Guest Column: Mugged By Our Genes?

Mugged by GenesLast Monday, Nicholas Hughes, son of poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, killed himself. His mother was one of the world’s most famous suicides, and news stories have mentioned the tendency of suicide and depression to run in families. But this tragic inheritance is just part of a more complex story in which our lives are shaped by genes, environment — and unexpected connections between the two.

Much more than depression is partly inherited. Here’s a weirder fact: the genes you get from your parents partly determine your risk of being mugged. So do genes dictate our fate? Of course not — but they do have a say in who we become.

We tend to think of the environment as something that just happens to us, but in fact animals actively seek out surroundings that are compatible with their genetic predispositions. Teenagers in the chess club choose to be exposed to different influences from their hockey-player counterparts. Such differences don’t even have to be voluntary: tall kids may be picked more often for the basketball team and end up better at the game because they have more opportunities to develop their skills.

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