Genetics – Is Who We Are Really Just a Matter of Luck??

Not sure where this train of thought will take me, or how many posts it might require to get it out of my system, but anyway, here goes:

I can picture the conversation as if it happened yesterday.  It was in Oliver’s office, one of the guys I worked with when I was based over in London.

“Can you believe this crap,” Oliver said as he tossed a magazine onto his desk. “This ‘study’ is saying that almost all of a parent’s contribution to who their child will eventually become as an adult is completed by the age of 3. That the genetics and initial development provided by the parents is where their influence mostly ends, and after that, the rest of the child’s development through adulthood is almost entirely the result of friends, teachers, and other outside influences. What a bunch of bullshit!”

He was normally a pretty unflappable guy and I only recall seeing him get visibly upset a few times.  But this was one of those times.  The notion that his contribution to whom his four children would become in life was already over was complete anathema to him.

I recalled this conversation with Oliver several years later, in the midst of my bourbon-fueled, semi-heated discussion with my work associate Joe in the rooftop bar in Oslo, Norway in December 2012 (which I talked about previously here).  In addition to discussing regret, we also talked about (among other things) how much influence our genetics have over our actions and how we make decisions.

I will freely admit that I have long been fascinated by the impact of genetics on who we become.  This stems in part, I think, from the fact that one half of my own genetics (my father) was largely absent from my life after about age 5.  So even though we share the same first name, I’ve often wondered about the other ways in which we are similar.  That’s not a track I want to go down right now, but maybe I’ll come back to it as I continue to work this thread . . .

Anyway, back to Joe – being a “man of science” he argued from the position the WE ARE OUR GENETICS. And while he gave a nod to “nurture” he felt the science was irrefutable that who we become in life is almost ENTIRELY determined by the genes we inherit from our parents. (Keep in mind this is all from memory 15 months later, and Joe, being the argumentative type that he is, will probably post some kind of reply correcting me or saying that I’ve forgotten a key point or nuance to what he said, although I’m likely to get to some of that nuance and contradictory evidence in a later post.  And in case you can’t tell, I am purposely baiting him here . . . )

He said, “Surely you are familiar with the famous marshmallow experiment done at Stanford.”  I nodded my head as if I knew with certainty what the hell he was talking about.  Taking a wild guess and making a leap of faith (not the first time I’ve done that!) I said, “Is that the study where they tested kids to see how good they were at resisting temptation and delaying gratification?”

“Exactly,” he said, as I tried to hide my relief that my good guessing skills had once again covered my ass. “They followed those kids over decades, and they found that the ability to resist the immediate temptation and delay gratification, which was almost certainly a genetic trait, since the kids were too young for it to be a learned skill, was the SINGLE GREATEST FACTOR in predicting which kids would be successful and which kids would not be successful later in life.”

We debated the conclusion of the study further, and I’ll probably come back to it, but not for this post.

The debate on the study led to further discussion about, among other subjects, social policy, with the question as to whether economically disadvantaged people (back before the PC days, I guess what we’d refer to as “the poor”) should be held accountable for their lot in life.  For if they truly are simply victims of their genetics, is it fair and/or just to leave them to their fate?  To say in effect, “Well where you are in life is a result of the decisions you’ve made. So now you live with the consequences” and to provide little or no means of financial assistance to these people to lift them out of poverty?  Are those who are financially better off simply “lucky monkeys” who inherited genes that predisposed them to be successful?  And do they then have a responsibility to share their good fortune with those less fortunate souls whose genetic luck was not so good?

These are questions that have vexed humanity throughout the ages, well before Leland Stanford drove the Golden Spike, completing the transcontinental railroad, let alone established the university from which the marshmallow experiment would later be conducted.  And as I continue to disgorge this train of thought from my head, it’s a subject I’ll explore further in subsequent posts.

But wrapping up this post, I’ll come back to the subject of luck, which coincidentally happens to be my former co-worker Oliver’s last name (you probably thought this was going to take a Dickensian twist, didn’t you?  NOT!!).  A successful quarterback for the Houston Oilers, when we worked together in London, Oliver Luck was the President of NFL Europe while I held the position of COO/CFO.  He is now probably more famous for being the father of Indianapolis Colts starting quarterback Andrew Luck.

At the time of our conversation in Oliver’s office, Andrew was probably about 7 years old.  I certainly didn’t imagine at that point (nor probably did Oliver) that one day Andrew would become a successful college quarterback at, you guessed it, Stanford University and subsequently for the Colts in the NFL.  He certainly had a genetic advantage in his favor, but there are not that many offspring of professional athletes who go on to meet, or exceed, the athletic achievements of their parents (in addition to Andrew, another exception to this fact would be the guy who quarterbacked the losing team in the Super Bowl this past Sunday and still has one fewer Super Bowl ring than his younger brother).

I’d expect that Oliver’s opinion on the subject hasn’t changed much from the view he strongly stated in his office in London 16 years ago.  And I wouldn’t disagree with him at all.  The last time I remember seeing Andrew in Europe was at a Frankfurt Galaxy game, sitting in the stands with big, noise cancelling headphones on to protect his ears from the crushingly loud noise at those games.  He seems to have turned into a really good, down to earth young man.  I have no doubt that his parents influence was, and continues to be, a big part of who he is today.

We can’t escape our genetics, it is a distinct part of who we are and what we start out with in life.  But, I believe, our genetics do not define us.  They are not entirely insuperable.  My genetics may have made it highly unlikely that I would ever become a wide receiver in the NFL but they did not absolutely preclude that possibility (and if you doubt that fact, ask Steve Largent or Pat Eilers for their opinions).

While our genetics may be the raw material we start with, I believe it is our choices that define us, determine who we are, and who will will become.  I have no doubt that genetics have some influence over our decision process, but ultimately we are not pre-programmed automatons.  And so for me, it comes down to one of God’s great gifts to humanity, which will no doubt be central to further posts on this topic.

Free Will.

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