May 30, 2024

Tthe eternal mystery of how much we are shaped by our parents – or how much we shape our children – was stirred again last week with the publication of a study which suggests that we are less like our parents than we previously thought.

Led by René Mõttus of Edinburgh University’s department of psychology, the study looked at more than 1,000 pairs of family members to determine how likely children were to inherit what psychologists call the “big five” or “Ocean” personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

According to the study, the chance of a child sharing a similar personality trait with a parent is not that much greater than the child sharing it with a random stranger. For example, say that the general population is divided equally into thirds among those who have low, middle, and high levels of openness. The study suggests that only 39% of children would be placed in the same category as a parent, compared to 33% with a random stranger.

The novelty of this study is that instead of relying only on self-report of personality traits, it also includes the second opinion of a friend or partner. But the paper has yet to be peer-reviewed and has already been criticized by one leading expert in the field.

Robert Plomin, professor of behavioral genetics at King’s College, London, questions why other people’s opinions about us should be considered more accurate than our own.

“I don’t buy it,” he says, “where’s the evidence?”

He also has a number of other reservations about the study. Ultimately, he says, “the paper seems bloated, both in terms of length and hyperbole”.

Plomin published a book six years ago called Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, arguing that, as a result of polygenic testing, it was possible to see that our genetic inheritance played a far greater role in determining our behavior and personality traits than science had previously allowed.

Plomin has his own critics, not least regarding his suggestion that a person’s socioeconomic status may be a genetic rather than environmental inheritance. While science continues to wrestle with the data and contest different interpretations, the rest of us struggle to make sense of ourselves in terms of the families we come from and the families we create.

These problems come up regularly in the consulting room of Jennifer Cawley, a psychotherapist. “People don’t tend to talk about personality traits,” says Cawley. “It’s more about experiences and relationships, which I suppose is personality in context.”

She finds that many clients fear becoming parents, especially when they have children themselves. “If they’ve had an experience with a parent who frequently lost their temper, a lot of energy goes into trying to avoid those patterns — to repeat the expression of that personality trait, if you will.”

She sees this especially in men who have had abusive fathers. Of course, it is difficult to know whether a tendency to anger is a learned or genetically inherited trait. Even someone like Plomin, who has been called a genetic determinist, emphasizes that we don’t inherit personality traits so much as a predisposition to them. Whether, how and when those predispositions materialize depends on a whole range of complex and perhaps unknowable factors.

Whatever the cause, the influence of fathers, both absent and present, has been an enduring theme of fiction from Oedipus to The godfather. The journalist and author Sam Miller know more than most about present and absent fathers. At age 15, Miller learned that his biological father was not the celebrated academic and literary critic Karl Miller who had raised him, but rather his parents’ late college friend, Tony White, who had an affair with Miller’s mother.

Miller has written a poignantly reflective book, titled Fathers, about the different roles these two men played in his life. Although the initial revelation came as a surprise, it did not affect Miller’s relationship with the man he saw and still considers his father – Karl Miller, who died in 2014. The book is in part a moving tribute to someone with whom he shared so much, with the notable exception of DNA.

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Partly because of his close relationship with Miller senior, Miller was largely curious about White for a long time. But in recent years, he says, “I’ve wondered about him more, partly because I’ve become more like my biological father in some ways.”

While Miller senior was effectively an orphan who made a stable family life very important to him, White, paradoxically, came from a loving family and grew up to live a single, peripatetic life.

Miller explains that he himself was married with two children, but is now single and a roving foreign correspondent.

“What’s strange,” he laughs, “is that for 20 years I was my father as an adult. Now I’m experiencing my 20 years of being a Tony! It’s kind of funny, but I shy away from genetic explanations as kind of hard to prove and almost too romantic. But I’m struck by the fact that I can’t explain things to my own children, except as some kind of heritage.”

A further complication for Miller is that he thinks his father and his biological father “were quite similar”. For example, they were both very interested in writing, as was Miller himself. “I think they were in some ways each other’s alter ego.”

In such circumstances, it is impossible to separate genes from environment, biology and culture, and the person we are from the person we will always be. Science may be growing inexorably closer to solving the mystery of our genetic heritage, but what we do with it and why will remain questions for which there can be no irrefutable answers.

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