A Philosopher's Blog

How Much is Genes?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Science by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2012
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The secret of success? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous essay, I addressed the matter of the state’s contribution to an individual’s success (and failure). Naturally, no discussion of success would be complete without a discussion of genetics.

While the role of genetics in human behavior is a rather complicated matter, it does seem eminently reasonable to accept that genetics play at least some role in success (and failure). Interestingly, these genes might not all be human—there are some interesting new findings regarding the role of the bacteria that live in us (which outnumber the cells in the human body 10 to 1).

Thanks to years spent in athletics, I have had access to an informal laboratory in which I could observe various factors at play when it comes to success. As might be imagined, genetics probably plays a rather significant role in athletic success (and failure). Being a runner, I will limit myself to running, but the same points can be applied to other aspects of life as well.

One rather obvious role of genetics is body type. As people who run or at least watch competitive running know, the top runners tend to have a rather specific body type. While much of this results from training, there are factors that are genetic. After all, no amount of running will give a person longer legs. There are also the factors that one cannot see, such as the efficiency of the cells when it comes to handling the energy requirements of competitive running. While these factors can be influenced by training, natural ability (which is probably largely based in genetics) does have a significant impact and this is supported by my own years of competitive running.

Having run in high school and college, I was able to observe runners who were in the same training programs, had similar backgrounds and lived in similar conditions. However, performance obviously varied quite a bit even among people who followed the exact same training. In my own case, I was fairly lucky—while I lacked the easy high school success of “natural athletes”, I found that training really paid off for me. In contrast, some other runners worked as hard (or harder) than me, yet did not meet with the same level of success. Of course, there were also runners who trained as hard as I did (or less) who did much better. After graduation, I was no longer on a team, but still trained with other runners. Obviously, some people I trained with and ran with step-for-step were better than me and some were worse. I also found out the obvious—no matter how hard or smart I trained, I would never be able to make the Olympics (although I did run against some of the best American marathoners in Ohio back in 1992).  It makes sense to attribute some of this failure to genetics—my body simply cannot match what the Olympic marathoners can do, despite all that training. Of course, it also makes sense to attribute some of my success to genetics—while I do not have Olympian genes, I have brought home plenty of trophies. Plus, as we old runners say, running is itself a victory.

Naturally, these results were impacted by many variables, but the fact that genes influence performance seems to be well-established. The more interesting question is, then, “how much do genes influence success (and failure)?”

Not surprisingly, people often turn to the study of twins to attempt to sort out what is genetic and what is not. After all, twins are supposed to be genetically identical and hence any differences between them would be non-genetic in nature. Interestingly, it has turned out that twins are not actually identical, thus entailing that some differences might be genetic. There has also been some recent interesting work regarding the bacteria that inhabit the human body and their influence on such factors as health. Oddly enough, it might be the case that some of a person’s success is due to his bacteria.

While the physiological aspects of running and other activities at which one might fail or succeed seem to be strongly influenced by genetics, there is obviously a rather open question as to how much genetics impacts what might be called the mental aspects of success and failure. Going back to running, training and competition have very significant mental elements. For example, there is the matter of having the will to train as needed. As any runner will tell you, real training hurts. Of course, racing hurts more—a big part of being a competitive runner is having what Hobbes called the will to hurt. Only in this case it is the will to hurt yourself rather than others.

As might be imagined, if the “mental” aspects are as influenced by genetics as the physical aspects, then much of a person’s success or failure rests in these genes. For example, if the ability to finish a race despite a broken leg is not a matter of the will of the athlete, but a matter of the structure of his brain that resulted from the genes that constructed it, then he did not succeed. Likewise, if a runner is “broken” in the final sprint by a tougher runner because of the genetics of their nervous systems, then he has not failed.

Shockingly enough, the essay ends as it began, with the question unanswered. After all, we do not know how much the genes influence our success (and failures). But, I got to write about running and that is a success.

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4 Responses

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  1. freddiedrennan said, on August 22, 2012 at 7:02 am

    The whole issue of genetics is also complicated to an unknown degree by epigenetics. Basically, some genes can be altered by the actions during our lives. I read a summary of a research paper in the Economist that, for example, linked lower life expectancy in a farming community with how much they ate due to harvests etc. The scary bit is that this change was hereditary!

  2. magus71 said, on August 22, 2012 at 8:36 am

    While genetics obviously play a role in success, there are many different ventures in which to be successful. For instance, how many people have Mike’s running ability, plus a PHD, plus published books? Probably none of the Olympic medalist marathoners. So even if we attribute their success to genetics (opportunity also plays a big role, maybe bigger than genetics) we can easily see how many others have succeeded in other areas that the Olympians could not. I can probably deadlift more than any Olympic marathoner, having once dead lifted on video in the basement of the police station a weight that would have won me a Maine state title at my weight. But I could not possibly have done this without a scientific protocol. I did not discover this protocol until I was about 30 years old. But I have always been strong. I remember in 4th grade being able to do more strength-related things than other kids in gym class. In fact, I remember outdoing all of them. That being said, I can’t jump for anything. So basketball is not my thing.

    At this point, any talk about the role of genetics in success has to remain in a mostly unscientific arena, since we simply don’t know how much of a part they play. In any event, no matter how talented a person is, without opportunity or focus, it means little. And even if we could quantify the effects of genetics on running success, that would leave out the near infinite ways that a person can be successful in other ways.

    • freddiedrennan said, on August 22, 2012 at 9:28 am

      “no matter how talented a person is, without opportunity or focus, it means little”. What about certain mental illnesses such as aspergers which give someone, for example, a gift with numbers? Such a gift can benefit that person with little focus. It just comes naturally to them.

  3. WTP said, on August 28, 2012 at 10:52 am

    this much:

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