Gene of the Week: The Success Gene

Posted by Emily Beitiks May 16, 2012
Biopolitical Times
A few weeks ago, I received my PhD, the end to a long and arduous 7-year path. The significance of this accomplishment has been slowly sinking in, but recently, I’ve been feeling pretty proud about it. According to a recent study in the Journal of Personality, however, I need to get off my high horse and accept the truth: It’s just about my genes.

The study of 800 pairs of twins compares the success of fraternal twins and identical twins, presuming that in both cases environment, commonly thought to shape success, would be constant. Yet twin studies have long been criticized for resting on two faulty assumptions: first, that identical twins are genetically indistinguishable and second, that the social environment treats fraternal and identical twins similarly.

Additionally, to suggest that “success” is genetically determined assumes that “success” can somehow be defined outside of our cultural frames. While I feel that my American Studies PhD should constitute a sign of “success,” others would define “success” more narrowly – say, making a lot of money as a CEO or corporate lawyer. (Have you heard the joke: What’s the difference between a large pizza and an American Studies degree? A large pizza feeds a family of four!)

Now, I’ll certainly be the first to argue that one’s success in life isn’t all about hard work and determination. It’s also about socially defined privileges. As a white female, I faced advantages based on my race and disadvantages based on my gender along the way. My skin color and sex were certainly shaped by my genetic heritage, but unfortunately, this sort of socially embedded understanding of genetics wasn’t what the Journal of Personality study has in mind.

Perhaps I just don’t want to admit that my accomplishments were hard-wired into my biology. But more likely, the “success gene” simply represents another gene of the week.