Friday, August 20, 2010

How does culture affect genetics

I'm Canadian of European descent. My wife is Korean. And according to a new groundbreaking study, the 'difference between European American and Korean customs is so powerful that it shapes the expression of biology: A genetic profile linked to empathy and sociability yields two very different behavioral outcomes, depending on the culture.'

The study was published Aug. 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and it deals primarily with one specific gene that is known for its relationship to the human characteristic of social bonding. Wired has a good breakdown of what the study is all about.

Particularly interesting to me is that the study compares Korea's culture of privacy to the more open societies of North America, where people talk about their problems all the time to anyone that pretends to listen. European Americans with this gene trait were more likely to seek help from friends and family when they were in emotional turmoil. The same gene trait, when found in Koreans, did the opposite. People were less likely to seek help but instead kept their emotions to themselves. Except Korean Americans had similar reactions to European Americans.

The scientists now believe that this gene causes people to be more attuned to their cultural surroundings.

But I don't make that association. From early on in our relationship, my wife has made a clear distinction between Korean's born and raised in Korea and Koreans born and raised abroad, even if they are 100% from Korean ancestry. She, and most of her society, don't consider foreign-born Koreans as 'true Koreans' not because of their biology but because of the way they act, the way they think.

For me, this shows that blood and biology are irrelevant and that culture and the psycho-graphic nature of societies is what makes one's disposition to be more open to their current society. Genes that are expressed more or less in the same way can't be concluded to be the only influence on human behavior. There are reasons why Koreans don't share their private problems with others that go back through thousands of years of war and hardship, customs and formality. And though we are becoming more open in the West about our emotions and talking about our feelings, there are still aspects of our culture that are quite closed. I'm thinking about the Catholic church communities I used to belong to where we were so careful not to be judged. 

Maybe I'm misunderstanding the importance of this study and I would welcome any thoughts. I just don't buy it.

1 comment:

James said...

I agree -- I don't buy it either. In term of 'nature/nurture, something like a person's general sociability seems like it would come entirely from the social environment, not genetics, as perfectly illustrated by the fact that ethnic Koreans growing up in the U.S. act like Americans and not Koreans (it really does seem quite obvious).

Where Koreans, and Asians in general, do excel genetically, though, is in the beauty and litheness of the women -- we really need to start integrating those genes into the N. American gene pool. And it's fun! :)