Not in Your Genes

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This looks a lot like a self-help book. Each chapter ends with three “takeaways” — short summaries that help the reader learn from what they’ve just read and apply these lessons in their life. In many ways, this is to be expected. After all, the author is chartered psychologist and “relational psychoanalyst” Oliver James.

But a book by the author of Affluenza, which argued that “selfish capitalism” is giving rise to an increase in mental health problems, is bound to be more than that. And it is. Not in Your Genes is a comprehensive debunking of the idea that poor mental health (or for that matter, low academic achievement) is caused by heritable genetic defects. Instead James shows that what is crucial is how, as children, we are (or aren’t) nurtured by our parents.

Part of the argument relies on an academic paper by James, “Not in your genes: time to accept the null hypothesis of the Human Genome Project?” (HGP). In it, he argues that the HGP has, contrary to its architects’ intentions, failed to locate the “genes” for such things as depression, intelligence or homosexuality. Instead the argument has shifted to the possibility that variations in genetic material could explain such “conditions”. But the variants only explain a tiny proportion of mental health differences.

Rather so-called “illnesses” like depression or even schizophrenia can be shown to be strongly predicted by adverse experiences in childhood, such as emotional, physical or sexual abuse. And instead of genetic transmission, it is much more likely that patterns of good or ill treatment are repeated by parents, sometimes unconsciously. The mechanisms here are complex, sometimes involving modelling of their own parents’ behaviour, or even compulsively repeating the past in the hope that it will turn out differently a second time.

James’s case is not an idealist one. He presents evidence that base levels of cortisol, one of the hormones that regulates mood, are set in early childhood. In other words, how children are treated early on is a crucial influence on how they react to experiences, especially negative ones, later in life.

The argument that early nurture, and not genetic destiny, is to blame for mental ill-health is an idea with many revolutionary implications. James is a mild radical. He doesn’t fully acknowledge that the structure of the nuclear family, with its in-built oppression of women, and the way this is continually reproduced by the economic system, is part of the problem.

But he does propose that intensive therapy should be on the NHS, free for all, and that “a system which puts the profits of the few ahead of the mental health of our children is not inevitable.” As a result, in the fight against genetic determinism, this book is a valuable aid. And it might just make you think about your upbringing.