Writer talks behavioral genetics

In a talk Monday afternoon in the Whitney Humanities Center, science writer David Dobbs explained how behavioral genetics is uncovering the balance between genes and environment in shaping behavior.

Over 50 audience members listened to Dobbs discuss his new book, “The Orchid and the Dandelion,” which explores how the behavior of children born with certain genes may be swayed more readily by life experiences. Dobbs, who has written on scientific topics for publications including The New York Times, Wired and National Geographic, then spoke on how science writers often present a field as having come to all the answers when in reality many questions remain.

“These are puzzles. These are mysteries,” Dobbs said. “Science is not that neat.”

Dobbs said the title of his book fits into the “slippery, new field” of behavioral genetics: Recent studies have discovered plasticity genes, which determine how sensitive individuals are to environmental influences on their behavior. Those who are “orchids” are highly sensitive to the environments just as the flower can only grow in certain conditions, while those labeled “dandelions” develop with genes that more strongly shape behavior regardless of environmental factors.

One of the key breakthroughs in the history of behavioral genetics was from UC Davis professor Jay Belsky, who found that orchid children with behavioral issues saw most improvement from successful interventions, Dobbs said. The orchid-dandelion hypothesis has become “widely influential” because it explains that there is a wide range of neurobiological sensitivities based on how many “plasticity genes” a child possesses.

Science writing often oversimplifies the issues and presents them as if they were the definitive solution to the issue at hand, Dobbs said. Instead, science writing should be more like a “detective story.”

Audience reaction to the talk was largely positive. Lisa Adams, a blogger and Dobbs’ friend, said the field of behavioral genetics “opens up so many questions about [the relationship] between genetics and the environment.”

Clara Kim YSM ’17 said she enjoyed the talk, adding that Dobbs made technical scientific concepts “relatable” to attendees from a variety of backgrounds. During the question and answer session, Kim told Dobbs she worried research in behavioral genetics will result in the “erosion of free will,” a concern Dobbs said he did not share.

The event was supported by the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities and the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

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