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Science Writer David Dobbs Talks Genetics and Environment

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Science writer David Dobbs is obsessed with orchids, but not because of any love for the plants themselves. Those fickle flowers provide an apt metaphor for a genetic theory that he believes explains a great deal about human adaptability.

"The orchid hypothesis," as it's come to be known, holds that most human beings are like dandelions, in that we can take root and thrive just about anywhere. But a few of us are more like orchids, thriving only if "cultivated" in just the right environment. Dobbs, in several widely discussed essays as well as a forthcoming book, explores the controversial notion that the genes that seem to steer "dandelions" toward damaging behavior may be the very genes that permit "orchids" to be especially creative and successful.

Known in science journalism for his blog, Neuron Culture, on wired.com, Montpelier-based Dobbs recently ended his formal relationship with Wired to concentrate on finishing his book on the orchid hypothesis. (The blog continues on Dobbs' own site.) That book, tentatively titled The Orchid and the Dandelion, will be published by Crown in 2015.

Dobbs' interests range widely across science, history and writing, and he recently took time to speak about them with Seven Days.

SEVEN DAYS: What drew you to science writing?

DAVID DOBBS: I saw that when people are having arguments about how to do science, there's almost always a cultural argument embedded in that, and driving it. And that's what drew me and is still a lot of what draws me to writing about science. The science itself is often very fascinating, but the nature of those arguments, and how they are driven by cultural arguments, has driven most of my interest in writing about science.

SD: You used to write fiction. What kinds of connections, if any, have you noted between fiction writing and science journalism?

DD: [Both kinds of writing] concern how you structure a story, a narrative arc. I have a very worn copy of John Gardner's The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, in which he describes the classical narrative arc, with rising tension — basically, a hill that goes from left to right. [In writing about science], you want to get most of the factual material in the front part, so that when you get to the later part, it's just consequences roosting. You don't want to step in at that point to explain particle physics.

I find it very helpful to read novels to solve some of the problems in my own articles and books. For the book I'm working on now, I got a revelation from a John le Carré novel with a two-strand structure. The second time I read the book, I saw that that was the key to the puzzle I was dealing with.

SD: Though surely some skills are specific to writing about science, right?

DD: There's a certain amount of technical information you need to understand, but the bigger challenge is really understanding principles, and how they operate in any given field. There are a million ways to get in trouble by making mistakes in your writing, and you have to accept that you will make some and learn to respond to them responsibly.

SD: You left your blogging gig at Wired to concentrate on your book. Has it worked?

DD: Yes, mostly. It was very hard to do both. Behavioral genetics is not what you want to get into if you want to write a book quickly, it turns out.

It's always hard to write a book, but right now it feels dangerous to disappear from view. It's a quick-moving media landscape, and there's a sense that you need to be visible all the time (though I don't know if that's true or not). The author Robin Sloan talks about "stock and flow": "Stock" is the things you produce that are lasting; "flow" is the conversation you have all the time. The flow enriches your own ideas and keeps you part of a conversation, but if it's all flow, you'll look back and wonder what you've done.

SD: Why is the orchid hypothesis useful or important?

DD: [The fields of] child development and behavioral genetics recognize the fact that people differ in their sensitivity to their environments. You can show that this has a neurological basis — that's really beyond challenge.

What's still disputed is that there's a handful of genes that help explain this difference in sensitivity. The idea that this is genetically based has some implications for how we would view evolution, how we would view diversity, how we would see that this sensitivity might lead to something like depression, or what I call "attentional restlessness." Some people, if they're really focusing on their spreadsheet, wouldn't even notice a bomb going off in the parking lot. Someone else might notice a flicker of light bouncing off of a car in the parking lot. Do these things matter?

SD: Well, do they matter?

DD: They can help to depathologize the ends of the bell curve. You start to recognize that there's an evolutionary reason that some of us are more alert to new things than are others. It's well established that some people are more alert to novel stimulus. There can be a downside to that, if it's a first-grader whose attention to new things keeps them from concentrating. But there's also an upside. If you are particularly sensitive to new things that are physically perceivable in an environment, that might steer you toward being good at certain things. Some people make better pilots or soldiers or psychotherapists than others because they might be particularly sensitive to certain realms of activity or signal.

We're talking about a heightened sensitivity to experience. Sometimes that's bad and causes you more grief — you might cry when others might not cry. There are times when it's good. You might get more out of listening to Schubert or looking at a painting or seeing a bird you haven't seen before.

This idea is alluring to me, but that's part of what I'm writing about: the power of the idea itself. I think, as a science writer, that it's important to make that distinction. Separating your enthusiasm for an idea from the notion that you need to actually sell that idea. This is one thing that I have a real problem with about a lot of so-called writing on the science of behavior. It's too often sold as a science that is more mature than it is, and that it has actual answers that explain to us, with a sense of finality, what drives us and what makes us work. The fact of the matter is that the behavioral sciences are, in a formal sense, only a century old. We've learned a lot, but what we've learned compared to what we need to know is almost nothing.

INFO

David Dobbs is the keynote speaker at the League of Vermont Writers' Writers Meet Agents conference on Saturday, July 19, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at the Hampton Inn in Colchester. $140 members, $160 nonmembers. leagueofvermontwriters.org
Read more by and about David Dobbs at daviddobbs.net.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Genes in Bloom"

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