GENES, DESTINY, AND BIG BROTHER

UM Professor David Lykken has spent his career studying the role of nature and nurture in shaping people. And he believes his research shows the best society would be one in which the state decides who gets to have children.
by Jennifer Vogel

           Most of the registered twins are white, reflecting the racial makeup of the state during that time. But they represent, says Lykken, "all levels of socioeconomic status, educational level, both urban and rural living. Twins, some people think they must be special psychologically because they are twins. But that's not true. They do the same on the tests we give as do singletons. Except for one trait--social closeness, which measures the needs and habits of having intimate relations. They are remarkably representative." Lykken and others working on the twins projects have turned out papers discussing spousal choice, tendencies toward divorce, intelligence, religious attitudes, recreational and vocational interests, and happiness. The happiness study, published earlier this year, was picked up by television and print media from New York to Rome. And there are more twins studies being conducted that promise to bring more publicity: one on aging that seems to indicate that genetic influences fade over time; another on families, in which 11- and 17-year-old kids are being tracked.

           Lykken's most recent endeavor, launched four years ago, involves young male twins in their early thirties. "My interest," he says, "has moved to focus on crime and violence and its causes. And one of the things that I decided to study was the relative importance of genetic temperamental factors versus familial factors in crime. There has been about a 200 percent increase in violent crime. We want to ask how much of this can be explained in terms of temperamental or personality factors, which we know from other evidence are largely genetic. Traits like aggression, fearlessness, impulsiveness, and so on." With talk among politicians of weeding out criminals before they reach kindergarten by locating the "crime gene" or the "violence gene," doesn't all this stuff about genetic determinism lead to some very ugly politics? "I believe it's always better to know what the facts are," says Lykken, "what the truth is."

           City Pages: You've said before that people's characters are basically 50 percent nature, 50 percent nurture.

           David Lykken: Yes. I think a lot of psychological traits are like this. Not just happiness, but aggressiveness, self-confidence, all of these traits. A lot of these psychological traits vary from time to time. Your average is set by your genes. It's innate. But shyness can vary from situation to situation and can also be influenced by parenting or experiences. I think the same thing is true about happiness. You can't change your set point but you can change your ways of behaving. You can change your experiences that get you above the set point.

           I think there is a lesson here for parents. Too many parents have it in mind that they want their kid to be happy. But they assume that in order to be happy they have to have a lot of money and be a professional. That isn't true. All this research indicates that the men who come around and collect the garbage, that is the happiest bunch of people I come across in a day. They are just as happy as a lot of PhDs I see at the University. The fact is that your happiness is not determined by big things, but by being in the right niche for you and having the sense to do the everyday things you need to make you happy.

           CP: How do genetic and environmental factors mingle?

           Lykken: To a large extent, the genes affect the mind indirectly by influencing the kind of environment and experiences you have to learn from and the process begins in infancy. A squally, difficult baby, for example, elicits different parenting behavior than a happy smiling child. And when they get out into the neighborhood, they begin to have the ability to seek out, to elicit, environments that are compatible with their own temperament and their genetic inclination. And so it's as if there's a genetic steersman that's pushing in a direction that's appropriate for you.

           CP: It seems that twins research is changing how we look at ourselves.

           Lykken: Well, I think so. When I was a student, way back before the flood of this, almost all intellectuals and all academics were radical environmentalists. We all believed that under the skin we could explain that we all started from the same spot and that individual differences could be explained psychoanalytically or by learning theory or by all of the various theories of the time.

           That was a very dumb thing for us to have thought, even then. Because even then, practical people realized that, for example, breeds of dogs or other breeds of domestic animals differ not only in their appearance but also in their personalities. Some dogs are smarter than other dogs. Shelties will herd things, and if you don't have any sheep around, they will herd you. My bull terrier is bred as a fighting dog and he's relatively fearless and fierce. Just that kind of common sense observation should have made us realize that it's crazy to think that in our species alone, our brains would be like so many Apple computers coming off the assembly line.

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