Is success genetic or environmental? For educators trying to change the prospects of disadvantaged youth, new research on this timeless question might have wide-ranging implications. Previous research on genetic “vulnerability” hypothesized that certain people (roughly a quarter of all humans) are genetically more prone to depression, anxiety, or sociopathic, antisocial, or violent behavior if they experience a particularly traumatic event or childhood. But, according to David Dobbs, these genetically vulnerable folks may actually have “heightened genetic response to all experience.” They call these folks “orchids,” who like their floral namesake, are volatile and nurture-dependent; for them, a supportive and happy environment will produce a super-successful rocket scientist while a disruptive or dysfunctional one may yield a bully or drug addict. These folks are the high-flyers--and also the most troubled denizens--of our society. (The other 75 percent of humans are “dandelions,” who without these “risk” genes can thrive in any kind of family or home situation. They are steady, stable, and survive life’s rough patches with resilience.) What does mean for education? That for the 25 percent of students who are “orchids,” perhaps the ones who act out the most in class, exhibit symptoms of ADHD, or bully others, positive experiences in school might have the potential to override or at least offset the negative ones outside of it fueling this behavior. That’s good news for schools catering the most troubled and disadvantaged youth.
"The Science of Success," by David Dobbs, The Atlantic, December 2009