Fascinating (though somewhat long) article about the idea of what people have been calling the “vulnerability gene”. A gene that makes you more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, aggression, etc. Some new studies are saying that it’s not necessarily only a negative gene, but that it makes you more sensitive to both positive and negative experiences, and could have something to do with the rapid evolution of humans in the last 50,000 years.
Of special interest to the team was a new interpretation of one of the most important and influential ideas in recent psychiatric and personality research: that certain variants of key behavioral genes (most of which affect either brain development or the processing of the brain’s chemical messengers) make people more vulnerable to certain mood, psychiatric, or personality disorders. Bolstered over the past 15 years by numerous studies, this hypothesis, often called the “stress diathesis” or “genetic vulnerability” model, has come to saturate psychiatry and behavioral science. During that time, researchers have identified a dozen-odd gene variants that can increase a person’s susceptibility to depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, heightened risk-taking, and antisocial, sociopathic, or violent behaviors, and other problems—if, and only if, the person carrying the variant suffers a traumatic or stressful childhood or faces particularly trying experiences later in life.
This vulnerability hypothesis, as we can call it, has already changed our conception of many psychic and behavioral problems. It casts them as products not of nature or nurture but of complex “gene-environment interactions.” Your genes don’t doom you to these disorders. But if you have “bad” versions of certain genes and life treats you ill, you’re more prone to them.
Recently, however, an alternate hypothesis has emerged from this one and is turning it inside out. This new model suggests that it’s a mistake to understand these “risk” genes only as liabilities. Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts. The genetic sensitivities to negative experience that the vulnerability hypothesis has identified, it follows, are just the downside of a bigger phenomenon: a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience.
I like the colloquial names for the two kinds of genes: dandelion genes (that make you resistant to experiences, and generally stable) and orchid genes (more unstable, but more likely to benefit from positive experience or be damaged by negative experience).
Of course, all of this genetic talk is dangerous, if it encourages stereotypes or feelings of self-worth or pre-determination of personality traits. Still, what it’s really saying is that genetics and experience are interwoven in really complicated ways (some genetics are only triggered by certain environmental conditions) and that really it’s all important, and it’s all malleable, and it all matters.