OK, I have to fess up. I am moving house this week and have nothing prepared. So here is an essay I wrote a while back to explain my work in gene-environment interaction. I know, it sounds scary, but its really simple and I’m sure that this “story” will help you understand.
I’m here at Mr. Almighty’s Cloud Street Headquarters to interview him on his plans for a family friendly casino.
“Mr. Almighty, it’s great to meet you! Tell me the concept for your casino.”
Mr. Almighty: It’s ingenious really. My casino actively encourages participation of whole families. Although single people are encouraged to come, it’s in the hope that when they have children, they can continue to come here as a family and I’ll have a continued source of customers!
“Very clever. What sort of gambling facilities will you have? Slot machines, roulette, ‘Blackjack’?”
Mr. Almighty: Ah, well! I’m a ‘Blackjack’ man myself, but my enthusiasm spreads to all card games and so I’ve dedicated my casino to cards. We’ll have ‘Poker’, ‘Snap’, ‘Bridge’, ‘Old Maid’, ‘Rummy’, as well as ‘Blackjack’ off course. In fact, you name a card game and we’ll certainly be playing it. I’ve divided the venue into sections so that a different card game will be played in each, so called ‘gaming environment’.
“A very catchy name.”
Mr. Almighty: Yes. I think our advertising boys did a good job on that one.
“What’s so special about a casino dedicated to card games for families?”
Mr. Almighty: Hah! Well, unlike other casinos, there’s a twist. My casino will be exclusive: ‘Members Only’ I mean…
“There’s nothing new about that!”
Mr. Almighty: Wait, I haven’t finished. On joining, I deal all members 14 playing cards. They must play with the same 14 cards that they were dealt on joining for the duration of their membership. The only exception will be for members’ children. We anticipate there’ll be several billions as the casino expands, so I’d be here all day dealing out cards to kids if there was no exception made! So, I’ve devised a simpler plan for them. They will be blindfolded and asked to randomly pick their cards from the hands of their parents: half from their mother, and half from their father. From then on, the same rules apply: “You play with the cards you’re dealt”! That’s the slogan our advertising department is adopting for our poster campaign!
“But there’s a terrible flaw in your plan! What if I joined and received a terrible hand? I’d have to play with that for the duration of my membership and keep losing! I might as well give up!”
Mr. Almighty: No, no – that needn’t happen. You, like so many others, see things at face value and don’t see the complexities in the matter. Whether you win or lose depends not only on your cards but a whole host of factors. For starters: how well you play the game. Parenting is potentially important for this, at least in the beginning. Even if a child has a great hand, if his parents haven’t taught him the rules of the game, he’s pretty sure to lose.
“Yes, I suppose so.”
Mr. Almighty: Later on, he might have more chance to play with friends or have tuition from teachers and be able to learn skills for card playing from them.
“So, his chances of success and failure might be influenced by his peer group and school environment?”
Mr. Almighty: Indeed.
“But, once you’ve learnt the rules of the game, your potential winnings are still dictated by the cards you’re dealt. You’d be stuffed if you had no ‘Aces’ or ‘Picture cards’.”
Mr Almighty: Not so! That’s the beauty of my casino. There are many chances to win. As I’ve said, we play all the card games in the world here, not just one! The ‘Aces’ and ‘Picture cards’ might serve you well in a game of ‘Bridge’, where high scoring cards are valued, but in ‘Old Maid’ where they are penalized, they will cause you nothing but grief! And in ‘Snap’, well, a ‘two’ is as good as any ‘Ace’ so long as you find a pair.
“O.K. So how well you do depends on the interaction between your cards and your ‘gaming environment’. A hand full of ‘Aces’ in a ‘Bridge’ game spells success, but the same ‘Aces’ when playing ‘Old Maid’ spell disaster. So the handicap I predicted isn’t necessarily so, and it’s a matter of finding the optimal combination of game played and cards possessed.”
Mr. Almighty: Exactly!
“Even so, how well you do in the long run is still dependent on your cards isn’t it?”
Mr. Almighty: In some respects. I can’t say that your cards will not ultimately limit your potential but there are still further factors that could influence prospects.
“Besides your cards, acquired knowledge of the game and the game being played, I can’t think of any thing else that would influence progress.”
Mr. Almighty: I see you’re not a regular card player! Otherwise you would know that there is a lot more to card playing, not least the abilities of your opponents, or ‘gaming society’ as our advertising boys like to call them.
“O.k. I suppose if I were playing with novices, I’d certainly have a better chance of winning.”
Mr. Almighty: Now you’re catching on! As you can see, there are lots of ways you can still win with a deficient hand of cards. You choose a game you’ve been taught to play well, a ‘gaming environment’ where your cards are valued and where your fellow card players are suited to allow you to thrive.
“So, I could look at my hand and in effect change my prospects by selecting a ‘gaming environment’ dependent on my cards.”
Mr. Almighty: Yes, indeed there’s likely to be a great deal of correlation between your cards and your selected environment. But it’s not always easy to tell from the outset which is the best ‘environment’ for your hand. I’m not going to label the environments ‘Professional Poker Player’s table – avoid unless you have a Royal Flush’ or ‘Beginner’s Bridge – you’ll win big here even if you have no Picture Cards’. What usually happens is that there is a fair amount of trial and error before some satisfactory environment is found.
“But clever manipulation of the ‘gaming environment’ can make good from a poor hand.”
Mr. Almighty: Indeed. And these are just factors I’ve thought of so far. I’m sure if more research was done in this area, more significant environmental and social factors will be found to allow players who receive a poor hand to win.
“That’s amazing! But tell me, how can this venture possibly make money? You’ve said players with terrible cards can still succeed by choosing the correct ‘gaming environment’. If players got wise they’d keep winning and you’d go bankrupt!”
Mr. Almighty: Well, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. I didn’t wish to impose this restriction, but the reality is that to stay economically viable as a business, I must. I have had to impose a cost attached to changing ‘gaming environments’. You will have to start playing in the same ‘environment’ as your parents. Otherwise, I’d be bankrupt by the babysitting fees alone! If you want to change environments, you or your family will have to pay a fee, and it’s not cheap. It’s sad but true, some poor buggers get stuck in an environment totally at odds with their cards and they just carry on losing.
“Let me get this straight. If my parents play ‘Poker’, then I have to start off playing ‘Poker’ even if my hand is better suited to ‘Snap’. In order to play ‘Snap’ and make it big, I need financial backing?”
Mr. Almighty: Yes. That’s the gist of it. I have to make money somehow! If only the government would give us casino proprietors more money, I’d love to let my members play in their optimal ‘gaming environments’ and watch them flourish. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to do that.
“Isn’t there another way? What if between my parents they have the cards to give me a ‘Royal Flush’ which would make me almost guaranteed to win at ‘Poker’. Couldn’t they pay a fee to engineer it so that they select which cards I inherit, rather than my picking them randomly? Or, could I modify my hand and change certain cards for ones that might suit my circumstances better?”
Mr. Almighty: That certainly would allow you to win. It’s a contentious issue though! Some would even call it cheating! But I can see where you’re coming from. If I was constantly playing to lose with no prospect of winning, and with the knowledge that my children would inherit a poor hand and little financial resource to change their lot, I’d quite wish to be able to do the same thing too. I often see players with no ‘pairs’ or ‘Picture cards’ continuously losing their savings at the ‘Poker’ table and I think, what if I could give him a pair of ‘Aces’ or two. Unfortunately, if I sanctioned card changes, all my members would be queuing up to change their cards and I would have no peace! As it turns out, there are many intelligent members who’ve devised ways of ‘card modification’. But there’s no point changing your cards willy nilly. The trick is to research your ‘gaming environment’ and ‘society’ and strategically find the correct card to change. By changing specific cards, some have been able to turn the tides of their fortune. Sometimes, it can rejuvenate whole families who’d lost hope, not to mention the benefits to their future generations. Other times it’s used for the wrong purposes, and I totally disagree with it, but am powerless to stop it. It’s really up to members to decide how much ‘card modification’ they can tolerate. There’s a committee that monitors it. I try to keep out of it, though they often try and bring me in to their debates!
“But it could ultimately affect your business. If all this ‘modification’ was allowed to go on, everyone would have ‘Aces’ and ‘Royal Flushes’ in their hand and you’d go bankrupt!”
Mr. Almighty: Not necessarily. The members can modify cards behind my back all they like, but they need ultimately to bear in mind that if everyone had ‘Aces’ and ‘Royal Flushes’, the whole ‘gaming society’ would change. There’d be no members with losing hands and you’d have to be an even better card player to succeed. There will always be winners and losers just the same. In any case, don’t you know the first thing about casinos? The house always wins. I have one last trick up my sleeve and that is, I have the right to close down any ‘gaming environment’ I choose, at any time.
“How would that insure your success?”
Mr. Almighty: Well, if all my members were gaining ‘Aces’ and ‘Royal Flushes’ to win at ‘Poker’, then they would be taking a large gamble. I could close down all my ‘Poker’ tables and turn them into ‘Old Maid’ gaming environments at my whim. That way, I could turn all the winners into losers and losers into winners whenever I choose!
“Caution and the importance of environment is the order of the day then?”
Mr. Almighty: Indeed.
“It certainly sounds like a fascinating venture! One thing I wondered though, your advertising guys seem to have coined great names like ‘gaming environments’ and ‘gaming societies’, but couldn’t they think of a more catchy name for the cards?”
Mr Almighty: Yes, they’re working on that, so far, they’ve only come up with ‘genes’.
“‘Genes’. That might just take off! Tell me, what are you going to call your new casino?”
Mr. God Almighty: Well, actually, the prototype has already been running successfully for several millennia, and I think I’ll launch the real thing with the same name as it’s a good a name as any. I call it ‘LIFE’.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a professor. She asked me how my children were. Being conscious that my part-time status should not account for nothing, I bragged:
“Oh, my daughter is in the final of the Borough Poetry competition and my 5 year old son is playing chess”.
What surprised me was her response.
“Oh – you see, that proves it’s all “G””
(G is the behavioural geneticists’ abbreviation for genetic effect – yes, we behavioural geneticists actually do talk in terms of “G” and “E” (environmental effect) in common parlance rather than actual coherent words).
“Oh” I said, “I was about to say that it proves it’s all “E””.
Of course, we all know that both “G” and “E” play an effect in outcome, but it is funny to see how (even in two people that study it) our interpretation of science is coloured by our own personal view; or perhaps rather, we skew the science to suit our own needs and to support our chosen behaviours.
My personal view is that parenting matters. I would not have gone part-time and sacrificed career advancement if I did not believe that I would be making a significant positive impact on the outcome of my children. I am more likely to see positive outcomes in my children as being directly related to my input, rather than what would have happened regardless if I was there or not.
If you believe that outcomes are solely genetically determined, then parenting no longer becomes important, and you may as well excel at work and farm out childcare. Equally, if you have chosen to excel at work and farm out childcare, it would suit you very well to believe that “it’s all about G”.
So here’s the route to Big Sis’s poetry success and how come Lil Bro is playing chess at 5 years, and you can decide for yourself on the G and E in these instances.
Big Sis is good with words. She is interested in them and from as young as 3 years she would always ask questions about the meaning of words:
Big Sis: What does imagination mean?
Me: It’s something that you think about in your head.
Later, when I asked her to concentrate on colouring within the lines:
Big Sis: What does concentration mean?
Me: It’s when you use your head to think about something.
Big Sis: No. That’s your imagination.
At that point, I bought her a dictionary so that she did not need to rely on my lack of defining prowess; the point being that she was interested in words and their meaning from a young age and I provided her with the tools to pursue this.
In addition, I read to Big Sis (and Lil Bro) every night from the age of 1 year, until they could read chapter books for themselves, and I will still read to them more challenging books when we are on holiday. I will define (to the best of my ability) difficult words and ask questions to check that they understand what I have read to them.
I have a book of poems my sisters and I wrote when we were Big Sis’s age. My father encouraged us to write them and he had them bound in a fancy book. They are absolutely hideous (all basic rhymes and no substance – “I love school. It’s so cool.” – you get the tragic idea) but strangely appealing to young children. Sometimes I would get this book out and read them to the children.
When I found out that Big Sis was studying poetry at school, I went to Waterstones to buy TS Elliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”. We have a well-loved cat, and so I thought that this would be an accessible poetry choice for Big Sis. Indeed it was. We read all the poems together. Lil Bro takes to Macavity, Big Sis to the Pekes and the Pollicles. We will soon be taking advantage of the return of the “Cats” musical at the West End.
In one poem, TS Elliot says “How else can a cat keep its tail perpendicular?”
Big Sis asked for a definition of “perpendicular”.
I explained that it means when something is at right-angles to something else. I stand up and demonstrate with my arms perpendicular. At that moment, our cat jumps out from under the bed with her tail up. “There look” – I say pointing, “that’s what it means to have a tail that is perpendicular.” Big Sis understands.
“But”, I say to Big Sis, “I think that Mr Elliot has another meaning when he asks this.”
“Show me what you look like when you are sad or ashamed of yourself.”
Big Sis, the master of drama, slumps and hunches over; slinking away.
“Now show me how you look when you are proud.”
Big Sis sits up straight and tall.
“Look”, I say, “You are “perpendicular” to the ground when you are proud. I think this is what TS Elliot means; he is talking about pride rather than the position of the cat’s tail.”
Later, Big Sis is practising ballet moves in the hallway.
“Mum!” She shouts.
“My leg is perpendicular.”
Lil Bro has always had excellent spatial awareness. One Christmas just after his second birthday I thought about presents to get him. Being Chinese, the first toys that come to mind are educational ones. I thought I would get him a jigsaw, something he could realistically manage like a 3-piece. His Aunty, who is also Chinese and so of the same “educational toys” mind set also buys him jigsaws – Thomas the Tank Engine ones; only, she has no children and so did not appreciate how many pieces a 2 year old could realistically do – and bought him 6, 10 and 12 piece jigsaws.
One evening, I was cooking dinner so I put Lil Bro at the table with the 3 piece jigsaws. He wanted the Thomas ones, so I put those out as well, just to keep the peace while I cooked. The next minute, I turned around and there he was sitting with the 6 piece puzzle completed. I nearly dropped my saucepan.
“OK, then clever clogs” I thought, here’s the 10 piece.
That was also pretty much consumed.
My Christmas present was a complete waste of money, he never did 3-pieces. By the time he was 3, 24-35 piece jigsaws were no problem. We even played “Jigsaw-offs” – infant versus geriatric; where Lil Bro and my mother would race as to who could finish an identical 24 piece jigsaw faster. Lil Bro was victorious.
By 4 years old 50 and 72 pieces were fine. By that time, I had emptied out several toyshops of their jigsaws.
At weekends, when Big Sis was at her swimming lesson, Lil Bro and I would sit in the coffee shop next door and eat porridge. The coffee shop had chess and draughts sets for customers to play with. To kill the time, I taught Lil Bro to play draughts and then chess. I am not the greatest chess player myself. I tend to take pieces with no overarching strategy; pretty much ending most games with no conclusion as my bishop and king chase the opponent’s knight and king hopelessly around the board. Still, by 4 years, Lil Bro knew how the pieces moved. I installed a chess game on to the ipad at home and encouraged the children to play it.
By chance, there is a chess club that runs in the same community centre that the children go to Chinese classes at (they go to be at one with being “Chinese” – their Chinese is even more hopeless than mine). One day, Lil Bro, aged 4 years said “I want to go there and play chess”. Given that the time clashed with their Chinese class. I said it wasn’t possible, but when it came to the summer holidays, I asked if they wanted to go to Chess Summer Camp for a week.
Big Sis was not keen.
I said to Lil Bro, “Your sister doesn’t want to go. Are you sure you want to go, even on your own?”
He said yes.
I went to check with the Chess Camp leader – wasn’t he too young?
The Chess Camp leader said some of the best players in the club were 5-6 year olds. Still, I wasn’t happy to send Lil Bro on his own and I eventually managed to twist Big Sis’s arm to go with him.
After a week of chess camp, and the initial enthusiasm, we carried on playing chess occasionally now and then. I didn’t think anything further on it. Then 3 months later, Lil Bro says to me “I want to go to chess club”.
Man! I thought. I wrack the local websites for chess clubs that are not going to clash with their Chinese class and are not too expensive. Finally, I find a cheap club on a Saturday afternoon at the local library. It’s good, but there is one teacher to eight children at greatly varying ages and abilities. Plus, smack bang in the middle of Saturday afternoon is not the most convenient time.
I get the chess teacher’s contact details. I ring around a few mothers I know whose children might be interested in chess. I set up a chess club for 3 boys after school in a local coffee shop.
So…what do you make of it?
My view is this: clearly, both Big Sis and Lil Bro have genetic predispositions to be good at certain things. I come from a family of mathematicians and engineers; Banker from a family of lawyers and linguists. Go figure that these genes are knocking about our chromosomes.
But can that be all?
What if I hadn’t been there to notice?
What if I had noticed but done nothing about it?
What if I had noticed it but derided intellectual pursuits and tried to knock it out of them?
I am pretty sure that Big Sis would still have enjoyed and been good at writing and Lil Bro would have found chess by himself at a later age. But would they have been in the final of a poetry competition at age 7 years, and been playing chess aged 5 years?
Do these things matter?
Might they not reach the same end-point in adulthood?
That is the more interesting question that is so hard to answer because of the lack of the counter-factual. But my view is this: if life is a journey and your outcome is your destination; genes will drop you off at the airport. If you are lucky it will be London City Airport, if you are not so lucky it will be Luton Airport Parkway. Parenting provides your back-pack: it can be empty; or it can be full of maps, restaurant and hotel reviews, travel guides, good books, a compass, a thermos of cocoa and a bag of chocolate chip cookies. It might not be everything you need, but it sure helps you on the way.
Ultimately, where you go from there is up to you.