“All in the genes”? Apparently not!

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By Ian Patterson (IMG_4786) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
But it did on Friday when Olympic hero Mo Farah was asked why his identical twin brother Hassan isn’t also a world-class runner.

Referring to his other guests, Gwyneth Paltrow and Lee Mack, the chat show host said: “The three of us can look at you and kind of go, well you know, Mo is genetically different – so he’s predisposed to be able to run like that.”

He added: “But Hassan is genetically exactly the same as you!”

Yet different.

Identical genes do not mean identical lives or even the identical disposition to diseases and times of dying that headlines sometimes suggest. According to a recent London-based TEDxorganised by a team from the King’s College department that maintains TwinsUK – an impressive registry of 12,000 paired siblings – the differences between identical twins offered evidence of its theme: “Beyond the genes – identity, health and culture”.

The dozen speakers lauded genes as well as discussing transcending them. But from the talks it seemed like the medical breakthroughs promised from sequencing the genome still lie largely in the future.

In light of that, a heartening thread woven through the day was how the human spirit, unable to wait for medical marvels, instead seizes the moment and acts. It was particularly moving to hear from two mothers who are speaking out for their children to be recognised and appreciated for the individuality that lies beyond both their genes and society’s stereotypes.

For Kathy Lette, already in the public eye as a successful comedy writer, it took time until she spoke publicly about her son being on the autistic spectrum – including sharing some of his social etiquette indiscretions. On visiting 10 Downing Street he told Prime Minister Blair: “You’re the man my mum calls Tony Blah-blah-blah!”

Combining her comedienne and mothering skills, Kathy concluded: “It would be very boring if we were all the same, a case of the bland leading the bland”.

By contrast, it was “working mum” Caroline White‘s victory over her reaction to having a Down’s Syndrome baby which brought her into the limelight. Her husband’s tough love – asking her “If you can’t accept him, how can you expect society to?” – brought a life-changing shift from distraught parent to being her son Seb’s champion – and agent! He has been adding a new layer of diversity to ad campaigns for brand names such as M&S. It’s a story that has attracted many column inches and paved the way for other children to follow suit.

Echoing the conference title, Caroline said: “I have learned to see beyond the genes”.

Dr Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and founder of TwinsUK, expanded on the science supporting that title. Reporting on his prolific studies of twins he said: “We now know genes are not our destiny”. His recent book – based on 20 years of twin research – sums it up this way: “Identically Different: why you can change your genes”.

Change was also the theme of inspirational talks that bookended the meeting.

The opener was by cyclist Mark Colbourne who won London 2012 Paralympic gold in a thrilling, world-record breaking, individual pursuit final. He spoke of a remarkable turnaround following a paragliding accident, in which he went from laying on his back counting ceiling tiles to Olympic champion on a world stage. “If you want your life to change, you have to change,” he insisted. When he ended his talk with the video of his famous victory there weren’t too many dry eyes in the house.

The closing message, from businessman Ellis Watson, was to recognise happiness isn’t in the genes – nor, for that matter, in money, fame or owning the latest gadget. Success can’t bring happiness, he said, but happiness breeds success.

His free-flowing monologue brought to a crescendo the humour which had been woven throughout the proceedings and was a fitting finale to the day’s educational and inspirational tapestry of ideas on identity, health and culture.

Such big issues can only be touched on in a day, of course, not exhaustively covered. But it would have been interesting to have a further thread interwoven into that tapestry of what lies “beyond the genes” – something that could be described as everyone’s “twin”: our spiritual individuality. Not an identical person, but another perspective on the identity of each of us: our divine essence, evidenced in the timeless qualities which featured extensively during the day – such as compassion, joy, intelligence, creativity, and freedom.

Over several decades I’ve found that identifying ourselves in terms of such spiritual qualities can be liberating. It can loosen the grip of the conviction life is primarily shaped by material factors and bring out a sense of health, rather than sickness, being the divine default. When I have managed to see myself in this way, I’ve found it to be a powerful perspective which has often proved capable of breaking the hold an illness has had over me.

As TEDx made plain, the quest for genetically-based diagnostics, therapies, and technologies goes on apace.

But as people await the outcome of such searching, it’s good to know we can all start to explore life “beyond the genes” right now.

This blog was first posted on the Huffington Post UK as Taking a Healthy Look “Beyond the Genes”.

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