[Paleopsych] The Times: Nature, nurture and family problems
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Nature, nurture and family problems
February 11, 2005
by Dr Thomas Stuttaford
Repeating the mistakes of our parents
CATHERINE O'BRIEN'S interview with Lisa St Aubin de Terán in T2 on
Wednesday was a fascinating example of the repetitive nature of
familial patterns of behaviour. Her mother had four marriages, all of
them, according to her daughter, failures. Another failure in her
mother's life was her botched attempt at committing suicide.
Fortunately for Lisa, her mother failed, but once she had recovered
she became totally dependent on her daughter.
Lisa, too, has had a tumultuous marital and emotional life. Probably
her own upbringing had not only left her, as she says, "precocious,
obnoxious and spoilt" but with a penchant for the unusual and exotic.
She married a schizophrenic, violent South American bank robber who
had picked her up at a bus stop in Clapham, London, when she was only
16 and followed her relentlessly while he tried to persuade her to
She also survived suicidal intentions, but in her case it was a pact
proposed by her husband while they were in Italy, rather than a
determined attempt, as her mother's had been. But Lisa fled with her
daughter back to the UK, where she could opt out of the marriage.
Lisa's second marriage was to George MacBeth, a poet, who was living
in Norfolk. Later she wed an artist and now lives with Mees Ven Deth,
a cameraman in Amsterdam. Mother and daughter have scored nearly
equally in the marital stakes.
It is not at all uncommon for marriage patterns to repeat themselves,
but the question that Lisa St Aubin de Terán has not ventured to
answer is whether this is the result of nature or nurture.
Thirty years ago it would have been almost unthinkable for any decent,
liberal doctor to suggest that heredity determined character just as
it determines eye colour, the shape of the ears, bodily strength and
even, to a great extent, the likelihood of developing cardiovascular
disease or many cancers.
Though doctors used to favour nurture over nature as the chief
determinant of character, farmers and vets had no doubts about this
and reversed the importance of the two factors. They would be as
unlikely to breed from a dog that bit, or even a cow so irritable that
it was nearly impossible to milk, as they would from a dog with a
congenitally dislocating hip or a cow with a low milk yield. It is one
of the arrogances of humankind that we think we obey a different set
of rules to the rest of the animal kingdom.
The accepted current opinion -- and experience suggests it is true --
is that although our characters, even more than those of animals, are
influenced by environment, they are also heavily determined by our
Fresh evidence for this appears in Archives of General Psychiatry and
is reproduced in the magazine GP. Research workers have investigated
the heredity of children who suffer from severe anxiety. A study of
families over three generations found that 60 per cent of children who
had a depressed parent and grandparent had a psychiatric disorder by
the time they were 12. This study also showed that in these 47
families, who had been followed since 1982, a child of a depressed
parent was 14 times more likely to develop depression if one
grandparent was also depressed. Forty-five per cent of these children
were also excessively anxious and more than a quarter were disruptive.
Overall, if either parent as well as any one of the grandparents had a
psychiatric problem, there was a 59 per cent chance that the child
would have a difficult psychiatric history.
It is too simple to suggest that this is entirely a genetic response,
as any genetic disability inherited by a child is frequently
compounded by the upbringing that child receives. A patient with a
psychiatric problem may be an excellent father or mother, but the
chances are that their particular emotional and psychological
difficulties will be reflected in both physical and emotional
difficulties experienced in the bringing up of their children.
Dr Myrna Weissman, who was the lead worker on this project, emphasised
in an interview with GP that although depression in two consecutive
generations of a family led to children having enormously high rates
of psychiatric problems at a young age, this did not mean that medical
intervention to treat the parents could not still benefit their
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