Risky Genes May Have Large Benefits

While "dandelion" children can thrive in almost any sort of environment, "orchid" children are vulnerable and fragile, writes David Dobbs in an Atlantic feature. But new approaches in psychology and genetics question the age-old assumption that environmental stressors inevitably cause already vulnerable personalities to sink into antisocial behaviors such as depression, anxiety, and violence. Though such thinking is not necessarily false, there may be an undiscovered upside to being born with a genetic sensitivity to trauma. New research in biological psychiatry suggests that what were previously identified as "risk alleles"—or less than ideal DNA sequences—may in fact have benefits as well. Positive triggers, such as good parenting, can lead individuals with these genetic sequences to be resistant to negative social behaviors. The theory would explain why such detrimental genes continue to survive natural selection. In one experiment, scientists isolated children with the "risk allele" and protected them against negativity, by teaching them specific coping skills. Not only did this group do better than their control counterparts, they "blew right by" them. The new genetic theories again emphasize that nature and nurture cannot be separated.