish (or not) is the key. But not anymore.
Now, one of the leading behavioral psychologists and geneticists in the country, Professor Robert Plomin of King's College London, offers an emphatic conclusion.
It is extracted from 45 years of research and hundreds of studies. He says that the single most important factor in each and every one of us, the very essence of our individuality, is our genetic makeup, our DNA.
The basic elements of life that we inherit from our parents are what determine who we are, not how much they love us, read us books or to what school they have sent us.
DNA represents at least half of the variance in people's psychological traits, much more than any other single factor. In a nutshell, the & # 39; nature & # 39; triumph & # 39; nourishing & # 39; every time, and not only marginally, but by a long and long chalk.
Our DNA, fixed and immutable, determines if we have a predisposition not only to physical features, from how tall we are to how much we weigh, but also to our intelligence and our psychology, from a tendency to depression to having resilience and guts.
Our DNA, fixed and immutable, determines if we have a predisposition not only to physical traits but also to our psychology
The revolutionary conclusion of Plomin, delineated in a challenging and stimulating new book, Blueprint: How it makes us know who we are, changes the rules of the game, he says, with far-reaching implications for psychology and society.
He changes his mind to many conventional thoughts, controversially questioning many basic assumptions, such as the value of formal education to change people's lives.
It also undermines the parental counseling industry, the basis of all those moaning shelves of manuals that tell us the right way to raise our children and the disasters that will follow if we make a mistake.
These are sold because all parents want to think that they can make a difference for their children, that they can help with reading and arithmetic or teach them to be nice or conscientious. But, says Plomin, there is no hard evidence that this is true.
On the contrary, our ability to read, learn, empathize, etc., is governed mainly by our genes.
Being a tiger mom (or dad) and establishing a strict learning regimen will not be of any use unless those tendencies already exist in the child's DNA.
The raw material of our natural selves is what overwhelmingly determines what we can achieve, and we can not achieve, not how we are raised. And all those books for parents who promise to deliver developmental outcomes for children are, according to him, merely "selling snake oil."
If Plomin is right, and he offers an impressive amount of research for many years, then my dear old Philip Larkin was a grumpy old man not because of his education, but because that tendency was in the genetic plan with which he was born. The good news, of course, is that your great talent comes from the same source.
The surprising conclusions of Plomin born in Chicago come from two of his long-term studies. Over the course of 40 years, he tracked 250 adopted children in Colorado along with the biological parents who gave them their genes and the adoptive parents who raised them. After moving to London in 1994, he launched a 20-year study with more than 12,000 pairs of twins.
From these studies, it was possible to unravel the relative importance of the genes instead of the environment in regard to their development.
Being a tiger mom (or father) and establishing a strict learning regime will not be of the slightest benefit unless those tendencies already exist in the child's DNA.
Millions of data were collected from parents, teachers and children themselves, about psychological traits such as hyperactivity and lack of attention, talents such as school performance and the ability to learn languages, and physical characteristics, such as the propensity to gain weight. and be obese
From all this, he found overwhelming evidence that adopted children are similar to their biological parents, not the parents who raised them. Identical twins (that is, from a single ovule and, therefore, with the same DNA) develop much more similarly to each other compared to non-identical twins (of separated eggs and with different DNA).
The conclusion was clear: DNA makes us what we are. In the long term, the environment in which you grow has little impact on the way you are.
Even the stressful events in life, such as broken relationships, financial difficulties and illness, do not have the impact that people usually assume.
The conclusion was clear: DNA makes us what we are. In the long term, the environment in which you grow has little impact on the way you become
In fact, what really matters in such situations are our genes, because it is our genes that determine how well or bad an individual treats those setbacks. And if we are resilient to the catastrophes or falls of life it is also determined by our DNA.
Take the divorce. Even though the children in a family are all affected, the way in which each individual deals with them often differs. It is often more difficult for one sibling than for the other (s), and that difference is due to their different DNA.
In fact, argues Plomin, there are genetic influences on virtually everything we do. These differences determine how we perceive and interpret the world in which we grew up and how we modify our behavior accordingly.
At school, genetic differences in the abilities and interests of children, inherited from their parents, affect the extent to which they take advantage of educational opportunities. Similarly, genetic differences in our vulnerability to depression affect the extent to which we interpret the experiences we experience positively or negatively.
At school, genetic differences in the abilities and interests of children, inherited from their parents, affect the extent to which they take advantage of educational opportunities
The design of our DNA even affects seemingly unrelated events, such as traffic accidents. Car crashes are often caused by reckless driving, driving too fast, taking risks or driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs. Genetic differences in personality can increase the likelihood of accidents occurring.
As his research developed over the years, Plomin was taken by surprise by the omnipresence of genetic influences he discovered in almost every aspect of human behavior, even to be a good person or not.
Altruism, caring and kindness are components of what personality researchers call "kindness" and for years it seemed logical that these traits had to be the result of the environment in which we live and the influence of those around us.
But his research showed that this was not the case. Being kind is also something in our DNA. The same goes for determination and determination. Education and example do not teach some children to be harder than others, their genes do.
All this leads Plomin to a conclusion that is difficult to accept: the family, he says, far from being the monolithic determinant of who we are, the bedrock from which we learn and grow, really makes little difference in our personalities and the way we went out
Why brothers do not inherit the same DNA
The brothers, with the exception of the identical twins, are only 50 percent genetic, which means they are also 50 percent different.
The basic reason is that our DNA comes in pairs, called chromosomes.
For each of the 23 pairs of chromosomes, we inherit one from our mother and the other from our father. So siblings have a 50-50 chance of inheriting the same chromosome from their mother or father. However, the chances of siblings inheriting exactly the same chromosomes from their mother and father for the 23 couples are infinitely small.
There are exceptions.
Abuse, for example, can make huge differences for people, but because these instances are comparatively rare, they do not alter the general finding that, in general, it is DNA that governs the chicken coop.
This also explains why siblings are often so different in personality and temperament from one another even though they grow side by side, something that often has parents shaking their heads in frustration. & # 39; Why can not you be as hardworking as your sister? & # 39;
For example, Boris Johnson, is chaotic and boisterous, an outlandish extravagant – the opposite of his quieter and quieter little brother, government minister Jo Johnson, although they were raised in the same house they went to the same school and the same university in the same university This indicates that nature, not parenting, makes a difference
So, what is the role of parents if they can not make a big difference in the development of their children beyond the genes they provide in conception?
That is, admits Plomin, a "shocking and profound" issue and many parents will see the suggestion that all their efforts are useless as false and even insulting.
After all, they devote their time and love to encouraging their children to learn, to play sports or to play a musical instrument, to maneuver in life. Surely that is not wasted? The answer is that on one level it is, because children are not clay stains that can mold themselves to the wishes of their parents.
All the comments of parents in the world can not make a deaf children's musical. Similarly, children who are connected by their DNA to be athletic or artistic will harass their parents so that they can pursue their interests.
Parents, he insists, must realize that "they are not carpenters who build a child from scratch." They are not even a great gardener, if that means nourishing and pruning a plant to achieve a certain result.
Parents, insists Plomin, need to realize that they are not carpenters who build a child from scratch
"We can try to force our dreams on them, to become, for example, a world-class pianist or a star athlete, but it's unlikely that we will succeed unless we go with the genetic grain."
However, that leaves an important role for parents: discovering what their children do well and giving them the opportunities to do so. What we should not do is try to turn them into something that is not.
& # 39; Each child is their own person genetically. We need to recognize and respect their genetic differences. If we go against the grain, we run the risk of damaging our relationship with them & # 39;
This also has positive aspects for parents that relieve them of the anxiety and guilt accumulated in the parenting manuals.
"This can scare us into thinking that a wrong move can ruin a child forever."
Plomin hopes his findings "free parents from the illusion that a child's future success depends on how hard he or she drives it."
And the same, he insists, approves the schools, a theory that challenges the principles on which our educational system is based.
Schools, he says, matter because they teach basic skills such as literacy and arithmetic. They also distribute fundamental information about history, science, mathematics and culture. But the choice of school makes very little difference in a child's achievements.
"Genetics is, by far, the main source of individual differences in school performance."
This suggests that we should ignore all classification tables of exam scores and Ofsted scores. Plomin argues that differences in schools have very little effect on the outcome.
This conclusion will inevitably trigger a great debate about the comparative merits of selective grammar schools and non-selective subjects.
On average, GCSE scores for children in selective schools are a higher grade than in non-selective schools, and it is assumed that this difference is due to selective schools providing better schooling. Genetic research, however, shows that if the best students are selected according to the skills they showed in elementary school, they will inevitably get better GCSE results.
This is because of who they are, not what they learned in the classroom or how they were taught.
Those higher ratings are simply a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Once the genetic factors are discounted, in general there is little difference between the school performance at 11 years and the GCSE results at 16 years.
The "added value", a measure used by many important schools, turns out to be very small.
The influence of our DNA is not completely confined to our early years when we grew up
The same principle applies in the debate about private and state schools. If, as Plomin states, schools have little effect on individual differences in performance, then 7% of parents who pay huge sums to send their children to private schools in the belief that it will give them an advantage can waste their time. money .
Plomin writes: "Expensive education can not survive a cost-benefit analysis on the basis of school achievement per se."
If your genes adapt, you will do well; and, if they do not, no amount of cash can change the skills you are born with.
What all schools should aspire to, he says, is to be places where children can learn to enjoy learning for themselves, instead of frantically teaching students to pass the exams that will improve the school's position in the tables. of classification.
It is not that the influence of our DNA is limited to our first years when we grew up.
In fact, Plomin shows that it gets stronger as we get older. More and more, we write again. Yes, other factors impact us, such as our relationships with partners, children and friends, our jobs and interests. All contribute to make sense of life.
But they do not fundamentally change who we are psychologically: our personality, our mental health and our cognitive abilities. Good and bad things happen to us, but finally we go back to our genetic trajectory. Many people, recognizes Plomin, will be horrified at his "bold conclusion."
It seems that it makes us automatons, devoid of free will, victims of our DNA. And, in fact, this level of determinism could be an excuse for apathy, a refusal to take responsibility for oneself: "It's not my fault, of course, it's my genes!"
However, he categorically rejects this notion.
The fact that you have a genetic propensity to gain weight, for example, does not mean you should not try to lose a few pounds.
You can have the devil inside you, but you can keep it at bay.
Plomin discovered that his own genetic mapping was a surprise.
"I'm genetically predisposed to gain weight and I find it hard to lose them.
It means that I can not let my guard down and, in those weak moments, give in to the mermaid's refreshments in the closet that whisper to me & # 39;
Once the genetic factors are discounted, in general terms, Plomin said there is little difference between school performance at 11 years and GCSE results at age 16.
The same applies to anyone with a genetic propensity for depression, learning problems or alcohol abuse.
"Genes are not destiny," says Plomin. You do not have to succumb.
Controversially, he can see a moment soon when DNA information will routinely be in people's medical records, although he acknowledges that this raises serious dilemmas.
Do you want to know if your child has a high genetic risk of schizophrenia when there is nothing you can do to stop it? On the other hand, he says, many psychological disorders, such as alcohol dependence and anorexia, are difficult to cure.
Early warning is good, and preventing problems before they occur is much more cost-effective, both economically and psychologically.
It is also good, he argues, that we can know our limits, those things that our DNA simply will not let go, no matter how hard we try.
Plomin cites with approval the observation of the American comedian W.C. Fields: If at first you do not succeed, try, try again. Then resign. It's no use being a damn fool about it.
Because, in the end, it is more sensible to follow the genetic flow instead of trying to swim upstream.
Likewise, our DNA can tell us where our innate talents are, so that we do not waste them.
There was a telling example this week when former England captain Alastair Cook withdrew from the Test Cricket. In tribute, commentator Mike Atherton said: "He became the best player he could be, he took every last ounce of his talent."
The new radical world of Plomin can force us to yield to our genetic limits but, on the positive side, it will encourage us, like Alastair Cook, to do the best we can with the talents they have given us.
Blueprint: How DNA Tells Us Who We Are Robert Plomin will be published by Allen Lane on October 4 at £ 20. © Robert Plomin 2018. To request a copy for £ 17 (15 percent discount), visit www.mailshop. co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640, p & p is free for orders over £ 15. Offer valid until September 22, 2018.