The Science of Human Development (part 2)

gene-expressionDavid Dobbs, in The Social Life of Genes, published in the Pacific Standard, posits that “Genes don’t make you who you are. Gene expression does. And gene expression varies depending on the life you live. We’re constantly building and re-engineering new cells. And that regeneration is driven by the contingent nature of gene expression.


Dobbs asserts that University of Illinois scientist Gene Robinson really “goes out on a limb” in his theory that “an individual’s social environment might exert a particularly powerful effect. Who you hung out with and how they behaved, in short, could dramatically affect which of your genes spoke up and which stayed quiet—and thus change who you were.” So, over time, environmental influences don’t just make you act differently, they make you a different person.

“We think of our bodies as stable biological structures that live in the world but are fundamentally separate from it. That we are unitary organisms in the world but passing through it. But what we’re learning from the molecular processes that actually keep our bodies running is that we’re far more fluid than we realize, and the world passes through us.” 

Just as our behaviors make an impact on the world around us, so too does the world around us impact our gene expression, and thus our behavior.

The Selgas Cano architecture firm in Madrid is integrated into a forest outside of Madrid. With glass walls and ceilings, workers are at one with nature, and thus completely relaxed and inspired to do great work. Work environments like Selgas Cano are said to be more sensitive to human needs, and thus foster creativity and innovation.

Similarly, the practice of design thinking, which combines empathy, creativity, and rationality in analyzing and solving problems, responds directly to ‘human needs’ through intensive observation. Aesthetic considerations are secondary.

Efforts to connect human behavior to the physical environment indicate a growing appreciation for the notion that ‘everything effects everything.’

 Great organizational cultures, ones that offer dignity, meaning and community, are built around this way of thinking. And the best leaders are those who define, communicate and relentlessly protect the culture they’ve created. In companies where the values are clear, where everyone is aligned around the narrative, and where toxic influences are kept out, employees thrive.

It’s basic biology. And organizations, like biological organisms, must be nourished, cared for and tended to daily.