I had originally expected to write that this is the must-read book of 2019 (if you didn’t read it on publication in 2018). Then I thought it was a damp squib. Finally I’ve decided it’s the most annoying and exasperating book of the decade. It’s a very bad book; which is catastrophic, because this immensely important topic (psychology, and the impact of modern genetics on it) needs a very good book. This isn’t it. The core and centre of the book is a statement of the blindingly obvious: that our genes are a crucial component of who we are physically and psychologically. We’ve always known that. Remarkably, Plomin never acknowledges the fact that we’ve been selectively breeding for hundreds of thousands of years. Consider your parents. In the vast majority of cases, they mated voluntarily with a partner whom they had selected for ‘fitness’ (Darwinian sense). They probably chose an attractive and intelligent partner, which is why you are probably attractive and intelligent. They will also have selected for temperament, again choosing the best ‘fit’ for their own. You, marvellous, wonderful you, are the end product of an unbroken line of successful genetic choices made by all your ancestors. This is true for all species, which is why our gardens are full of wondrous blue tits and blackbirds and sparrowhawks. The power of this genetic selecting is particularly visible where it is controlled and directed, as it is with domestic animals. Over a mere forty thousand years we have bred wolves into a huge variety of dogs of very different physical characteristics and temperaments – cute and meek, fierce and aggressive, and so on. So it is a given that modern genetics will reveal that there is a DNA basis for the varieties of human being we encounter and interact with. Plomin reveals nothing new. However, his claim is that DNA makes all the difference, and that environmental factors are basically irrelevant. He presumably wants to do this to justify his whole career, and he certainly wants to do it to sell books. But he badly distorts the case, is guilty of special pleading, and contradicts himself. Additionally, the book is badly written, as I shall demonstrate. The subtitle of the book, ‘How DNA Makes Us Who We Are’, is a fudge, because Plomin never defines what is meant by ‘who we are’, and the term is infinitely interpretable. But there is worse than this. As early as p.5 he says ‘inherited DNA differences account for about 50 per cent of our psychological differences. In other words, inherited DNA differences are the main reason why we are who we are.’ Well no, Robert. You just said 50%. Which means that other things account for the other 50%. That’s half and half; before we even begin to question the detail of your first sentence. By p.72 we have: ‘half of the differences between people are due to the environment, not to genetics’, which seems a promising caveat, but then on the very next page he writes: ‘environmental influences shared by family members do not make a difference.’ Either he’s using language in an unfamiliar way, or there’s something odd going on in his argument. What is odd eventually becomes clear on p.80, where he finally gets round to saying what he wants to say with the statement: ‘The systematic, stable and long-lasting source of who we are is DNA.’ The other 50% of effect, the environmental influences, he dismisses as ‘gloomy’ because they’re not stable and systematic (and presumably therefore less analysable). ‘The salient environment might be unsystematic, idiosyncratic, or serendipitous events’, he writes. Well yes, Robert, that’s what life is. Far from being ‘gloomy’, it’s the essence of lives, and defines each individual’s life and life experiences. It’s what makes lives worth living, and makes us who we are. Alas, there is still worse to come. The book is the wrong way round, because Part Two, ‘The DNA revolution’ (I hate that word) needs to be read before Part 1 (‘Why DNA matters’). Part Two presents the scientific background on which Part One depends. And Part Two undermines Plomin’s thesis. Firstly he uses a physical characteristic, height, as a simple way to show how genes affect outcomes for individuals. This may make the explanation clearer, but he has admitted on p.13 that ‘measurement of psychological traits is less clear cut’. You bet it is. Plomin, for instance, constantly uses the word ‘intelligence’, but no definition of what is meant by ‘intelligence’ is offered. We can probably all agree on what is meant by height; we will probably have fierce arguments about what we mean by intelligence. Secondly, even the simple example he uses – height – shows the failure of his thesis. The analysis depends on statistics, and he ignores the first law of statistics (even though he several times says we need to keep it in mind), that statistics only apply to groups of individuals and not to individuals within those groups. No family in the UK has 1.9 children, for example. The failure of his reasoning is revealed in one of the charts he hopes to use to illustrate it (Ch.12, Fig.5, p.142). On p.140 he claims that ‘with DNA, you could tell that I am tall without even looking at me.’ Well, no. Because his genetic profile says he’s in the 90th percentile for height, he may well be tall. But he may in fact be quite short, as Fig. 5 shows. As he says on p.143, ‘The highest polygenic score for height … is for an individual whose actual height is slightly below average.’ In other words, DNA profiles may predict tendencies for your group, but they do not tell you about your individual case. This is absolutely crucial. Absolutely. Because Plomin rashly extends the argument to education. On p.154 he writes ‘What if you find out that one of your children has a low score for educational attainment…’? Well, rather than despairing, I would perhaps read p.157: ‘many individuals from the group with the lowest polygenic scores have higher GCSE scores than people in the group with the highest polygenic scores. And vice versa.’ In other words, individuals are individuals. You can’t predict what will happen to any given individual, regardless of what may be the statistical probability for the group to which they belong. And when we add the 50% of effects which Plomin says are non-genetic, we can predict even less. With this is in mind we can return to Part One and question much of what Plomin asserts. If his basic reasoning doesn’t stand scrutiny, his derived reasoning is on poor foundations, and sections like ‘Parents matter, but they don’t make a difference’ can be critically interrogated. My assertion that the book is badly written (who edited it, if anybody? (oh, ‘Laura Stickney, editor at Penguin’)) is partly based on the confusions and contradictions already noted, but there is worse. Unforgivably, for a scientist, Plomin falls into both the ‘incredible’ and the ‘literally’ traps. Thus on p.30: ‘…it is incredible to find…’ Well no, Robert. You are precisely arguing that it is credible to find. You’re just saying it’s not what some people would expect. Then on the very next page: ‘heritability of 50 per cent is literally way off the scale.’ No, Robert. That sentence is gibberish. And if a serious scientist cannot be more precise with language, we’re in trouble. Conclusion: this is not a must-read book. It’s close to being a must-avoid book. Which, as I say, is a catastrophic, because the material Plomin is discussing is hugely important. Polygenic profiling is going to have far-reaching consequences in fields like healthcare and insurance during the coming years and decades, and we need to understand it and discuss it. But we need a better guide than this. Addendum. I wrote this review before reading the final section, ‘Our Future is DNA’. This section is frankly scary. Ignoring the nature of statistics and his own statement, turning statistical possibilities into individual certainties, Plomin presents a grim vision of where we could end up if the psychologists rule, as they may. p.165: ‘Treatments can … be tailored to individuals on the basis of their polygenic scores.’ p.166: ‘… if we can target individuals at high genetic risk it would be cost effective to intervene at a personal level, for example, providing extended one-on-one cognitive behavioural therapy.’ We face a prospective barrage of interventions for a host of psychological ‘risks’, often, if the ADHD industry is anything to go by, through drugs. Plomin himself (85th percentile for schizophrenia) would have been taken away and intervened with as a child. All this because ‘polygenic scores make it possible to identify individuals who are at risk’ (p.166), although in one of his characteristic self-contradictions he says on the very same page ‘the word “risk” should be avoided in relation to polygenic scores’. And all this despite his acknowledgement that his findings apply only to groups and not to individuals. And all this despite his earlier claims that environmental factors and interventions, such as education, don’t make a difference. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
2019 Thumbnail Review #1 The Secret Network of Nature by Peter Wohlleben
**/*** The Hidden Life of Trees *****
Still haven’t been to Japan, and I’m about a thousand years too late for what I want. Does Japan still exist? No and yes, according to this fascinating insight. ‘If you think it’s not there, it is. If you think it’s there, it isn’t’ (Kerr quoting kabuki adapting the Heart Sutra). Japan is hideous and fascinating, repulsive and mesmeric. And so, so alien. Can’t wait to go.
Thanks to John Vagg for recommending Kerr.
I’ve read quite a lot of Helen Dunmore recently. The adult novels are variable. Zennor in Darkness (featuring D.H.Lawrence) is excellent; a sensitive and well-formed account of a close-knit Cornish community in WW1. A Spell of Winter (incest, also WW1) is OK but a bit cloying. Counting the Stars (Catullus, Rome) is too monodimensional. The Ingo Chronicles (five books), however, are outstanding. Two Cornish children meet two mermaids (the carving of a mermaid in Zennor church was the inspiration for the series), and journey into Ingo – the ocean. The series offers a fully realised Secondary World and strong plot lines. If you ever wondered what it’s like to live in the sea, read these books.
Zennor in Darkness *****
A Spell of Winter ***
Counting the Stars **
The Ingo Chronicles *****
Zennor in Darkness *****
2019 Thumbnail Review #4 Death to the French by C.S.Forester
Bought 1977, read 2019. It happens. This is old-school writing of the first water: extremely well written, well structured, utterly convincing. Set in the Peninsular War, it is a homage to duty. Honour too, but that comes from duty well done. There is an inescapable tang of British superiority, invalid today – most especially today – but a fascinating echo of the time (1933) it was written. And remarkably, large segments of the narrative are from the French point of view, and the French are as virtuously dutiful as the English. The historical detail is meticulous and the whole work compelling. You can see why Forester has been one of the most popular English novelists.
2019 Thumbnail Review #5 The Ship by C.S.Forester
A tour de force, and a tour of force. Crikey, talk about Aristotelian unities: the single action is set on a light cruiser during a skirmish on a WW2 Malta convoy, and lasts only a few hours. The cast of characters, and their back stories, is deftly lineated, the detail is absolute and convincing, and the narrative taut. Published in 1943, it is a fine close-focus depiction of men at war.
2019 Thumbnail Review #6 Statues in a Garden by Isabel Colegate
Initially promising, ultimately disappointing. It centres on a love affair conducted in country house circumstances on the eve of WW1; similar territory to her better-known (and better) The Shooting Party. Some well-observed character detail, but neither dialogue nor events are fully convincing.
2019 Thumbnail Review #7 The Diary and Letters of a World War I Fighter Pilot by Christopher Burgess
A minor work, but interesting because as well as giving the first-hand accounts of a young pilot’s life, it shows the attitude of most combatants, who saw the war as necessary and worthwhile (and at times exciting).
2019 Thumbnail Review #8 Lord Hornblower by C.S.Forester
More swash and buckle than the last two Forester novels I read, but ultimately less successful. It’s more episodic and patchy, and doesn’t cohere.
2019 Thumbnail Review #9 The Gauntlet by Ronald Welch
Something of a shock, on re-reading one of my favourite childhood books, to discover how much it has not merely influenced but actually dictated the course of my life. It’s a time-slip fantasy novel about a twentieth-century boy (it was originally published in 1951), who is drawn back in time to 1326. There he experiences life in a medieval castle and learns all about medieval activities like jousting and hawking. I read and re-read it as a child, and it sparked all my interests in things medieval, particularly castles, manuscripts and heraldry, and set me on my career as a medieval literature specialist. More strikingly, I’d forgotten that the author uses Carreg Cennen castle as the setting for the story – and Carreg Cennen is the central setting of Chs. 4-5 of Melody’s Dragon. Wow! There’s influence for you. Just goes to show how profound the impact can be of the books that obsess you when you’re young. I’m guessing the same must be very much true for others. I shan’t pry, but if you care to reveal what some of those books were it’d be really interesting.
2019 Thumbnail Review #10 The Aimer Gate by Alan Garner
This mini-novella is part of The Stone Book quartet, and describes a boy’s single day in WW1 when his uncle is home on leave. Descriptive, resonant, typically Garner; needs reading slowly, and twice. Children’s literature? Adult literature? Who knows (or cares)?