DNA is overrated/What’s your personal best?

I love DNA. It’s amazing. You should study it deeply, because it will convince you that you are amazing, just by being alive.

I’m also annoyed by how people think that if you have a certain gene, it means you are a certain way. Other than a very few diseases, I have yet to see a single study that accounts for depression, autism, height, stamina, muscle strength, intelligence, etc., by a single gene. Rather, studies find hundreds, even thousands, of genes all interacting based on choices we make, feedback we give our bodies. Also, certain genes show up in studies for myriad conditions. They overlap. You can’t change everyone’s thousand or so “depressed” genes into “happy” genes because that will turn the person’s intestines to goo, cause their balance to fail, make them tone deaf, make them homicidal before 8 am, and turn them into a lousy kisser.

Okay, I’m making up the consequences. But, for most conditions we think of as negative, you can’t get rid of the “bad” genes without also screwing around with a bunch of other stuff that you might be sorry to lose.

Further, genes are turned on and off based on how they interact with the environment. If your grandpa ate a certain cookie and fell in love that day, his body may have attached a special little protein to a gene that senses the flavors in that cookie, and that protein attachment could be transcribed onto the DNA strands that he passes to his offspring, and his great-grandchild could feel a huge warm fuzzy anytime she smells that kind of cookie. As another example, your height is influenced by lots of genes, but by your environment much more– give a kid with short parents excellent nutrition, and a kid with tall parents poor nutrition, and it’s certainly possible that the kid with short parents will end up taller than the kid with tall parents.

There’s so much randomness in our daily lives, so many interactions with our environment, so many decisions we make, that the idea that your genes determine your life is absurd. It’s far more true to say your life influences your genes.

For example, I may have a set of genes that predisposes me to alcoholism. Because I’ve never touched the stuff, the genes that would give me a huge reaction to it probably haven’t been reinforced– I probably haven’t added any more “turn it on, baby” coding proteins to those genes. If I had some passed on to me, they may have deteriorated and not been replaced over time. If I were to take a drink, there might not be anything to signal my body to turn on those genes (at least, the first time). A gene that’s turned off might as well not exist. As a result, for all practical purposes, I don’t have that predisposition. As another example, my daughter with ASD was nonverbal for years. Through a huge amount of therapy over more than a decade, she’s almost reached the point where she won’t qualify for speech therapy services anymore. In some areas, her verbal abilities now are far above the norm. This aspect of her autism will not control her to the extent it might have without her hard work, even though her DNA code remains the same.

This brings me to intelligence. At some point, I was told I was smart. Schoolwork was always easy, when I stopped daydreaming long enough to do it. Then it got harder. I figured if it was hard, I must not be smart, after all. So I dropped down to classes where I would still do well without doing any work, because I thought that must be my true intellectual level. (That, and I just hated homework. School took an inappropriately huge portion of my time already; there was no way I was going to go home and use the few precious hours remaining to me on that.)

When I tried to drop a certain math class, the counselor took a look at something in my file, and said, “If anyone should be in this class, you should.” I assumed she had access to some random test I’d taken that had very little to do with the task at hand, and that she wouldn’t be convinced without further contradictory data. To prove to her I should be allowed to drop it, I got a “D” in it that quarter. Eventually, she let me switch down a level. Simple enough.

But the good thing was that I felt that I should be able to do well in this lower-level class, and if I didn’t, it was on me. I decided I would do all the work assigned, and see what happened. I did really, really well. When we got to trig, it wasn’t nearly as impossible as I’d thought– it was even kind of beautiful, in a way. (And, yes, my teacher was excellent.)

Then, when I was working at an accounting office that summer, I saw a quote on the wall that said something like, “There’s nothing more common than talent wasted due to lack of diligence.” I thought about that while I stood waiting for the copies to come out, day after day. I decided I would try my hardest to get straight A’s one quarter my senior year, just to see if it was possible. Turns out, it was. (My goal only lasted one quarter, however…)

Here’s the point: When Sal says he’ll never tell his kid he’s smart, I think what he’s saying is that kind of compliment is a detriment to a child’s world view. Telling me I was smart was really bad for my development. Telling me I should be diligent is what opened the world to me.

My invitation to you is, the next time you hear yourself saying, “My brain just doesn’t do that” or “I don’t have the right DNA for that” or “I’m too old” (it bothers me SO much when I hear people younger than me say stuff like they’re too old to go back to school or run a 5K– are you dead yet? No? Then you aren’t too old!!!) or whatever statement you’re mostly likely to use, change your mind. I suspect very few, if any, of us have ever yet found what our personal best really is, in any area. Your time on this earth is limited. Keep improving. Surprise yourself. As Sal says: You Can Learn Anything