David Dobbs Examines a Provocative New Theory of How Genes Shape Behavior

David Dobbs
David Dobbs Courtesy of David Dobbs

In a story selected for The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2010, freelance science journalist David Dobbs explores the “orchid hypothesis”: the tantalizing idea that certain variants of some behavioral genes can either increase children’s risk for psychiatric and behavioral problems or enable them to flourish spectacularly.

Moving from ornery toddlers to a troop of rebellious monkeys to a reckoning with his own DNA, Dobbs reveals how—depending on environment—an accident of genetics can be either a “trap door” to failure or a “springboard” to success. “The Orchid Children” (published online as “The Science of Success”) appeared in the The Atlantic in December 2009.

Here, Dobbs tells TON co-founder Siri Carpenter the story behind the story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


Where did you first learn about what you term the “orchid hypothesis”?

While I was at a scientific meeting working on a story about adolescence, I went to a talk on gene-by-environment interactions in toddlers by Ariel Knafo, a psychologist at Hebrew University. It was absolutely fascinating. His results showed that kids who had one version of this dopamine-processing gene, and who also had harsh parenting, got less and less sociable and agreeable over time. The opposite was true for kids with the same gene variant but who had warm parenting. Then at the same meeting, I saw another talk by [NIH’s] Stephen Suomi, which showed the same basic dynamic in rhesus monkeys.

What made you think this research would make a good story?

There was very excited talk in the halls about this research, and it was immediately apparent that this idea—that genes thought to make us more sensitive to bad environment actually make us more sensitive to all environments—was hugely important for how you view genetics and human behavior. I could tell it wasn’t just the people at the center of the research who were interested in this because there was such a diverse group of people, all in a gaggle, talking about Knafo’s talk. It was obviously something that’s drawing wide interest. I did quite a few interviews at that meeting, with people testing or pushing the idea and with people who were hearing of it the first time.

I felt that the story had several things going for it. First, it’s a powerful new idea that is spreading through developmental psychology right now. Second, the scientists working in this area whom I wanted to focus on are inherently flashy personalities, and are very good at articulating what’s important about the questions they’re studying. Third, you can watch these biological and environmental dynamics being played out in the story, both in toddlers and parents, which readers can easily relate to, and in the monkey shenanigans that were going on.

What were your first steps in developing the idea?

Well my first step was talking to a lot of people at the conference—to take advantage of an opportunity to talk to so many in the field. I wanted to see what people thought, and to bullshit-filter the idea. When I got home, I read a bunch of the literature—a couple dozen papers, I would guess, to start with. Then called a few people I know who aren’t in that direct line of work but who were knowledgeable about the idea. I was looking for a reasonable evidence base under this idea, which there was, and the reactions of good, smart scientists to it. The people I talked to acknowledged that this thing has legs. Some offered caveats and things to watch for as well, which was quite useful when I turned to writing the pitch. If it had a thin evidence base or seemed theoretically flimsy, I would have set it aside.

How did you pitch the story to The Atlantic?

I had pitched them several stories, and they had nibbled but not bitten. But the editor I had been communicating with always wanted more pitches, and I had a sense that they would do a story—they just wanted the right one. For this story, I typed up a four- to five-page page pitch, called my editor there to vet it, and he said it sounded good. So I cut it to about two pages and sent it. They had a couple extra questions, and after I answered those they assigned it.

I was glad, of course. I wanted to do the story. And I’d invested a fair amount of time in it—the equivalent of a week or so. More than I usually would. But it was a big idea, needed more testing than usual, and I had confidence in it. That whole business took place over about a month. About a month after I got home from the conference, I had the assignment.

How did you think about the story’s structure?

There were certain elements that I was pretty sure I wanted and some that I got lucky with. For instance, I wasn’t sure what I would do with all this material I had on Suomi’s research, but then while I was working on the story, this amazing monkey coup happened, where one group of monkeys ousted the top group of monkeys, killing a few of them. It was one of those things that, when it happened, I realized this is great for the story. It was quite dramatic. It illustrated some vital things about the ideas in play. And it drew some new thoughts from Suomi. I met with Suomi about two weeks later, and you could see in his face, and hear in the timbre of his voice,  how big a deal it was. It seemed to affect him emotionally as well. Which it would. He follows these monkeys for years, and suddenly they’re killing each other.

There’s a fairly robust literature growing to support the orchid hypothesis. Yet I noticed that in the piece, you really only described in detail the research of a few teams. How did you decide whose research to highlight and whose to gloss over?

Some of that is almost arbitrary. For example, I had three candidates to lead off with. I opened with the work focusing on early childhood because it makes the dynamics easier to understand, and because it included an observation of actual behavior, which brought the whole idea to life. It was also the only controlled experiment that imposed a specific change of environment and watched what happened. Finally, it was possible—though quite difficult—to describe in about 400 words, which is about how much space I had allocated for that part.

Your decision to undergo DNA analysis yourself, and the results of that analysis, make for a lovely and thought-provoking ending. Did you plan to do that from the beginning of your involvement in the story?

I did not plan on it; that’s not the kind of thing I usually do in my stories. Part of the reason I started to think about doing it was sort of the idea that I should put my money where my mouth was—to ask myself, does this really give me that sense of a greater range rather than a steeper slope?

I mentioned to my editor that I was thinking of doing that, and he thought that that would add a lot, but left it to my comfort level. In the first draft, I had it all up at the front of the story. It was his idea to break it in half. This was not the assigning editor, who was Don Peck, but a former staffer named Toby Lester, who sometimes edits features for them. He was an enormous pleasure to work with, and crucial to moving such a complex story from conception to submission in just a couple months.

Your published article quotes five sources. Did you interview sources who didn’t end up being mentioned in the story?

I spent scores of hours doing interviews and probably had several dozen interviews in my interview transcript folder. Twelve to fifteen of those were intensive.

How long did you spend on the story?

I worked on it full time for about seven to eight weeks, 50-plus hours a week. Maybe roughly four to five weeks of that was research, three to four weeks flat-out writing. Then I spent a week doing revisions after editing.

Why such a short time frame?

The magazine had a hole they wanted to fill, and that’s a very good situation to be in because there’s a sense of urgency about the story, and it gives you an opportunity to help them out of a jam. That can only raise your currency. It’s a good first impression to make. So it met some of my purposes even though it destroyed my summer.

This article spawned a book project for you. How did that process unfold?

I was thinking book from the very beginning, actually—from the first day I ran into the idea at the conference.  After I finished the story in August, I went to New York, interviewed four agents, and chose one—a wonderful young agent named Eric Lupfer. We had about three weeks till the article would come out. We quickly settled on a structure for the book and the proposal, and in about ten days of back-and-forth, we drafted a 10-page proposal. This was hard but fun, and easier than it usually is because we had the article to present as the writing sample for the book. The proposal part just had to describe the book and give an outline.

Incredibly, everything went just as hoped: Eric sent the proposal out the week before the article was printed, with an advance copy attached, and the week the article appeared, generating a lot of buzz, we met with seven different publishers. Several bid, and in the end I signed with Amanda Cook at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, whom I’d already met and liked and who came highly recommended.

We’d like to hear more about your working process in general. How do you stay on top of the fields you cover and find new ideas?

I read Nature and Science of course, and do occasional scans of the literature; I use Google alerts if there’s a particular issue I’m following; I get alerts if a particular paper is cited, and blogs that I follow will also very often alert me to an interesting paper. My friends on Twitter alert me to an astonishing number of valuable papers. I also often look at the letters columns of journals. It’s not on a schedule—I wish I were more organized about how I spend my time. It seems like I spend too much time browsing around from one thing to another, and probably 80 percent of it never gets used. It’s often that one story leads into another, directly or indirectly. I always have about eight stories I want to do.

A glimpse behind the scenes:


Siri Carpenter Becky Appleby-Sparrow

Siri Carpenter is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Open Notebook. Follow her on Twitter @SiriCarpenter.

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