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Book Review: Not In Your Genes - The Real Reasons Children Are Like Their Parents

3 May 2016
Appeared in BioNews 849

Not In Your Genes: The Real Reasons Children Are Like Their Parents

By Oliver James

Published by Vermilion

ISBN-10: 0091947669, ISBN-13: 978-0091947668

Buy this book from Amazon UK

They f*** you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you

In one pithy rhyme, Philip Larkin explains the central thesis of 'Not in Your Genes' by Oliver James. Through a serious of anecdotes and misinterpretations of genetics, the author argues that the shared characteristics between family members come from, primarily, parenting and not genetics.

His rallying cry is the problem of 'missing heritability' – that genome-wide association studies, which look for the statistical links between variants in the genetic code and mental or physical traits, have so far been unable to find those links for the majority of complex traits. James uses this to completely disregard all genetic studies and instead focus only on the environment a child was raised in.

This is illustrated through stories from his own family, the death of Peaches Geldof and the rise and fall of Tiger Woods. In each, he tries to explain the situation – why his son likes football, why a young woman with a family would overdose on drugs, why a successful sportsman would destroy his marriage via repeated infidelity – by reconstructing the family environment. A parade of overbearing or distant parents follows.

The result is less a balanced critique of the limitations of our current understanding of complex genetic and environmental interactions, and is instead a complete rejection of modern genetics. There is a stark lack of any influence by any geneticist, and instead he repeatedly refers to the failure of the Human Genome Project to find genetic causes for many traits. To confuse the Human Genome Project, which serves to sequence the human genome, with subsequent work that aims to understand what that sequence means is a schoolboy error. It would be like confusing the copying of a book for an in-depth literary analysis of its narrative arc.

His understanding of genetics feels years out of date – a media-friendly caricature of 'one gene = one trait' while complex environmental influences are simply reduced to parenting styles. In several instances, James infers motivations for people based on pure conjecture and speculation. Was Tiger Wood's father motivated by his narcissism and feelings of inadequacy, forcing his son to practice golf constantly? We cannot know, but nor can the author. Did Peaches Geldof have multiple partners due to the emotional imbalances of her mother? Possibly, but the undertone of disapproval about her sexual promiscuity is apparent.

At several points, the book feels more like an advert for other works by the author (in particular, 'They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life' and its follow-up 'How Not To F*** Them Up'). It felt like he had set up a genetics bogeyman simply to knock it down and, in doing so, was trying to convince me to buy his other books so I would know how to raise children without messing them up. Despite one or two mentions of pre-birth environmental conditions – a slight, but inaccurate, nod to epigenetics – the relentless focus is parenting and its effects on the child.

I am not a genetic determinist, who believes that everything is written in our DNA. Nor are many of the geneticists I know or whose works I've read. No one denies that the environment, including the family one, has a huge influence on how a person turns out. But likewise there is no denying that genetics also influences and shapes a person. 'Not in Your Genes' is the latest part of the long-running debate over nature vs nurture, but it's one that ignores the developing understanding of how the two interact in favour of a poorly researched and one-sided argument.

Buy Not In Your Genes: The Real Reasons Children Are Like Their Parents, They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life and How Not to F*** Them Up from Amazon UK.

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