Are New Year’s resolutions pointless? This question gripped me over Christmas, as I tucked into the book of behavioural geneticist, Robert Plomin, titled Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are. It offers fascinating insights into the nature of genes, demonstrating – for example – that weight is one of the most heritable traits (70 percent). That means people who put on weight more easily than others really can blame their genes above anything else.
By far the most controversial revelation of this research is that personality has strong genetic components, meaning you are largely you from birth. Extraversion, as a geeky example, can be linked to the genes WSCD2 and PCDH15. Agreeableness – which makes people kinder and more considerate to others – also has genetic origins. This makes the common notion that girls are socialised to be kinder than boys dubious. Even how much television people watch can be traced back to genes. So what does this mean for New Year’s resolutions? A lot, actually.
This time of year, huge numbers of people make big promises to change, whether they want to give up food and/ or drink, or alter their personality. Perhaps they want to be more loving to others, calmer, or even sportier. Perhaps they pick up a book, such as ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’ – to learn how to shrug off bad feelings. Or they tune into Tidying Up with Marie Kondo – to learn how to be tidier. The trouble is that these dreams can only go so far. And that’s because we all follow a genetic trajectory.
Your genetic trajectory is defined by your DNA, which contains markers for things including weight, height, neurosis, addiction and educational attainment, among a host of other traits. Your DNA cannot be changed, which is why trying to change in terms of personal development has its limits. Some people, for instance, have genes that are linked to anxiety. So setting goals like ‘I will be less anxious in 2019’ can be much harder for them than someone who does not have the same markers. If someone has a genetic predisposition towards watching television – yes, this does exist! – trying to watch less television is also a difficult goal.
None of this is to say that people cannot change elements of themselves, or try to change, but each and every one of us has predispositions that makes some things harder than others. This is why new year’s goals should be in line with your nature. If you like reading – which has a genetic basis – read more books in 2019. Or if you’re an extravert, take up a hobby that fosters extraversion, like drama club. But do not do things that run against your nature. Do what feels natural, is the essence of genetic research.
Some will find these conclusions controversial. Genetic research is still a contentious area because of the eugenics movement and its terrible impact. There are lots of ethical dilemmas about what the uses of genetic data could be in the future. It could lead to ‘designer babies’ – either through abortion or IVF – whereby parents select embryos on the basis of intelligence and/ or other traits. As Plomin points out, genetics could also lead to employers selecting employees based on their DNA, which is arguably more accurate as a predictor of personality and skills than interviews. There are lots of scary utopian possibilities. Which is why there needs to be more social discussions, as we have to decide what to do with the information. But these do not happen.
One reason people do not discuss genetics research, aside from worry over eugenics, is that they do not believe the evidence – even though it has been consistently supported that there genetic markers for personality. Some people treat genetic scientists as if their findings are their opinion. But they are no more their opinion than a plant scientist holds photosynthesis to be true.
Another major reason people do not like genetic research is because it seems fatalistic. Socialism, in particular, is about the idea that people are blank slates and can be shaped by the environment. This is optimistic and reassuring, and it’s true that the environment does have a role in our development. But it is not as important as we like to think. Sometimes people wrongly attribute the environment to behaviour, too. For instance, a parent who reads a lot to their child might believe this is behind the child’s reading ability. However, it may also be the case that they’re responding to the child’s genetic propensity towards reading.
Overall, genetic research is not meant to be biologically deterministic, but about probability. One example of this is schizophrenia. You may be more predisposed to getting it. But that does not mean you will get it. Furthermore, one of the benefits of this research is that people can take steps to mitigate genetic risk. If a child has genetic markers for anxiety, a parent may be able to take steps to help this – e.g. having a calm room at home – rather than finding out later down the line their child has anxiety. These are the progressive uses genetic researchers want science to go towards, without us being too rigid about its application. Fortunately, genetic researchers seem, at least, to be much more self-aware than others were in the past.
Ultimately, Plomin suggests the research should make us more tolerant to ourselves and others. If we know about our genetics, we can understand why we are prone to things. We can actually love ourselves more, if we learn to embrace our nature. If we have faults, we can recognise that they are not our fault – but part of our genetic blueprint. Yes, we can change – but to an extent. So why not embrace your genetic trajectory this new year.