The Science of Success

How do our genes impact the type of person we will become? How does our environment influence personality? These are fascinating questions that up until recently have been difficult to answer. I recently read a fascinating article in The Atlantic titled The Science Of Success that provides a glimmer of an answer to these questions. The article highlights two personality types–Orchids and Dandelions and how genetic makeup and environmental factors guide success of each personality type.

Orchids are fragile people that can achieve great success, but only in certain specialized environments. Orchids are extremely susceptible to depression and other mental disorders. Dandelions are hardy people that can survive in most any environment, but generally do not achieve greatness. However, they are also resistant to mental disorders.

When I read the article, I thought the author hit on an important point:

If variants of certain genes create mainly dysfunction and trouble, how have they survived natural selection? Genes so maladaptive should have been selected out.

The author is questioning how the “Orchid gene” has stayed within the human population if individuals who carry it are so fragile and susceptible to mental dysfunction. The fields of psychology and psychiatry are just starting to integrate the role of genes in complex behavior types but, the Orchid/Dandelion model has existed in the field of genetics for quite some time.

Genetic diseases occur from mutations that create special versions (alleles) of genes that alter the product of the gene’s function. Why do these maladaptive alleles persist in the human population? Mutations that persist within our population do so because under specific contexts there is profound positive selection to ensure that these alleles remain in the human gene pool.

The Orchid/Dandelion theory can likely explain far more about human biology than is currently appreciated. We all have a unique constellation of genes and each gene can have profound influences on other genes (epistasis). I would assert that each of us has the capacity to be an amazing Orchid in the right setting. We all have specific skills and environments where we excel and thrive or fail and wither. The factors that make us fail and wither at certain tasks, at the same time, allow us to excel and thrive at different tasks. In each person nature is playing a delicate balancing act of allowing individuals to possess incredible abilities at the cost of potential disease risk. For example, great mental aptitude comes at a price - an increased risk of mental disorders such as certain types of autisms.

If this theory is true, the real excitement is to find the skills and environments that allow every person to be great. Many great teachers already do this intuitively with their students. If a student has an innate skill in art, good teachers will encourage that skill or behavior and provide specialize opportunities to allow the orchid to flower. More effort needs to be directed to help students find their inner orchid. Too many educators view students as either smart or stupid. The reality is, we are all both orchids and dandelions.