At the start of the latest instalment of Child of Our Time, Robert Winston spells out the reason why, in the year 2000, the BBC decided to start filming 25 newborn babies and to keep filming them as they turned into toddlers, children – and now teenagers. “It was a quest,” he declares on the voiceover, “to find out what makes us who we are: nature or nurture?”
So I’m a little surprised that Lord Winston tells me, right at the start of our interview, “I was never really happy about presenting this as ‘nature versus nurture’.” Not even at the very start of the project, all those years ago.
Why? Because even then, he says, the concept “was already dated”. “This was something we argued about a bit,” – Winston and the BBC, that is – “in a very friendly sort of way. But I ended up presenting it as ‘nature versus nurture’ even though I was increasingly aware the science would be changing.” And that’s how he’s presenting it this time, too. A simple battle between the two concepts. On the TV, if not when you speak to him in person.
The thing is, he explains to me, “we now know that nurture can actually affect nature”. Think about that: what the professor is saying is that our behaviour today can change our genes – and thus affect the lives of future generations.
“We now know that environmental influences one, two, three or even four generations back can make a difference to a child’s development,” he says. He points to an animal experiment where pregnant mice were deliberately overfed, but their offspring and subsequent generations were given a normal diet. “By the fourth generation you can see some of the females developing diabetes. So it’s a very complex issue and it’s clear that the environment plays all sorts of tricks on our nature. And our genes respond to that.”
Robert Winston with the Child of Our Time children in 2005
Of course, what transforms Child of Our Time from a science lecture into a piece of mainstream factual TV is the real-life stories at its heart. The two programmes in this update are based on footage filmed last year, when all the babies reached the age of 16.
Those tiny babies are now fully fledged teenagers. Alice, Phoebe and Mabel, the three non-identical triplets RT met and photographed when they were first born, are now in the sixth form, although they still live in Redditch in Worcestershire.
(Left to right) Phoebe, Alice, Mabel
There are some remarkable transformations since we last visited the rest of the children in 2013. For example, we see Matt – whom we’ve only ever known as a shy, anxious boy – flower into a thrill-seeker, never happier than when attached to a parachute and plummeting through the air.
The programme also brings us up to date with Eve. She’s the girl whose mother died in 2008 and who grew up at a Christian retreat. Eve, we learn, came out as gay two years ago. She tells a lovely story about how she wrote a detailed note for her dad revealing her sexuality – only for him to spend days blindly walking past the piece of paper. So she was forced to tell him face to face. Happily, her father couldn’t have been more supportive.
Winston says that this story emphasises that the biggest changes since the start of the project have been social, not scientific. He says: “That conversation [between Eve and her father] would have been much more difficult when this programme started. The science may be important but we shouldn’t overemphasise it. In many respects, societal changes are predominant.”
Another big change is the impact on young people of social media, a phrase that didn’t even exist when the 25 children were born. Today 16-year-olds such as Alice, Mabel and Phoebe are almost certain to have smartphones and be active on Snapchat, WhatsApp and many other apps that mean little or nothing to their parents and grandparents.
There are plenty of good things about this, of course, but it also means that if a youngster is being bullied, the abuse follows them home from school – and is there in the evening and at weekends. Does that make things worse for the young people of today?
“Cyber-bullying might be a bit more sophisticated but bullying has always been a problem,” counters Winston. “Let’s not forget that physical bullying was common in the past and was, I think, much understated. I’m not sure cyberbullying is any worse than the physical bullying I experienced when I was at school.”
You were bullied, Lord Winston? “I think most boys have been bullied at one time or another. Yes. I was bullied by teachers, too.”
What happened? “Well, I’m not convinced that that’s any part of the film, is it? It might be for my memoirs or another programme…” Message received.
He won’t go there. Whatever happened to the young Robert Winston growing up in suburban north London will have to wait.
Time for a closing thought. Is now a good time to be a young person? On this subject, the 76-year-old scientist, fertility expert and Labour peer is reassuringly positive. Society is getting better, he believes.
“Would you rather live in 2016 than in 1916? Would you rather live in 1916 than 1816? Would you rather live in 1816 than 1716? The answer is yes in every case. Because even allowing for wars, there’s been a steady improvement in our lives.”
Obviously there are huge exceptions, but “we are, on the whole, more peaceful and more collaborative, more socially aware. There’s better education. We are richer. And our young people have more confidence than ever before.”
Child of Our Time is on Monday, Tuesday 9.00pm BBC1 (10.40pm Tuesday in Wales)