The new biological determinism

I tentatively suggested yesterday that some developmental problems in childhood might not be entirely biological in origin. It says something about the modern world that the very idea was greeted by some with anger and disbelief! Why should this be? The answer is historical.

Fifty years ago, practically any mental or development problem was thought to be a consequence of the environment. Autistic children became that way because of remote and unaffectionate parents. Schizophrenia was produced by bad family dynamics. Reading problems were caused by poor teaching, badly behaved children had not received any discipline and all other childhood disorders could generally be traced back to the mother’s actions or lack of action. In the wider field, homosexuality was a result of too much motherly love and alcoholics were weak people who lacked self control. This then was the prevailing paradigm until a few decades ago.

Then it was discovered that certain disorders and syndromes were associated with a distinctive arrangement of genes. The pendulum swung right away from social and psychological explanations for the things mentioned above and we found a genetic cause for practically everything; even stealing and rape were thought initially to have a genetic ’cause’. Obviously, this ’hard’ version of genetic causation is absurd. To give an example from my own life; both my parents were alcoholics, as are my brother and sister. I was myself a little too fond of alcohol and so thirty years ago, I stopped drinking. No doubt in anybody’s mind that if anyone carries the alcoholic gene, it’s me! Now if I went down to the off licence this afternoon and bought a bottle of whiskey and got drunk; would that be caused by my genes? Of course not, it would be my own idiocy to blame. Even when genes give a certain predisposition, there is plenty of leeway for individual choice and the effect of the environment. So too with childhood disorders.

Commenting here yesterday, somebody said apropos of a certain childhood syndrome:

Or shall we accept that research is showing that some peoples brains are wired differently and respond to stimuli differently.’

Well of course we shall accept that! It is without doubt true. However it does not explain anything at all. When the baby is born, this wiring is not really in place. The neurones are all there and they are getting ready to make the connections. It is quite true that in the case of children with ADHD or dyslexia the wiring is sometimes, although not always, a little different. How did this come to be? Was it a predetermined response to the genetic instructions or was it caused by the first years of life and the lifestyle of the developing infant? Or, which is far more likely, was it a subtle combination of both? Might it be that the newborn baby had a slight inclination in a certain direction, an inclination which the early environment might bring out and allow to flourish?

The difficulty in accepting that everything, from Heller’s Syndrome to dyslexia, is caused by biological factors is that the families of children presenting with certain disorders do often seem to have certain characteristics. Of course, this does not mean that the families have caused the problem in the first place. Children who are very poor readers often have parents who are semi-literate. Is this environment or heredity? Hard to say. Perhaps the parents have a genetic tendency to dyslexia and it is this which makes them poor readers. They might simply have passed this genetic disorder on to their child. On the other hand, perhaps not having good role models for reading has had a bad effect on the growing child and not taught him the value of literacy.

One thing is clear to me and that is that this is not a popular line of enquiry! Vox populi, vox dei! I shall accordingly drop this particular musing and return to the more practical and vastly less controversial topic of home education. We are as parents eager to take the credit for all the good aspects of our children's characters and often try to unload the less desirable traits onto the influence of others. Sometimes the blame can be laid at the door of fellow schoolchildren who have led them astray, but genetics allows us to lay responsibility for certain parts of our child's behaviour on long dead relatives! It's not Jimmy's fault or mine; his grandfather must have given him the poor reading/hyperactive/bad behaviour/night owl/alcoholic gene.


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