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Not in Your Genes (Oliver James)

Oliver James

Penguin, 2016, Hardback

ISBN: 9780091947668

Oliver James trained and practiced as a clinical child psychologist and works as a Chartered Psychologist and Relational Psychoanalyst. Since 1988, he has worked as a writer, journalist, broadcaster and television documentary producer and presenter. His books include ‘How Not to F*** Them Up’, ‘Contented Dementia’, and the very popular ‘Affluenza’.

The cover of ‘Not in Your Genes’ suggests that James uncovers the truth about what the science of genetics has proven: that our genes actually play very little part in shaping who we are, and further declares the latest evidence imply that nearly all of the psychological differences between us are caused by our upbringing and environment. In addition this publication boasts that it will not only change the way you think about yourself and the people around you, but give you the fuel to change your personality and your life for the better. He also proposes that the latest evidence from the Human Genome Project is proving that it is not genes which make psychological traits run in families. Certain traits for instance like height, looks and eye colour he professes maybe so, but mental illness and smartness have little or nothing to do with the sequences of DNA.

Within its pages James uses a mixture of famous and ordinary people to support his position. He also employs studies and pieces of research to determine the real reasons children are not like their parents. Chapter after chapter is concluded in the same way and one gets the feeling that he is stamping his feet and proclaiming ‘it is I tell you – it is!’ But has he really got it right? For instance, a cover statement proclaims Professor Robert Plomin, the world’s leading geneticist, said in 2014 of his search for genes that explain differences in our psychology: ‘I have been looking for these genes for fifteen years. I do not have any’. This is a selective statement and not a full picture of what Plomin was purporting. What James does not expand on is that from Plomin’s research into twins and GCTA (a Tool for Genome-wide Complex Trait Analysis) is that specific genes would be found with larger samples and improved technology access, thus studies continue and are far from being complete. This selective choice of detail and the omission of all the facts in order to make his points, permeate throughout James’s book.

The content raises matters of interest covering the likes of why was Peaches Geldof so like her mother, maltreatment and love (why siblings are so different), and the real causes of ability. James notes that in the case of Peaches Geldof, her sisters were also at risk after Paula’s suicide but an important difference was that she was unable to properly mourn Paula. He reinforces this by implying that she was extremely vulnerable, with very mixed feelings about her mother and he finishes with the possibility that Peaches hoped to be reunited with her mother through death. As with much of the content this is anecdotal information with little in the way of research to support it.

James in conclusion reckons the implications are huge: as adults we change and clutch our fates from predetermined destiny; as parents we can radically alter the trajectory of our children’s lives; and as a society we could largely eradicate criminality and poverty. I do not think anyone would disagree that there is value in ‘Not in Your Genes’ and that some of what he professes could be put to good use although you have to remember that his anecdotal approach is not steeped in good factual data and where it is the data has been misused or distorted to ascertain his own stance. James boasts the content of ‘Not in Your Genes’ will not only change the way you think about yourself and the people around you, but give you the fuel to change your personality and your life for the better. It certainly may be an eye opener for many readers and there are positives to take away, but just be cognisant this should gravitate to the popular psychology shelf.

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