Are Your Genes Your Destiny?
Are you a particularly good manager in your job? Are you kind of proud of your
ability to take risks that other people are afraid to take?
On a less positive side, do you wonder why your brother was able to quit smoking
fairly easily, yet you have struggled with it more than once and still haven't
been successful? Do you have trouble losing weight? Suffer from depression?
More and more research is showing that our DNA-our genetic makeup-affects many
aspects of our personality and health, the ones we'd like to take credit for
and the ones we aren't so proud of. If you have strong artistic talent, is it
because of a unique and special ability you've taken the time to develop, or
is it only because a talent for art is in your genes?
Scientists are finding more and more that multitudes of very specific genes
are likely to be at least partially responsible for an extremely wide variety
of illnesses, conditions and abilities, including:Obsessive-compulsive disorder
A likelihood of gaining weight
A tendency to live for a long time
A tendency to become addicted to cocaine
Addiction to nicotine
But when you think about it, is any of this a surprise? Haven't we always noticed
traits that are passed on from one generation to another? "She's stubborn,
just like her father," you might say. "He gets his artistic ability
from his aunt." "Most people in my family are chubby."
The difference is that now the reasons for these traits have genetic names,
like arginine vasopressin 1A receptor (AVPR1A), serotonin transporter (SLC6A4)
or dopamine transmitter 1 (DAT1). Additionally, sometimes genes interact with
one another to create behaviors and conditions that would be different if the
genes did not interact at all.
But let's not forget environmental factors
If you grow up with parents who encouraged you to take dance lessons, your
genetic tendency to do well in dance will have more of a chance to flourish.
If your school offered excellent art classes, your artistic talent may have
gotten just the spark it needed to turn into a full-fledged lifetime gift. Yet
if you have a talent but don't have the discipline to take it as far as possible,
the gene itself probably won't be enough to propel you to a high level.
On the other hand, if you have a genetic disposition to become addicted to
alcohol, but your parents or your religion frown on the use of alcohol, your
"addiction gene" may never become activated. And if you're involved
in a fatal car accident, it won't matter whether you have a gene for longevity
In other words, it's impossible to pinpoint accomplishment and achievement
or disappointment and failure on any one thing-a gene, a nurturing environment,
Who's responsible-your genes or you?
In many ways, knowing your genetic makeup can actually help you counteract
any negative tendencies you might have. If, since you were a child, you've seen
members of your family have problems with alcohol, there's a good chance you
have a gene that predisposes you to alcoholism.
You can now use that knowledge to your advantage. You can avoid drinking altogether.
If that seems too difficult (after all, maybe you don't have a genetic predisposition
to alcoholism), perhaps you can allow yourself to drink just a little bit and
see how that goes. If you begin to notice that you have a problem, you can rest
assured that there's no shame in this, and address the problem early.
Similarly, if you're a parent, you already have a good idea of what's in your
child's genes. If you know about problematic genetic conditions, you can talk
with your child's pediatrician or other health professional about ways to address
possible problems before they even begin. Prevention is almost always easier
than the cure.
Knowledge of genetics can relieve a burden
It's entirely possible that as society begins to accept that genes play a large
role in the way they influence various aspects of our lives, individuals may
begin to feel less of a stigma about imperfections. People who are extremely
overweight may feel less shame about it, for example. So when you don't start
out feeling as though you should be embarrassed or ashamed, you're starting
out stronger, and possibly better able to address your problem head-on.
Only you can control the way you respond
You can't always control the things that are going on around you, but you can
control how you respond to them. If someone reacts in anger to something you
do, you can lose your temper and embarrass yourself, or you can keep your cool
and respond with dignity.
In a way, you can use the same attitude when it comes to genetics. You can't
control the genetic cards you have been dealt, but you can control the way you
live your life in response to them. You can choose to live a healthy lifestyle
if you have heart disease in your family-or cancer, or any other condition.
You can choose to try again to quit smoking, even if you have a genetic predisposition
to become addicted to nicotine, because it doesn't mean you can't quit, it just
means it's harder for you.
So go ahead and be proud of your accomplishments and talents. Nurture the positive
things, and learn how to address the challenges of the more difficult genetic
traits you have. Make choices to live your life to your fullest potential, despite
the genetic difficulties you may face. That's something to be proud of, no question.
No matter what your genetics are.
The New York Times, "That Wild Streak? Maybe It Runs in the Family," Molecular Psychiatry, 6 June 2006; Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America, 21 March 2006, 18 April