Why Genetic Determinism Is Bad For Humans

Do you prefer to run in packs or operate as a loner? Your answer is determined by your genes, a new study claims. It's a big shift in social behaviour theory, since scientists previously thought the environment determined social behaviour.

For example, scientists thought that where food was sparsely spread around, primates would live in large groups to more efficiently forage. But according to the new findings, which were published in the journal Nature, primates will behave the way their genes tell them to, regardless of food availability.

It's evidence for genetic determinism — the idea that our genes dictate our behaviour. But it seems wrong, right? I know I tend to go with the behaviour that helps me to avoid hunger most effectively. But Nicholas Wade in The New York Times sums it up thusly:

The Old World monkeys, for example, a group that includes baboons and macaques, live in many habitats, from savanna to rain forest to alpine regions, and may feed on fruit or leaves or grass. Yet all have very similar social systems, suggesting that their common ancestry - and the inherited genes that shape behaviour - are a stronger influence than ecology on their social structure.

Michael Skinner, a professor at the centre for Reproductive Biology at Washington State University says, though, that the role of genetics is being overstated here as it has been for decades. Skinner is an expert in epigenetics, which is the study of the environment's impact on genetics.

"There is no genetic-process-only phenomena, as there is no epigenetic-only phenomena. The age of genetic determinism needs to end," he says. Genetics only paints half the picture of human biology.

The new paper also calls into question the "social brain hypothesis," the idea that as primate brains evolved to be larger, they became more capable of managing larger social networks. Says Skinner, after reading the paper:

The article did not mention epigenetics, but did mention the ability of environment to impact brain development and social behaviour. Not sure how they think this can occur without epigenetics. ... There will not be a physiological process or tissue function that does not use a combination of genetics and epigenetics.

Genetic determinism bothers me because I'm adopted. I don't like the thought of being at the mercy of DNA I know little about. It also bothers me because it makes people lazy. Folks blame their DNA for their inability to play an instrument, for example, when they've never taken a lesson in their lives.

It bothers Skinner because by studying only genetics and ignoring epigenetics, we're getting only half the biological information on how disease develops. Hundreds of millions of dollars has been spent on genome-wide association studies with the goal of pinpointing genes that cause disease, but most of the genetic anomalies that cause heritable diseases remain undiscovered.

Environmental epigenetics has greater ability to explain non-Mendelian phenomena than genetics. It is not that genetics is not important, it is simply not the only molecular mechanism involved in biology.

Our attachment to genetic determinism doesn't really jive with our (among most Americans', it seems) love of free will. In the science world, however, I kind of get the resistance: many scientists have built their careers on the idea that genes rule. They don't want to give up the throne. But it's time: when it comes to finding the causes of disease, genetics is not working.

[The New York Times]

Image: Shutterstock

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    Once we understand how psychology ties into biology, which in turn ties into chemistry and physics, we'll likely understand that free will does not truly exist, that our own behaviour is the product of quantifiable laws. The outcome can always be predicted (if you know all the variables)

    Its probably a good thing that we may never know all the variables.

      ... or perhaps we'll find that the root of free will lies somewhere in the various quantum uncertainty principles (which, admittedly, go way over my head).

        Until we correctly and fully understand quantum uncertainty principles. Some smart person will work out why the random things seem random but arnt.
        Back to square one.

    For humans, I think it's pretty evident that the effect of social genetics is very strong compared to other species. Biological genetics are still important of course, especially for predispositions to disease or particular behaviours.

    It's funny how otherwise highly educated, reasonably intelligent people can have their blind spots. In the last 25 years or so there's been a massive collective hard-on for genetic determinism, steam-rolling it's way past other theories, logic, history and sciences and along the way gathering a raft of silly fringe theories and giving them more credence than they deserve.

    Meanwhile they conveniently ignore the scary relationship to the genetic determinist theories of the Nazis and other racist ideologies, as well as the similarity to silly ideas like phrenology etc. It really brings up old ideas like "the poor are another species, they were born that way, we rich are naturally different" and the idea that criminal behaviour is genetic etc.

    It would help if people educated themselves on this issue rather than relying on their self-developed theories and personal preferences. I strongly suggest that you read 'The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature' by Steven Pinker to get the full picture on the nature v nurture debate.

    There is so much emotion behind ideologically-driven arguments in this field. Pinker soberly takes us on a journey through the modern neruroscience, psycho-linguistics and acutal studies of people that give very clear indication of the strong role of genes on our behaviour. He also presents some insightful knock-down arguments against those who say that this would lead us to Nazism and eugenics. Just because genes strongly influence behaviour doesn't make atrocities right!

    And to the author who doesn't like the idea of his genes influencing his behavour just because he's adopted, Pinker provides strong evidence from twin studies to show that the environment one grows up in makes only a small difference to personality. You get 50 per cent of your genes from each of your biological parents whether you like it or not.

    And why is "environmental determinism" any better than "genetic determinism"? Would you prefer that we were so malleable that our parents could mould us in any way they pleased? Pinker notes that there is in fact no determinism. There are only probabilities arisign from genetic influences that then interact in complex ways with our environment. Read his book and be immeasurably enlightened by one of the greatest intellectuals of our time.

      Ben, its scares me a little when people say things like that one book immeasurably enlightened them (or others). I have heard that about the bible. Not saying the book wouldn’t be thought provoking as I plan to read it, you’re just coming on a little strong and a bit harsh.

      Its always interested me the topic but I notice the book you recommend was published in September 26, 2002. A lot more information has come about since then, Can you recommend any books more current, on the same subject as it seem he writes a lot.

      If not I’ll have a read of the blank slate.

        Unfortunately I've nothing to recommend since 'The Blank Slate'. But it's a fantastic starting point for an overview of developments of recent decades and a pointer towards where the science is heading. Why is it scary to be enlightened by the discoveries of rational science? Your comparison to the Bible is somewhat bizarre. Pinker relays evidence from experiments and research performed by real people. The Bible is a work fiction with doubtful origins and no supporting evidence.

          "It would help if people educated themselves on this issue rather than relying on their self-developed theories and personal preferences".

          Lol! Ben maybe you would be well served to apply that to your self-developed knowledge/theories about the Bible (but maybe we can just say that it is your genetic predisposition to not do that :) ... Many have sought to educate themselves, for an example an investigative reporter called Lee Strobel did just that. There is infact an embarrassing amount of supporting evidence (that makes other 2000yo+ articles of history pale in comparison!), regardless of if you believe in the claims of Jesus... another debate in another forum (getting off the topic!)

          I enjoyed reading this article & people's comments (thanks author + all), and of course there are many other scientific & phsyc theories by ppl out there that would do well to learn & compare with eachother I'm sure.

          I'm interested a little bit from the level of my wife & I thinking about taking on foster kids (with issues really the result of screwed up genetics or sadly, screwed up parents?).

          Grounding things here though, studies like this really effect how you treat peoples problems, with drugs (or maybe genetic manipulation, selection, where do you draw a line ethically* ) or with councilling (or both?)...

          [*are ethics choice really just result of genetics & a matter for the individual or are they actually grounded in something more solid?]

          Lotsa more questions, will always have them & never enough time to do more research! Peace...

            Man I am crap at spelling sometimes... "Psych" not "phsyc". Well proves that I am not an expert in either of the fields, I jsut ask questions... :)

    Theories all of them.
    Have you ever noted that one family may have 5 (X) kids, all totally different, similar genetics (of course different combinations of genes switched on), similar environment and different outcome...

    Now take exactly the same children and put them in a different family, what do you get??? You would have to swap over minimum of 2 (y) sets of DNA in X^Y combinations even to make a start in extrapolating the theory in humans)

    Goodness knows, as you can't do falsifiable studies on humans.
    You can't do double blind experiments of this nature, as you need exactly the same genetic code to show the effect genes have and environment.

    We have found that People with a certain genetic combination have a certain disease (with a couple of diseases), but we have no real idea how many people with the same genes don't have the disease... The genome is too large to be sequencing everyone.

    Everyone likes a new Theory. Me too...
    Nature counts, Nurture counts, and a certain other set of factors, which may be deemed random, until you realise that Nothing in the Universe is really random, it is rather a very large chaotic deterministic system, which we don't have the least understanding of all of the variables.
    If a simple chaotic system (non-random) cannot be predicted, what of human behaviour.

    Ben, I have to look into the Non supporting evidence of the Bible, then you can lecture me on the wisdom of Socrates, and Plato (I believe thy existed)

    Of course we are at the Pinnacle of all knowledge. WE only have to Nail down the Higgs Boson, and the Everything theory will fall into place.

    Quote "Genetic determinism bothers me because I’m adopted. I don’t like the thought of being at the mercy of DNA I know little about...."

    Well trying to explain the world so that it doesnt "bother you" doesnt sound like a very scientific approach to me...He doesnt like the sound of it so he will come with something that sounds better is not the way of an objective approach.

    Also i dont think that none of these theories refer to superficial, cosmetic changes in behaviour (ie i like going out or i rather watch TV) but rather profound basic schemes that probably are even easily disregarded in todays human bevahiour since peer pressure, technology, culture and other factors blurs the real image of who we are.

    This sounds then like this factors have an influence (and im sure they have) the real question is if genes have a lasting and transmittable Social impact versus a very temporary and shallow cultural influence...As an example of this i can guarantee that any of us politycally correct minded guys will behave in a totally differnet way given a much more basic set up where violence, survival tactics and attitudes including a loner or group approach will then be observed and will kick in without us having much control on it.

    I think THIS is what the genes versus environment make up refers to ...more of a deep strategy like in a fight or flight sort of situation.

    I dont like the idea that gravity exists...yet it does...i can try to defeat it, play with it or explain it, but turning your back to it and say that you dont like the idea of it will cost your life.

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