Is your attitude to the climate crisis down to genetics?


When looking at the similarities and differences between individuals, scientists can agree that any deviations are a cause of two main factors – those of genetic makeup and of the environment in which a person is raised. However, there is a debate regarding the weight these elements hold in contributing to an individual’s attitudes and behaviour.

The discussion of nature versus nurture is most easily observed via identical twin studies. The shared genetic code between these siblings provides a control variable – which might suggest that any differences between the individuals are a consequence of environmental factors. Being a monozygotic twin myself it is, however, easy to see some flaws in this reasoning.

The discussion of nature vs nurture is most easily observed via identical twin studies

Recently, an identical twin study has concluded that the reason some people are more concerned and proactive in terms of environmental issues is down to their genetics. Particularly, researchers saw that identical twins had more alike attitudes towards safeguarding of the environment than non-identical twins. Researchers, from the National University of Singapore, used data from over 1,000 twins in response to questions concerning each individual’s attitude towards nature, conservationism and the climate crisis. The data was sourced from the TwinsUK registry, the largest database in the UK specifically dealing with twins.

In general, twin studies are useful due to their ability to disentangle genetic and environmental factors. Since identical twins have the exact same genetics whilst fraternal twins only share around half of their genes, researchers can view the overall influence a gene has in the development of many physiological or psychological disorders. For example, if a particular characteristic is expressed more in identical twins than fraternal twins it suggests that said characteristic is caused by genetic factors. Previously, twin studies have unearthed that many diseases have a genetic basis including anorexia, osteoarthritis, cataracts and obesity. 

However, the logic behind twin studies isn’t watertight. It assumes that the twins, fraternal or identical, were raised in the same environment – which often is not the case and difficult to quantify. Furthermore, the prenatal environment, the conditions in which a developing foetus experiences, are generally more similar in identical twins as they often share the same placenta. Lead author of the environmental study, Chia-chen Chang, takes this into consideration, telling The Guardian that “heritability estimates are influenced by both genetics and environments”, going on to agree that “our environmental behaviour is probably more complicated than we think”.

Our environmental behaviour is probably more complicated than we think

Felix Tropf, a professor at the Center for Research in Economics and Statistics, also echoes this sentiment and further argues that this particular research is futile. He says that the study is not “extremely useful for the issue [of climate change].” Tropf also adds that while “It’s good to analyse the influences on individual behaviour towards environmentalism, […] in the end, climate change is a structural problem, a systemic problem and a political problem.” Thus, ultimately, when it comes to the climate crisis we should be promoting productivity in terms of scientific research and not just trying to make headlines.

Image: Tony Webster via Flickr

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