Awkward or Orchid


A fascinating article in the New Scientist puts forward the theory of ‘Orchid’ genes. The theory – and a variety of evidence – suggests 5-7 relatively recent gene variants (recent in evolutionary terms at least) work cumulatively and in combination to make people more or less ‘plastic’, responsive and sensitive to their upbringing and environment.

Once branded as ‘bad genes’ they now appear to be ‘adaptive’ genes. So, put ‘Orchid’ children in a good environment and they thrive. In a bad one and they develop anti-social behaviours.

As adults, ‘Orchids’ have the behavioural range to bring sensitivity and finesse to a positive context. But they are more volatile in a bad one. The other extreme from Orchids – Dandelions – cope fine with most situations.

Here’s a heavily abridged version of David Dobbs’ article. Fascinating stuff. I reckon I might be a lucky Orchid – lucky to have been carefully nurtured with a very caring and supportive upbringing.

But I also recognise that if you put me in a bad context – my secondary school to some extent, and working in UK Government to a very large extent – my leaves wilt and the ‘flower’ at my heart turns dark.

At times a bit more ‘Dandelion’ in my genes might have made me a happier camper, but we are who we are:

The genes that help create some of our most grievous frailties – anxiety and aggression, melancholia and murder – may also underlie our greatest strengths, from the sharing of meals to our spread around the globe.

Back in 1995, W. Thomas Boyce, a child development specialist then at the University of California, Berkeley, had been trying to understand why some children seemed to react more to their environment in measures ranging from heartbeat and blood pressure to levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress.

Boyce was soon joined in this line of inquiry by Bruce Ellis at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Together they speculated that this reactivity also affects mood and behaviour.

Drawing on Swedish terms, they distinguished between “dandelion children”, who did about the same whatever their environment, and “orchid children”, who wilted under poor care but flourished if carefully tended (Development and Psychopathology, vol 17, p 271).

Many vulnerability-gene studies seemed to show that the so-called ‘bad’ variants of SERT, DRD4, and MAOA generated extra resilience and other assets in people with fortunate early years. Yet the literature largely ignored this upside: in paper after paper, the raw data and graphs indicated the positive effects, but the text failed to explore or even note them.

Others began publishing new studies and re-analyses of old ones showing that the so-called ‘vulnerability’ genes created not just risk but bidirectional sensitivity.

“These genes aren’t about risk,” says Jay Belsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, who helped establish what is being called the plasticity gene hypothesis. “It is responsiveness – for better or worse.”

Belsky is doing bigger studies that gauge the cumulative effects of several plasticity genes. In 2010, he published an analysis drawn from a 12-year study of 1586 adolescents. He analysed five genes (SERT, MAOA, DRD4, and two other genes that regulate dopamine) and collected data on the teens’ behaviour and self-control, and on the mothers’ engagement in their lives.

The boys with no or only one plasticity variant proved to be dandelions: they fared about the same regardless of how engaged their mothers were. Those with two to five plasticity variants, however, responded like orchids, and the more they had, the more sensitive they were.

The orchid hypothesis also meshes with observations of adults in psychotherapy. Since 1997, Californian psychiatrists Elaine and Arthur Aron have written about what they call “highly sensitive persons”, or HSPs, who are especially responsive not just to trouble but to many of life’s pleasures and subtleties. As Elaine Aron sees it, this group, comprising an estimated 15 to 20 per cent of the population, perceive life at a finer, more nuanced scale.

As the plasticity theory has gained ground, the Arons and others have wondered if HSPs are essentially orchid children grown up. They argue that HSPs share with the orchid children a particularly reactive physiological and sensory response to the world.

Many of the orchid-theory supporters argue that even with its drawbacks, sensitivity is more often than not adaptive – and therefore selected for. This idea has gained credence by the discovery over the last decade that many of the plasticity genes have spread rapidly through humankind over the last 50,000 years.

Of the leading orchid-gene variants – the short SERT, the 7R DRD4 and the more plastic version of MAOA – none existed in humans 80,000 years ago. Since emerging, these variants have spread into 20 to 50 per cent of the population. “That’s not random drift,” says John Hawks, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They’re being selected for.”

Orchid genes could provide an advantage in several ways. To start with, they seem to create better mental health and greater resilience in people with secure, stimulating childhoods. The “problem” traits they can generate, such as anxiety, aggression or ADHD, could help survival in conflict-ridden or volatile environments. Plasticity genes also boost resilience at the group level by creating a mix of steady do-ers (dandelions) and individuals with greater behavioural range (orchids).

Some evolutionary anthropologists argue that these traits, particularly the restlessness and risk-taking found in many carriers of the 7R DRD4, may have helped drive human expansion.

The set of genes that help create our most grievous frailties may also underlie our greatest strengths – and sometimes the choice is settled in childhood.

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