Living With Our Genes is a nonfiction book, written by Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland, about the genetic basis of personality and behavior. The book is divided into 8 chapters, each covering a different genetically influenced aspect of personality, behavior or growth: thrills, worry, anger, addiction, sex, thinking, hunger, and aging. There is also an introduction on Emotional Instinct, and a conclusion on Engineering Temperament. The book explores the nature v. nurture controversy deeply, covering the aspects and extant to which genes are known to influence these eight aspects, and the extant thought to be determined, altered, or otherwise dependent on environmental factors. Genes being the nature, and the environment (basically the experiences and setting in which you live and cannot separate yourself from if you tried) being the nurture.
As told in “Living With Our Genes”, genes are the first determining factors to basically everything about us. They are the basic reason why people find happiness in different things, why some people are more intelligent, why some people are anxious and some are calm. While nurture plays a role, are genes determine more than many people think, especially when the variability between people is much smaller than you’d think (les than 2% changed between people, and we share 98% of our DNA with monkeys, closer to 99% in bonobos). “Living With Our Genes” is easily summed up by its tag line: “The Groundbreaking Book About The Science Of Personality, Behavior, and Genetic Destiny”.
“Thrills” is all about novelty seeking. People who score high on novelty seeking seek new experiences; they do well in high risk-high reward situations and careers, and do not handle repetitive experiences well or with enjoyment. People who score low on novelty seeking enjoy routine and order. They do not handle stressful situations well, but are not easily bored, and can handle tedious tasks with grace. Both of course have their pros and cons in any given situation. Novelty seeking is one personality aspect that tends to be similar in marriage couples rather than abiding by the “opposite attracts” rule. Novelty seeking is, in part, affected by the D4DR gene, which is highly variable and affects dopamine binding. Through twin studies, we know roughly 60% of novelty seeking is heritable, and the other 40% is due to environmental factors.
Where novelty seeking is affected by dopamine, worry is affected by serotonin, another neurotransmitter. Prozac is a medication commonly used to treat mood disorders, especially depression, as it regulates serotonin uptake. Worry and anxiety would be things you’d expect to be heavily influenced by environment, upbringing and parental guidance and attention would logically seem to be factors of a worrisome or calm dispositions. But, like most things, there is a strong genetic component, which is illustrated in “Living With Our Genes” in a case study like example, about identical twin sisters who, despite living in nearly opposite homes in everyway possible, were near identical in worrisome temperament and personality. Both were fussy babies and grew to be anxious adults. Which goes to show just how prevalent genes are in determining who we will be, which is the entirely point of the book.
The book continues on to explain anger, addiction, sex, thinking, hunger, and aging. While different genes control each, with different correlations of nature v. nurture in which is more prominent in affecting the trait. The message remains consistent. Both genes and environment play a role. There are specific genes that control every aspect of personality, and each variation gives us a good idea of who you will be, but it isn’t the end all, be all, because environment always plays a role, even when you cannot interpret its influence.
Aside from separating each chapter by trait, the book is written in a way that using both story-like examples and then explaining the science behind said story in order to keep the reader engaged. Then it is backed up by case studies, or twin studies, with the research cited and statistics for heritability and other correlations given. The book balances the story examples with the actual science being explained effectively, neither detracts from the other, while keeping the reader engaged. The book also has each chapter divided into subsections, easily letting you find relevant information when skimming, and breaking up the denser parts of the text into smaller sections that makes it feel less like a textbook and more like an actual book. At several times, the authors switch to first person (saying “in our lab” etc.), which not only reminds you that this is real, and has practical application, but that real people conducted this research. The first person sections turn denser parts of the reading into friendlier, more easily accepted chunks rather than textbook reading, and help personalize the information, connecting you to the author. It feels more genuine and easier to believe, understand, and remember information when the people telling you studied it themselves rather than feeling like you getting second-hand information.
The research presented in the book also tie into current research and our textbook. For one thing, the anger and worry chapter present ideas that can most likely be applied to the bonobo monkeys in our study of how exactly how similar and different they are to humans. The intelligence factor, and the potential for intelligence based on genetics is a large part of the bonobo monkey studies, we wonder if, because of their similarity to humans, they could learn language.
The book often cites twin studies and case studies, both valid methods of research in psychology. The twin studies are used to separate inheritable factors from environmental factors. The case studies, serve as an in depth portrayal of the subject rather than an abstract one. Bandura’s experiments with the punching dummy and children exposed to violence relates to the anger chapter. Both genes and environment play a large role in anger, as in worry, which we see in the description and effects of different child attachments: secure, anxious-ambivalent, and avoidant. Attachment styles are affected by the mothers’ treatment and responses to the infant as well as the infants natural (genetic) disposition. Each affects the other, which is coined as reciprocal determinism by Bandura as well.
In all, I feel the book is effective in explaining the information it wishes to convey. It is engaging by nonfiction standards, and serves as a decent review for topics already covered in the course, while not being alienating to someone with little to no knowledge of psychology that should choose to read it.