Good read: Stuart Ritchie reviews – or rather debunks – Oliver James’ “Not In Your Genes”

I’ve been pointed a couple of times to the new book by Oliver James, Not In Your Genes. The title already discloses the central point: contrary to what more and more scientists claim: it’s not about our genes but all about parenting.

Bring in Stuart Ritchie to have a critical look at the new book: “On genetics Oliver James is on a different planet to the rest of us”

Some excerpts:

To open the book is to step into a parallel universe. In James’s neo-Freudian world, DNA has no effect on the mind or mental health, whereas parenting reigns supreme. His theory, largely derived from his experience as a psychotherapist, is that interactions between parents and children, especially abusive or neglectful ones, leave deep impressions, fully explaining why children become similar to their parents. The book lays the anecdotes on thick; James tries to draw lessons from the childhoods of such luminaries as Tiger Woods and Vince Cable, and includes a rather ghoulish analysis of the premature death of Peaches Geldof.

But anecdotes are not data; in fact, Not In Your Genes is a compendium of psychological myths and legends, such as the supposed effect of birth order on personality (shown in two huge 2015studies to be small to non-existent), and the idea that 10,000 hours of practice is all it takes to become exceptional (also recently debunked).


Superficially, the book appears well stocked with scientific references. But just try following the citations: they frequently make precisely the opposite point to James. He often interprets honest discussion of methodological limitations as confessions that genetic research has been a let-down. The nadir is an outrageous out-of-context quotation from geneticist Robert Plomin, who recently stated: ‘I’ve been looking for these genes for 15 years and I don’t have any.’ Plomin was arguing— given his knowledge of the results from twins and GCTA — that the specific genes would be found with larger samples and better technology. In James’s hands, the quote is transformed into a cowed admission of failure.

So: a big warning for cherry picking!

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