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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Genetics & Genomics

Blueprint How DNA Makes Us Who We Are

Popular Science
By: Robert Plomin(Author)
266 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Allen Lane
Far from another overhyped piece of pop-psychology pulp, Blueprint is a remarkable and thought-provoking book on the genetic basis underpinning our behaviour and personality.
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  • Blueprint ISBN: 9780141984261 Paperback Jun 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Blueprint ISBN: 9780241282076 Hardback Oct 2018 Out of Print #243399
Selected version: £10.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

One of the world's top behavioural geneticists argues that we need a radical rethink about what makes us who we are.

The blueprint for our individuality lies in the 1% of DNA that differs between people. Our intellectual capacity, our introversion or extraversion, our vulnerability to mental illness, even whether we are a morning person – all of these aspects of our personality are profoundly shaped by our inherited DNA differences.

In Blueprint, Robert Plomin, a pioneer in the field of behavioural genetics, draws on a lifetime's worth of research to make the case that DNA is the most important factor shaping who we are. Our families, schools and the environment around us are important, but they are not as influential as our genes. This is why, he argues, teachers and parents should accept children for who they are, rather than trying to mould them in certain directions. Even the environments we choose and the signal events that impact our lives, from divorce to addiction, are influenced by our genetic predispositions. Now, thanks to the DNA revolution, it is becoming possible to predict who we will become, at birth, from our DNA alone. As Plomin shows us, these developments have sweeping implications for how we think about parenting, education, and social mobility.

A game-changing book by a leader in the field, Blueprint shows how the DNA present in the single cell with which we all begin our lives can impact our behaviour as adults.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Fascinating and thought-provoking
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 9 May 2019 Written for Paperback

    When I opened this book and read its sales pitch (I paraphrase: “What if I told you of a new fortune-telling device that can predict psychological traits – it’s called the DNA revolution!”) I raised my eyebrow somewhat. Did I just pick up another piece of pop-psychology pulp? Oh boy, was I wrong! Behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin has written an incredibly interesting book with Blueprint, explaining how rapid advances in DNA sequencing technology are opening vast new vistas on the genetics underlying psychology. And is it ever so different, and more complex, than what hyped-up newspaper headlines have tried to sell us so far.

    No doubt you will have heard of the long-running nature vs. nurture debate: is your character and behaviour determined by your genes (nature), or by environmental factors such as your upbringing or education (nurture)? Psychology has traditionally favoured nurture, though some prominent scientists have spoken out against this over the years, notably Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, but also Rutter in Genes and Behavior.

    Plomin kicked off several long-term longitudinal studies on adopted children in the mid-70s and twins in the mid-90s, revealing that genes are far more important in determining behaviour than they have been given credit for. Adopted children end up resembling their biological, rather than their foster parents. And identical twins (those that come from the same fertilised egg splitting in two after fertilisation) resemble each other far more than fraternal twins (those where two eggs are fertilised simultaneously).

    But pointing to genetics has not been without problems, and the field of behavioural genetics has been mired in controversy. Especially where research on intelligence is concerned, it quickly gets mixed up in debates on racial differences with eugenic undertones. The 1994 book The Bell Curve was roundly criticised (see The Bell Curve Wars, Inequality by Design, or Intelligence, Genes, & Success).

    Twin studies, too, have been under fire (see for example The Trouble with Twin Studies), partially for not being able to find genes for behavioural differences. That last has been a big problem as researchers were hoping to find single or a few genes of big effect on traits of interest such as intelligence. Hundreds of studies reported such findings, and media headlines were rife with claims of “gene for X found!”. This came crashing down with the publication of a 2005 article Why Most Published Research Findings are False, which set off the reproducibility crisis (see also my review of Stepping in the Same River Twice). It turned out that virtually none of these studies on candidate genes for big effects could be replicated.

    What I like about this book, and what increases Plomin’s credibility in my view, is that he acknowledges all of this troubled legacy. He admits that some of what he writes will be controversial to some, but he avoids hyping things. He openly confronts the reproducibility crisis and shows how, at least in the field of behavioural genetics, it came about and is now being resolved.

    So, what are some of these potentially controversial claims then? I do not have space here go into these in-depth – and the book does a far better job of properly building cases for them, but to whet your appetite…

    One, a lot of what we thought of as effects of nurture are actually underpinned by genetics. For example, stressful life events such as divorce or bereavement correlate with depression in adults, which was long been interpreted as the former causing the latter. Plomin turned the tables on this, saying “actually, your personality and the way you respond to these events has a large genetic component to it”.

    Two, that reproducibility crisis? Well, genetics is complex and there are only very few psychological traits or disorders caused by a few genes of large effect (Plomin wryly remarks on page 116 that natural selection did not tinker with the genome to make things simple for scientists). It took the Human Genome Project to spur technological innovation to allow researchers to quickly and cheaply sequence not just bits of DNA but the whole of a person’s genetic makeup (their genome). And, lo and behold, it turns out that many traits are influenced by thousands of genes, each with a very small effect (in particular single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs, all explained in detail with great clarity in the book). Biologists call this polygenicity and it is very frustrating when you are trying to study the biochemical pathways that lead from gene to behaviour. The upside is that fears of modern gene-editing tools such as CRISPR (see A Crack in Creation and Modern Prometheus) being used to create designer babies with certain character traits are unfounded. For now.

    Three, as a corollary of number two (and this idea blew my mind) – psychiatry has been getting it all wrong with its dichotomous diagnostics of disorders. Rather than qualitative differences (you are or aren’t, say, schizophrenic), people can all be classified on a quantitative scale, on a spectrum. We are all a but schizo, but only people at the extreme end of the spectrum experience problems in their day-to-day life. Plomin raises the interesting question: what is at the opposite end of the spectrum? Normal behaviour or other unhealthy extremes?

    Four, as a consequence of all of the above Plomin puts forth the controversial claim that parenting, education and life experiences matter, but ultimately do not make a difference. By which Plomin means to say that research shows that our genetic make-up has a far larger impact on who we are. He even takes this one step further by effectively saying “relax, just accept who you are rather than trying to go against your genetic grain”.

    Throughout, Plomin is at pains to prevent misinterpretation of these findings (possibly best summarised by the title of Heine’s 2017 book DNA is Not Destiny). Does he get repetitive? I do not think so. Given the controversial nature of his findings compared to what most people still understand, pointing out the caveats bears repeating.

    I am sure that some of Plomin’s peers will disagree with some of the ideas put forth here, and it will not be the last word on this topic. But in the end I found this to be a remarkable and thought-provoking book. Together with books such as She Has Her Mother’s Laugh and The Genome Factor, Blueprint is painting a picture of genetics and heritability for the 21st century.
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Robert Plomin is a leading behavioural geneticist who works at King's College, London. He has published more than 800 papers in scientific journals and is the author of the best-selling textbook in the field. In 2012, he was awarded a highly prestigious five-year Advanced Investigator Award from the European Research Council. He was the youngest president of the international Behaviour Genetics Association, and has been given lifetime achievement awards from that association as well the American Psychological Association and the Society for Research in Child Development, among others.

Popular Science
By: Robert Plomin(Author)
266 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Allen Lane
Far from another overhyped piece of pop-psychology pulp, Blueprint is a remarkable and thought-provoking book on the genetic basis underpinning our behaviour and personality.
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