So claimed a newspaper article about a documentary on the DNA of dead celebrities. Don’t tell me you missed it! Elvis, it seems, had “a flaw in his DNA and his early death was his genetic destiny.”
This is at least misleading, if not simply untrue. Elvis’ genes were not his destiny – and neither are yours – but it seems the only message we ever hear is that our genes are in charge of practically everything. Just a couple of days later the same paper tells us, “’Atkins gene’ reveals why obesity can run in family”. And so it continues.
What we’re told – repeatedly – is that it’s the good or bad luck of whatever genes you happened to inherit that determines your health and well-being – how well you will live and and even how long. This notion of genetic destiny seems confirmed when people you know develop a disease that runs in their family, such as diabetes, arthritis or any other condition.
Of course our genes play a part, but what is that part, and how important is it? Is it inevitable that genetic flaws create disease? It can happen, but it’s actually rare. The way I’ve come to understand the power of our genes is through analogies. I’ve come across a few, and here are two versions:
- You take some good quality seeds, throw half of them on rich soil and water them regularly. The other half you throw onto a toxic trash heap. It’s predictable that the second lot of seeds, if they grow at all, will be poor versions of the first. All of those seeds contained identical genes; the difference was the environment in which they lived. (1)
- You can think of genes as keys on a piano. On each piano, one or two of the keys are a bit out of tune, but there’s still a huge range of possibilities as to the tunes those pianos could produce. A classical pianist will make them sound a certain way, which will be very different to how a jazz pianist will play those keys, which will be massively different (I assure you) to how I’d play them. Pretty much the same keys; the real difference is in their action, the way they’re expressed. (2)