Is it really more responsible for people with depression or other psychological problems to forgo bearing children in order to avoid passing on their “bad” genes?
Comedian Sarah Silverman, who routinely courts controversy with her edgy humor, recently made an attention-getting statement of a more intimate nature: because of her personal and family history of depression, she declared that she would not have biological children, to avoid passing her mental problems to the next generation. “I don’t want kids,” she said on The Conversation with Amanda de Cadenet. “I know that I have this depression and that it’s in my family. Every family has their stuff but, for me, I just don’t feel strong enough to see that in a child.”
Pundits across the Internet praised Silverman for her honesty and sense of responsibility, duly citing research that shows that depression is deeply heritable. People with a parent or sibling with major depression are two to three times more likely than average to develop it themselves.
But what the commenters didn’t mention is that the same genes that can cause depression may also encourage the sensitivity and sensibility that gives Silverman her creative talent. Indeed, some research suggests that the same exact genetics that might lead to depression can also lead to mental superhealth, depending on whether a person endured high stress in early childhood or had a calmer, more nurturing environment.
Atlantic writer David Dobbs has called such genes “orchid genes.” Like the finicky flowers, they thrive and outshine ordinary plants when grown in the perfect conditions, but otherwise rapidly wilt and die. In contrast, he describes “dandelion genes,” which allow healthy development, whether the setting is harsh or bountiful.