DNA Revolution: How Genetics Shape Us

Robert Plomin.JPG

Megan Jackson, MA Journalism, University of Roehampton

Author and Professor of Behavioural Genetics, Robert Plomin is at the forefront of using DNA to understand how individuals can be so different. He joined BookFest Chair Toby Mundy to discuss his groundbreaking research and his fascinating book Blueprint.

Robert is well versed at the nature vs nuture debate. He has forged a career out of studying the impact genes have on human behaviour, so he has come to expect criticism. A biological approach to psychology is often treated with skepticism and associated with determinism. Robert recalls how at the beginning of his career behavioural genetics was thought of as “dangerous” and he was mocked by the scientific community for having chosen the discipline.

Until a few years ago behavioural geneticists relied solely on twin and adoption studies to analyse the effect of nature on behaviour. But technology has changed that.

The development of techniques which allow us to analyse our genomes, in order to predict how DNA differences inherited from our parents will affect us throughout life, has paved the way for improved credibility of behavioural genetics, and perhaps provided a greater understanding of human behaviour. This DNA revolution has “dramatically shifted psychology and society somewhat” says Robert.

Robert says his research shows that: “If you had been adopted at birth, had been raised by a different family, went to a different school, had different friends, had got a different job, you would be the same person you are today, in personality, in mental abilities, and in mental health.”

This assertion may seem rather bold, and be difficult for some to accept but Robert says it has science to back it up. He says environmentalism has done “great harm” to the study of human behaviour. He explained: “What looks like and is measured as an environmental measure often shows substantial genetic influence.

“Parents matter, but they don’t make a difference. They’re not responsible for the systematic differences that occur. The environment is important, but not sheer environment that is implied by nurture.”