Why Only Some Children Bounce Back From Bad Childhoods

Kids as orchids or dandelions

Some people grow up well-behaved despite awful circumstances. Others misbehave despite having had every advantage. But it now looks as if this is part of a complex mix of genes and upbringing.

“Why are some children better at sharing than others? One attempt to find out uses what you could call the ‘Bamba test’. In a large, playroom-like lab, a 3-year-old spends an hour or so playing games with a friendly woman, before snack time is announced. The adult brings out two packs of Bambas – peanut-butter-flavoured corn puffs much coveted in this part of the world.

“The child’s pack, like every normal one, holds 24 of the treats. But when the woman opens hers, she dumps out the contents and cries: ‘Mine has only three!’ Will the 3-year-old share without being asked?

“Most do not. ‘Self-initiated sharing is difficult,’ says psychologist Arial Knafo, who runs this study at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. ‘You have to detect the need, then decide to do it.’

“A few 3-year-olds, however, will offer up their Bambas. What’s different about them? The children most likely to share carried a certain gene variant, the ‘7R’ version of DRD4, a gene that affects levels of the important brain chemical dopamine.

“What made this finding remarkable was that this gene variant has generally been tied to antisocial behaviour. A pile of previous studies found that children with the 7R variant were more likely to be naughty and hyperactive. It had been dubbed the ADHD gene, the brat gene, the drinking gene, even the slut gene. Now Knafo was effectively calling it the Bamba-sharing gene. The bad-news gene was having a good effect…

“They also showed that a variant of a gene called MAOA, which affects serotonin and several other brain chemicals, increased the chance of violent or sociopathic behaviour, but only in people who were abused as children (Science, vol 297, p 851)…

“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).

“Then, in 1997, Belsky also raised the idea of children who were especially sensitive to their early environments. Initially unaware of Boyce and Ellis’s work, he was trying to figure out why some troubled kids responded more than others to counselling or other interventions to change their behaviour.

“As Belsky, Boyce and Ellis watched the vulnerability-gene studies accumulate, they realised these could be the very genes that prompted the sensitivity they had found. And when Belsky delved into the literature he found evidence showing exactly that. Many vulnerability-gene studies indeed 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…

“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).”  (Issue 2849 of New Scientist magazine, page 42-45.)

So ‘bad genes’ are not bad in themselves, they lead to better people when kids are properly raised. Those lacking these genes are less harmed by a bad childhood and less benefited by a good one. The ‘new wave’ would do better given a lot of attention, which would probably have happened in a primitive hunter-gatherer band where playing with children would have been part of the norm and one of the best entertainments around. In a richer but more fragmented and sometimes dangerous society, less of this happens and some kids suffer.

That ties in with my earlier idea of giving heavily subsidised child care to every mother. A lot of kids might grow up no different, but some of those who’re the worst under the present system might end up among the best.

It also shows up the fundamental flaw in New Right thinking. They’d like everyone to be a ‘dandelion’, but unless they are going to go in for mass murder or regulated breeding of humans, they are not going to get their wish. And it also seems to be against the trend of human evolution. I always did think that their creed was sub-human.

 

You can find more at Neuron Culture and details of a book in progress.

From Newsnotes, March 2012, at the Long Revolution website..

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