Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Orchid Hypothesis

On my way back from the APA conference a week ago, I picked up a copy of The Atlantic in Laguardia to read on the plane ride home. In it, there was a fascinating article by David Dobbs called "The Science of Success," which discusses the influence of certain genetic factors on social/psychological development. Dobbs recounts the studies of Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg, who set out to test a dominant hypothesis of psychistry and behavioral science known as the "stress diathesis" or "genetic vulnerability" model. That hypothesis speculates that people who suffer from mood, psychiatric or personality disorders do so because of variants in key behavioral genes that make the sufferers more susceptible to things like depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, increased risk-taking, and antisocial, sociopathic or violent behavior. However, according to the current understanding of the model, the mere possession of these gene variants is not enough to bring about the undesirable effects. Rather, the problems have been observed to ensue "if and only if the person carrying the variant suffers a traumatic or stressful childhood or faces particularly trying experiences later in life." Consequently, these psychological and behavioral phenomena are given a combination genetics-and-environment explanation.

The hypothesis that Bakersman-Kranenburg and her associates were going to challenge is known as the "vulnerability hypothesis," because what it hypothesizes is not about predetermined certainties in development, but rather risks and liabilities. But what if those same risks and vulnerabilities, which are disastrous if activated by negative life experiences, were also indicators of a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience? If the subjects' environment presented them with particularly positive nurturing or cultivating experiences, then wouldn't the "vulnerability' now present itself as a great strength? Bakersman-Kranenburg's studies seemed to show that this was, in fact, the case. As Dobbs explains, borrowing a metaphor from developmental psychologists Bruce Ellis and W. Thomas Boyce, most "healthy" or "normal" children-- they call these children "dandelion" children-- have pretty resilient genes, the consequence of human biological evolution. Dandelion children will do well almost anywhere, "whether raised in the equivalent of a sidewalk crack or a well-tended garden." But Ellis and Boyce argue that there are also "orchid" children, who "will wilt if ignored or mistreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care."

Dobbs claims, and I am inclined to agree, that this "orchid hypothesis" is more than just an addendum to the "vulnerability hypothesis" (merely tacking-on the observation that genes can steer a person up as well as down). Rather, this is a radically new way to think about the relationship between genetics and behavior, as well as a critical amendment to our dominant understandings of human evolution. Dobbs writes:

Risk becomes possibility; vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness. It’s one of those simple ideas with big, spreading implications. Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival, with selection favoring parents who happen to invest in both dandelions and orchids.

What's more, the orchid hypothesis (also called the "plasticity hypothesis," the "sensitivity hypothesis" or the "differential-susceptibility hypothesis") answers an important evolutionary question that the vulnerability hypothesis could not: if variants of certain genes create mainly dysfunction and trouble, how have they survived natural selection? Again, from Dobbs:

This is a transformative, even startling view of human frailty and strength. For more than a decade, proponents of the vulnerability hypothesis have argued that certain gene variants underlie some of humankind’s most grievous problems: despair, alienation, cruelties both petty and epic. The orchid hypothesis accepts that proposition. But it adds, tantalizingly, that these same troublesome genes play a critical role in our species’ astounding success.

Needless to say, the better part of Dobbs' article follows scientists' studies on children and Rhesus monkeys that seem to prove the validity of the orchid hypothesis. I won't go into the details of those studies, but I recommend your taking a look at them. What interests me in this story is the manner in which some scientists are recontextualizing human "risk" and "vulnerability" as possible strength. More specifically, what interests me is the posssibility of incorporating this hypothesis into my own work on weak humanism. So, take this post as a kind of precursor to an upcoming post, in which I think I may be able to recast some of my earlier speculations in terms of delicate flowers.

10 comments:

e. said...

thanks leigh... i really liked this post and the idea behind it. i'm going to go get the atlantic and see more for myself!

Kirsten said...

I wonder if this helps to explain my rather unexplainable sense (which I've had for some years now) that the only way to explain the phenomenon that is Marlon Brando is that he is a human orchid (a reincarnated orchid? an orchid incarnate? ... Take your pick.)

hawkbrwn said...

oh! tantalizing indeed. i look forward to hearing how you incorporate these ideas into your own work.

Scu said...

I will also have to check out the Atlantic article. I am curious, and hopefully this will be in your later post, if there is something about this that informs the notion of what you call weak humanism, or if rather this is simply another analogy for explaining the possibility behind viewing vulnerability and social ontology as strengths? Either way, pretty cool. And Dobbs' "vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness" is a total money quotation.

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks for the comments, y'all. And, fyi, you can actually read the article online. It's linked in my post (right there at the beginning where it says "The Science of Success"). One advantage of reading it online is that there's also an interesting video there of the scientist who is working with the Rhesus monkeys...

Scu said...

I read the article, and what began as a short (and I felt necessary) comment here sprawled into a longish blog post. http://criticalanimal.blogspot.com/2010/01/vulnerability-and-animal.html

Thanks for sharing, again. And I look forward to see where you go with this.

Brunson said...

This reminds me of the genetic argument for male 'excellence'. That is, the genetic instability of having only one X chromosome [for example, X-linked recessive traits] explains why men dominate the list of Nobel laureates as well as prison populations. Here's an article along these lines: The fragile male.

anotherpanacea said...

Brunson raised the issue that worries me in the general evolutionary psychological approach.

It may be good science, it may be born out by the data, but we've seen similar arguments used to pretty deleterious effects before. Calling it "The Orchid Hypothesis" is just a way of hiding the origins of this theory of evo psych in naturalizations of various kinds of gender inequities.

I hope you'll take that issue up, at some point. I know you have plenty of thoughts on this in the context of philosophy of race, but you rarely comment on gender/sex.

DOCTOR J said...

I read your criticism, Scu, and responded here. Thanks for the careful reading...

Scu said...

Thanks Dr. J.

Though, it seems I already commented on that post, and I liked it so much I already linked to it from my own blog. I know sometimes my responses to your stuff may come across as somehow personal or accusatory, and it never is. I think you are both an excellent and exciting scholar.

But while we are here, considering you have my dream job, maybe you'd considering responding in some way to this post http://criticalanimal.blogspot.com/2010/01/academic-job-advice.html

Seriously, you have my dream job. Teaching politically motivated philosophy at a small liberal arts college in an interesting city. That is the dream!