This reading can get a little heavy, so feel free to jump straight to the summary at TL;DR
“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”
– Margaret Mead
What do we really mean by “unique”?
In order to understand just how unique we are at the genetic level, there are a number of calculations we need to make.
But first, let’s start with a review of the basics (with thanks to the YourGenome[i] website for any details that are not specifically indicated by footnote, below):
The Human Genome:
- The human genome contains all the information needed to build a human.
- Our genome is packaged into 23 pairs of chromosomes.
- Chromosomes are paired, with one half of each pair coming from each parent.
- They are bundles of tightly coiled DNA, located in the nucleus of most cells in our body.
- DNA is a long molecule that contains our specific genetic code.
- It holds the instructions for making all of the proteins in our body.
- There are only 4 base types: adenine (A); cytosine (C); guanine (G) and; thymine (T).
- These bases make up the 3.2 billion bases in the human genome.
- Genes are a smaller section of DNA that contains the instructions for a specific molecule.
- There are 20,687 protein-encoding genes.
- Protein-encoding genes contain instructions on how to build a specific protein that we need.
- A trait is a distinguishing quality or characteristic.
- Traits are inherited from parents.
- Certain traits are dominant, and will occur even if one parent passes a different trait[ii] .
- Gene mutation can occur during the replication process (the time that cells make identical copies of themselves).
- Mutations can also occur as a result of exposure to external environmental factors (smoking, sunlight, radiation, etc), changing our physiology.
- Our internal environment (thoughts / feelings) can also affect our physiology[iii],[iv] .
So, what does all this mean for today’s Business Leaders?
To try and put possible combinations in perspective, we might first consider the total number of humans who have ever lived on earth. An estimate of 108 billion[v] would seem reasonable.
If we then restrict our calculations to just the protein-encoding genes (which have a major role in responding to both our internal and external environment), we see that we are dealing with less than 3% of our total genes (protein-encoding genes are thought to be 20,687 genes)[vi]. When we consider the number of combinations of just that subset, and ignore the fact that a proportion of those same genes are potentially also involved in the creation of the other 97% of our genes[vii], we still have a massively large figure (220,687). Calculated out, that figure works out to be a 2 with another 6,227 zeros after it (I needed to use a ‘large number’ calculator[viii] to even get close to working that out!).
Or we may choose to look this in another way. Not all the genes in every cell are used. Given this, we may assume that some possible combinations are not viable, or may have any real impact even if variations did occur. We also know that changing certain genes would render us no longer human. However, at least 1.42 billion variations between humans across our 3.2 billion DNA bases[ix] have been discovered to date. Genes also consist of four different bases – and that two of those bases must be different bases (although sometimes all four are different). Just using the most conservative figure with 2 bases still gives us 21,420,000 (and trying to calculate this number with the large number calculator gave me an error – but it’s estimated to be a figure with several hundred thousand digits…)
If we work with the most conservative of these figures (220,687), we still have trillions more possible combinations than the 108 billion people who have ever lived. This suggests that the likelihood of being identical at the genetic level is astonishingly rare[x]– in fact, it might even be said that (with the exception of identical twins), whenever a human is born, a brand-new gene combination is brought into the world.
There is also one other important factor – that of mutation. There is on average 60 new mutations introduced per generation [xi]. Not all of those mutations will necessarily impact a child’s traits (remember that 97% of our genes do not express proteins, and these mutations could still occur there). But it does add another layer of complexity that suggests ‘new’ (mutated) genes are being created with every generation.
Added to this is the fact that our (external) environment[xii], and even our own (internal) thoughts, can affect us at the genetic level, and further shape our DNA [xiii]. This means our evolution is constantly ongoing.
But what does all this mean? It means that we are a complex, constantly evolving species. And while we have a set of ‘unchangable’ genes, we also have others that are designed to be impacted by the environment (including our own internal dialogue). From a leadership perspective, this is a massive impact. As leaders, we all have the ability to influence the environment in which we work, the way we engage with each other, and even the way we (silently) engage with ourselves. This gives us an incredible opportunity to impact productivity, resilience, creativity and motivation.
So…as a leader, will you use your superpowers for good?
The main points to take away are:
- At a genetic level, and only with the exception of (some) identical twins, we are all unique.
- This uniqueness is evolving, as each child is given genetic mutations upon conception.
- Our external environment, as well as the way we communicate with ourselves internally, can switch ‘on’ or switch ‘off’ gene function. Mutations are also possible from the environment.
- This means, as business leaders, how we impact our employees, suppliers and customers really matters. Anything we do that that affects the environment in which they operate, the conversations they have between us or each other, or even the silent conversations we all have with ourselves, makes a huge difference at both the cellular and physiological levels.
[ii] For example, brown eyes are a dominant trait. This means that, if only one parent passes the brown eyes gene, the child will be brown eyed – regardless of the trait the other parent has provided.
[iii] Thus, also occurring at the physiological level – consider the physiological changes that occur in the brain under sustained conditions of threat – the ‘threat’ areas grow stronger and ‘self-regulation’ areas atrophy. Consider also- how such changes then manifest in conditions such as PTSD, metabolic syndrome, chronic inflammation and even depression.
[iv] Eric L. Garland, Adam W. Hanley, Anne K. Baker, and Matthew O. Howard. “Biobehavioral Mechanisms of Mindfulness as a Treatment for Chronic Stress: An Rdoc Perspective.”: 2.
[v] Carl Haub and Toshiko Kaneda. “How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth?”
[vi] Christian Bach and Prabir Patra. “Human Genome Regulation.”: 57
[vii] Ibid.: 57
[viii] Calculator available at https://www.calculator.net/big-number-calculator.html
[ix] B. Gilman, S. Schaffner, Wj Van Etten, D. Reich, J. Higgins, Mj Daly, B. Blumenstiel, et al. “A Map of Human Genome Sequence Variation Containing 1.42 Million Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms”
[x] There is one possible exception for identical (monozygotic) twins – some identical twins can differ because of differences in each’s X-chromosome activation.
[xi] Alexey Kondrashov, “Genetics: The Rate of Human Mutation.”:467. – Please keep in mind this figure is really the “average of an average”, as the age of the father is extremely important. For example, a 20-year-old father will transmit 25 mutations to his child, whereas a 40-year-old father will transmit around 65.
[xii] Eric L. Garland, Adam W. Hanley, Anne K. Baker, and Matthew O. Howard. “Biobehavioral Mechanisms of Mindfulness as a Treatment for Chronic Stress: An Rdoc Perspective.”: 2.
[xiii] Judith E. Glaser, Conversational Intelligence How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results: 82
Bach, Christian, and Prabir Patra. “Human Genome Regulation.” Bioengineered 7, no. 2 (2016): 00-00.
Garland, Eric L., Adam W. Hanley, Anne K. Baker, and Matthew O. Howard. “Biobehavioral Mechanisms of Mindfulness as a Treatment for Chronic Stress: An Rdoc Perspective.” Chronic Stress 1 (2017).
Gilman, B., S. Schaffner, Wj Van Etten, D. Reich, J. Higgins, Mj Daly, B. Blumenstiel, et al. “A Map of Human Genome Sequence Variation Containing 1.42 Million Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms.” Nature 409, no. 6822 (2001): 928.
Glaser, Judith E. . Conversational Intelligence How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. Edited by Inc Books24x. Brookline, MA : Bibliomotion, 2014.
Haub, Carl, and Toshiko Kaneda. “How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth?” https://www.prb.org/howmanypeoplehaveeverlivedonearth/.
Kondrashov, Alexey. “Genetics: The Rate of Human Mutation.” Nature 488, no. 7412 (2012): 467.