Behavioral Genetics: The Clash of Culture and Biology

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Scientists conducting human genome research are identifying genetic disorders and traits at an accelerating rate. Genetic factors in human behavior appear particularly complex and slow to emerge, yet are raising their own set of difficult ethical, legal, and social issues. In Behavioral Genetics: The Clash of Culture and Biology, Ronald Carson and Mark Rothstein bring together well-known experts from the fields of genetics, ethics, neuroscience, psychiatry, sociology, and law to address the cultural, legal, and biological underpinnings of behavioral genetics. The authors discuss a broad range of topics, including the ethical questions arising from gene therapy and screening, molecular research in psychiatry, and the legal ramifications and social consequences of behavioral genetic information. Throughout, they focus on two basic concerns: the quality of the science behind behavioral genetic claims and the need to formulate an appropriate, ethically defensible response when the science turns out to be good.

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About the Author:

Ronald A. Carson is the Harris L. Kempner Distinguished Professor in the Humanities in Medicine and director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Mark A. Rothstein is a professor of bioethics, health, law at the University of Louisville.

From The New England Journal of Medicine:

Perhaps no field of scientific inquiry is as likely to be misunderstood and abused as genetics. Part of the misunderstanding arises from archaic views about what genes are and how they are expressed during development. The extreme abuse of genetic information at various times has mainly been attributable to larger efforts to use genetic arguments in order to shape society and science according to political agendas (i.e., eugenics and Lysenkoism). If this is the backdrop against which culture assimilates genetic information, then what will happen as a result of the current genetic revolution? Genetic knowledge and technology are advancing at great speed. The entire human genome is being mapped, and the weight of evidence suggests that even behavior, viewed by many as the last bastion of individual free will and the target of social policies, is influenced by genes.

Behavioral Genetics: The Clash of Culture and Biology arose from the now urgent and well-grounded need to examine the broad range of cultural consequences of today's intense research on the genetics of behavior. This endeavor requires an interdisciplinary approach, and the book brings together experts in the fields of genetics, ethics, sociology, psychology, humanities, medicine, and law to address the relevant issues. The first part of the book introduces the conceptual and evidential basis of the genetic role in behavior, and later chapters explore the ripple effect that such scientific inquiry could have in society.

Several of the chapters present methodologic approaches to the study of genetic influences on behavior. A common theme in these chapters is that behavioral development does not conform to simplistic or deterministic explanations. Rather, an epigenetic model is needed to describe the inherent complexities of a process in which many genes and environments influence behavioral development. Although at first glance, the title of this book suggests that it examines the antiquated debate over nature versus nurture, this is not the case. In fact, numerous references to theoretical grounds and empirical findings challenge the relevance of this formulation.

The chapters on the larger social consequences of genetic studies of behavior show that this work has daunting implications for society. A central concern is that evidence of genetic influences on behavior will be misconstrued to absolve individuals and governments of responsibility. The convenient and popular argument that a behavioral trait is genetic is interpreted to mean that persons have no true self, that they should not be held accountable, but neither can they be helped or rehabilitated. Therefore, evidence that genes affect behavior could strongly undermine our criminal-justice system, rehabilitation programs, and the development and implementation of policies to reduce inequalities. History has shown that these consequences can be very serious. The last chapter of the book emphasizes that society must be prepared to integrate new knowledge in a responsible way. A dialogue about who we are and what we want is critical to establish the "responsible self" in the new genetic age and to ensure the constructive social use of knowledge about genetic influences on behavior.

This book is well written and stimulating. The issues it raises are important for scientists and for those working in the legal and social-services fields, but they clearly also have relevance for everyone -- we all have genes and live in society. The level of information that the book provides is somewhat advanced; readers without a background in genetics may find it difficult to piece together vital information spread throughout the book. Specifically, in order to demystify genes, which tend to be viewed as all-powerful influences, readers need to understand the simple genetic reasons why deterministic models are inadequate for understanding complex phenotypes. It would have been helpful if the editors had included a chapter that provided examples and a conceptual overview of the relation between genotype and phenotype along the continuum from single-gene to multifactorial traits.

While I was reading this book, one question arose repeatedly in my mind: What exactly is the "clash of culture and biology"? The book stops short of fully answering this question. The raison d'etre of the book is the importance of standing back and contemplating the implications of the intersection between genetic knowledge and culture. This intersection is presumably what is meant by the clash between culture and biology. But does it really reflect a clash? I was struck by the explanations given throughout the book for the cultural misuse of genetic information. Examples include the statement that "the public hungers for simple deterministic answers" and the reference to a "cultural appeal of genetic explanations" (even among judges and policy makers). The main thesis here is that cultural perspectives figure prominently in determining how knowledge is used and that the results of behavioral genetic studies can be used to suit the need at hand. If this is the case, then where is the clash?

Behavioral genetic knowledge provides us with an opportunity to understand old questions in new ways, and this knowledge cannot be equated with biology simply because it concerns genes. Genetic knowledge has opened up new possibilities by revealing that genes are not destiny. If culture restricts us to looking at old questions in old ways, then perhaps we need to take a step back and examine the convenient, but misleading, biology-culture contraposition. Toward that end, this book does an excellent job of motivating us and directing us on our way.

Reviewed by Jennifer R. Harris, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1999 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

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