"Each has his own tree of ancestors, but at the top of all sits Probably Arboreal." - Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

In the genes (part 2)

So, as promised, here’s part two of yesterday’s part one. (Though if you read the original article, you will already know the story!)
One of the boys died just days after they were rescued, but the other, aged about seven or eight, survived and was adopted by a local doctor, taking the name Evan Thomas. Remarkably, the boy quickly showed himself to have bone-setting skills that had never been seen before in the UK, including the use of traction and splints. His techniques are still the foundation of modern orthopaedic surgery.
His flair for medical skills certainly seems to have been in the genes, for in each of the next twelve generations of his family there has been at least one person working in orthopaedics. His great grandson, Hugh Owen Thomas, was to become known as the father of modern orthopaedics. A generation later, Sir Robert Jones’s pioneering work on the battlefields of the First World War drastically reduced the rate of deaths caused by fractures, from over 80% to just 8%. To this day, Evan Thomas has ancestors working in the medical field, including orthopaedics.  
I find this rather intriguing – could this skill really be ‘in the genes’?
On the one hand, it seems unlikely. His ability to set bones must have been a learnt attribute it would seem. But then there is a difference between having knowledge of something and having a natural flair for it. In our schools, children are all taught the same things, yet some of them excel more than others and in different subjects, different children do better. Surely this must be partly genetic? If you follow this line of reasoning, surely it can’t be too ridiculous to argue that my natural aptitude for languages was inherited from a great-grandmother who learnt fluent French? Or that some of my cousins seem to have inherited the performing bug, which might easily come from my theatrical ancestors? On the other hand, perhaps it’s just coincidence...
In Evan’s case, there are further factors too. The article says that Evan initially demonstrated his skills on animals, and it strikes me that he must have been of a naturally gentle and caring nature to have cared for wild animals in this way. If his techniques were learnt, his skill in carrying them out may have been far more natural. And gentle handling of the weak and vulnerable is perhaps a natural trait for those in the medical profession, which might explain why so many of his ancestors went down that route.
But Evan’s modern day ancestor had a different take. He felt that Evan’s skills were so valued in the family, and that the family were so close and supportive of one another, that it was natural for the skills, and the respect for those skills, to pass down through the generations. And he might have a point. After all, the article seems to imply that this family story, which dates all the way back to the 1740s, had been passed down through his family. It seems to hint at some special regard for family history, because I’m pretty sure no family lore has made its way down to me from such a long time ago!
(Unless you count the completely unsubstantiated claim that someone was involved in the gunpowder plot, of course!)
What do you reckon – Nature or nurture?
L x

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