by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 11, 2009 in DNA Testing
Trolls have been around these here parts. They’re upset because I wrote disparaging remarks about a particular company marketing DNA tests for detecting a child’s “innate talent.” But contrary to their accusations that I deny the genetic basis of behavior, predisposition, and temperament, I actually believe that many, if not almost all, human traits are influenced by genetic make-up.
My problem with genetic testing companies that target parents seeking to hothouse their children is that the biological mechanism of the few behavioral genes that have been identified are poorly understood. In addition, we have limited data on how these genes interact with other genes and with environmental exposures. Parents who think they will raise the next Bill Gates or Mozart by purchasing a test that focuses on a limited panel of genotypes are sadly deluded.
Last year I shared a Steven Pinker quote from Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist that I think about all the time when parenting my own children:
With constitutional factors (genes and chance) being important but invisible, people tend to blur cause and effect in thinking back on supposedly formative childhood vignettes. …Rather than childhood experiences causing us to be who we are, who we are causes our childhood experiences.
This Sunday’s New York Times features My Genome, My Self – Steven Pinker Gets to the Bottom of his own Genetic Code in which Dr. Pinker points out that no matter how parents contrive to create the perfect environment for their children, when the children become adults, they will most likely gravitate towards experiences that suit their innate genetic tendencies. Would this be an argument for or against genetic testing in childhood?
A common finding is that the effects of being brought up in a given family are sometimes detectable in childhood, but that they tend to peter out by the time the child has grown up. That is, the reach of the genes appears to get stronger as we age, not weaker. Perhaps our genes affect our environments, which in turn affect ourselves. Young children are at the mercy of parents and have to adapt to a world that is not of their choosing. As they get older, however, they can gravitate to the microenvironments that best suit their natures.
Of course every parents has the right, and the power, to subject their children to genetic testing. In some cases, these tests may predict future debilitating diseases. And with these results, parents can help children live healthier lives with preventive lifestyle changes. Such is the power of genetic testing.
When it comes to genetic testing for academic, musical, or athletic talent, however, the results are far more ambiguous. Not only will the child be directly impacted by the results, the rest of the family will be impacted as well. Say parents scrimped and saved to get their child tested so they can make sure she becomes a success in life and help guarantee the family’s financial security. If the cost of the test plus other enrichment courses suggested by the test results impinge on the family’s overall well-being and lifestyle, it’s possible the investment may not be worth it. Or what if it turns out the child has a very average genetic profile? Would the parents be less likely to devote any time or effort into raising her?
Regardless, a child who supposedly has genes for high IQ may very well also have the trollism gene that relegates him to being a low-EQ jerk. Hardly a marker of future success. And as Peggy pointed out, genetic testing companies that target parents most likely will not include negative genes in any report. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news. Unless you’re a troll, that is.
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