Dandelions and Orchids

by Robert Pondiscio
December 14th, 2009

“Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere.  A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care.”  – The Science of Success, by David Dobbs in the The Atlantic.

A common school of thought in psychiatry, according to an interesting piece in the current issue of The Atlantic, is a “vulnerability hypothesis” model, which holds that certain genetic variants can increase a person’s susceptibility to depression, anxiety, risk-taking, antisocial behaviors or other problems–if the person carrying the variant suffers some triggering trauma or stress.  A new model, dubbed the “orchid hypothesis” suggests that it’s a mistake to understand these “risk” genes only as liabilities.  The “bad genes” can create dysfunction but under different conditions they could actually also be a good thing, the article suggests.

 It’s actually a completely new way to think about genetics and human behavior. 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.

This orchid hypothesis also appears to answer a fundamental evolutionary question that the vulnerability hypothesis cannot. If variants of certain genes only cause trouble, how have they survived natural selection?

Genes so maladaptive should have been selected out. Yet about a quarter of all human beings carry the best-documented gene variant for depression, while more than a fifth carry the variant that Bakermans-Kranenburg studied, which is associated with externalizing, antisocial, and violent behaviors, as well as ADHD, anxiety, and depression. The vulnerability hypothesis can’t account for this. The orchid hypothesis can. 

This is a transformative, even startling view of human frailty and strength, Dobbs notes.  “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,” he concludes.

1 Comment »

  1. I’m afraid that determinist genetic theories are the great moral evil of our times. If we can blame our behaviour on our genes, this implies that we have limited (or no) responsibility for what we do.

    Comment by Tom Burkard — December 19, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

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