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David Dobbs

Independent Author
Contributor to The Atlantic, New York Times Magazine, Nature, National Geographic;
Author of the Book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral.

What Makes Us Tick? Orchids, Dandelions, and the Genetic Roots of Temperament

March 26, 2012
AAG008 5:00 pm


Might the genes and traits that underlie our weaknesses also underlie our greatest strengths?  Over the past 15 years or so, researchers in psychiatry and behavioral genetics have repeatedly identified a handful of neurotransmitter gene variants as “risk genes” for mood and behavioral problems: When combined with bad experiences, this risk-gene model asserts, these variants open the d   oor to troubles ranging from melancholy and restlessness to depression and antisocial behavior.

But what if we turn this notion inside out? Rising from work in child development, primatology, genetics, and endocrinology, an alternate view, the “sensitivity-gene” hypothesis, holds that “risk” alleles produce not just psychic vulnerability but psychic and social sensitivity — a heightened response to experience both bad or good, with bidirectional outcomes to match. To cite a Swedish vernacular distinction (and another frame for this idea), our genes tend to place us along a temperamental spectrum running from “dandelions,” who perform roughly the same in almost any environment, to “orchids,” who fail in poor environments, do decently in benign ones, and thrive with extra support.

This hypothesis challenges our current view of mental dysfunction in seeing sensitivity not simply as weakness but as a malleable source of strength and happiness. It also has startling evolutionary implications: In humans most of these sensitivity genes  have emerged within the last 50,000 to 80,000 years, as we spread across the globe and became modern humans; orchid genes, it follows, may have helped provide a mix of steadiness, flexibility, and responsiveness to change helpful for exploiting new surroundings. As writer David Dobbs explains in his talk, the sensitivity-gene hypothesis — the subject of an Atlantic feature that Dobbs is currently expanding into a book — also has some fascinating gene-culture implications.


David Dobbs writes features and essays for publications including The Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Nature, and Wired.com. He is currently writing a book, working title The Orchid and the Dandelion (Crown), that explores the notion that the genes and traits underlying some of our most vexing mood and behavior problems may also generate some of our greatest strengths, accomplishments, and happiness. He is the author of three previous books about the environment, science, and culture; of the best-selling WWII family memoir “My Mother’s Lover“; of numerous magazine articles that have been selected for annual “Best American …” anthologies of science and sports writing; and an invited guest lecturer at writing programs at MIT, NYU, Columbia University, and City University of London. He blogs on these and other subjects at Neuron Culture, hosted at WIRED.


  • David Dobbs, “The Orchid Children” (web title: “The Science of Success”) The Atlantic, November 2009. [Link]
  • David Dobbs, “The Depression Map,” at Neuron Culture, his blog at WIRED. [Link]
  • Jay Belsky, “Vulnerability genes or plasticity genes?”, Molecular Psychiatry  (2009) 14: 745-754… [pdf]

Stay Tuned…

David Dobbs will be with us again on Tuesday March 27, 2012, in room UU252 at 4:00 pm. Here is the abstract from that talk as a bonus:

Structure as An Expressive Force: Writing Lessons from Music

by New York Times Magazine writer David Dobbs

What do Led Zeppelin and Franz Schubert share with the best nonfiction writers? Not just chops and eloquence, but the ability to deploy structure as an expressive force. In this fun, musically rich talk, prize-winning author and magazine writer David Dobbs (The Atlantic, New York Times Magazine, Wired, others) deconstructs tunes by Led Zeppelin, Mendelssohn, and Schubert — gorgeous music played loud, folks — to show how music can provide flexible model for structuring nonfiction. For any lover of good music, good writing, string quartets, or Kashmir.

Seminar Recording:

Watch the Lecture

Video Podcast:

Watch the Interview