June 15, 2006

If we come to think of ourselves in genetic terms, how will that change us?

A conundrum! It can't change us, because what we are is in our genes. But this article is about how thinking it's all in the genes affects us:
A growing understanding of human genetics is prompting fresh consideration of how much control people have over who they are and how they act. The recent discoveries include genes that seem to influence whether an individual is fat, has a gift for dance or will be addicted to cigarettes. Pronouncements about the power of genes seem to be in the news almost daily, and are changing the way some Americans feel about themselves, their flaws and their talents, as well as the decisions they make.

For some people, the idea that they may not be entirely at fault for some of their less desirable qualities is liberating, conferring a scientifically backed reprieve from guilt and self-doubt. Others feel doomed by their own DNA, which seems less changeable than the more traditional culprits for personal failings, like a lack of discipline or bad childhoods. And many find it simply depressing to think that their accomplishments might not be the result of their own efforts.

Now, wait a minute! If you're depressed, it's because of your genes.
Parents, too, are rethinking their contributions. Perhaps they have not scarred their wayward children so much as given them bad genes. Maybe it was not their superior parenting skills that produced that Nobel laureate.
Yes, quit blaming us, kids. Quit blaming yourselves too. There now, isn't life easier? No! The easiness or difficulty you feel as you try to live your life is determined by your genetic makeup.
Whether a new emphasis on genes will breed tolerance or bigotry for inborn differences remains an open question. If a trait like being overweight comes to be seen as largely the result of genetic influence rather than lack of discipline, the social stigma connected to it could dissipate, for instance. Or fat people could start being viewed as genetically inferior.
Come on! Our tendency toward bigotry and our urge to harass those we perceive as inferior is in our genes.
The public embrace of genetics may be driven as much by wishful thinking as scientific truth. In an age of uncertainty, biology can appear to provide a concrete answer for behavior that is difficult to explain. And the faith that genetics can illuminate the metaphysical aspects of being human is for some a logical extension of the growing hope that it can cure disease.
Hey, wishful thinking... it's in our genes.


ignacio said...

Insh'allah, pretty much.

Dave said...

How much you want to be that some lawyer will argue that his client is not responsible for murder (rape, insider trading, extortion, etc.) because such actions are merely an expression of his genetic heritage.

Goesh said...

Divine will indeed. I once blew a job interview because of my jeans.

Balfegor said...

Others feel doomed by their own DNA, which seems less changeable than the more traditional culprits for personal failings, like a lack of discipline or bad childhoods.

How is this any different from the old beliefs that "blood will out," so to speak, and that you inherit a family character, with family virtues, and family faults. A tendency to drink, say, or to lassitude or to madness. Were these beliefs not active in the US? I'm sure they were, at least in part.

I think this is actually quite an old "culprit for personal failings," even if it fell out of favour among the "smart" set sometime last century. And I'm not even sure it did.

Ann Althouse said...

"Were these beliefs not active in the US?"

Racism certainly was.

Tristram said...

My visceral reaction is this is more 'It's not my fault' BS.

It is tempting to think you aren't responsible. Yet, a propensity to alchololism, obesity, nicotine addiction, etc still require post conception and birth actions on the individual.

Genetics is not predestination, but rather a nudge in a particular direction.

(But, by no means are there innate differences or propensities between men and women! That is clearly impossible, and to even broach the subject will get you exiled from the ivory tower.)

PatCA said...

Don't worry, Tristam, Big Brother will take care of us.

AlaskaJack said...

These kinds of whacky theories never fail to amuse me. Their proponents always manage to overlook their most obvious defect. If the "it's all caused by genes" story is true, then the content of thought itself must be caused by genes. And this means there must be a gene that causes these researchers to believe that genes exist and that their own theory about genes is true.

And round and round we go; science is one big circular argument.

Balfegor said...

"Were these beliefs not active in the US?"

Racism certainly was.

I think it goes much further than mere racism. In my own family, I know we have certain weaknesses, which we can see in our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, great-aunts, and so on, down the line.

And when I was small, my mother consciously warned me about these things -- indeed, I recall quite vividly how horrified she was on seeing me with a purple tongue one day (after eating an artificially flavoured snack of some sort). She was reminded of one of her great-uncles (possibly great-great-uncles), who passed the state exams and got himself a position, but ended up wasting away his days drinking plum wine, abandoning his wife and children. The wine had (apparently) stained his tongue purple by the end. So she warned me explicitly against such a course (the tendency to lassitude). In more recent family history, we are given every reason to fear that we have an "addictive" personality, and all of us in my generation have been explicitly cautioned to pursue moderation, to overcome this weakness.

In thinking of ourselves as part of a family, we've always been told things about the character of our families, how we tend towards morbidity, in such a case, or towards awkwardness in another -- where we are skilled, and where we are not, and so forth.

Did other people not get this kind of lecture about the faults and virtues of your ancestors, with reference to where you yourself can expect to be strong and weak?

altoids1306 said...

AlaskaJack: Yeah, that argument is pretty much the standard rebuttal for anyone who doesn't believe in free will. "If you don't believe in free will, then you had no choice but to not believe in free will."

Luckily, biologists are not making that strong of a claim.

Marghlar said...

It's interesting that when discussing an article about how the public misconstrues scientific results in an over-determinizing way, many of the comments seem to think this is a characterization of the science, and not the public reaction to it.

It's embarassing that our culture lacks the critical thinking skills to see these results in context -- that sometimes we can have inherited tendencies toward certain behaviors -- but that we also inherit the ability to learn and modify our behavior. As in, we all have a powerful instinctual urge to defecate, but we are nonetheless potty-trained.

In context, the best way to respond to this information is to realize that some people are more disposed to be overweight, for instance, and that that sucks for them. Imagine if you had to work twice as hard as everyone else to maintain a healthy weight. But the fact that they have such a tendency doesn't control their body weight; it just alters the effort they have to expend to reach an acceptable result.

The central flaw in all of this is the inability to realize that all events have a multiplicity of causes.

Travis Wheatley said...

Apologies to the Bard:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves, But in our genes

Blondie said...

What about when it's not only your genetic heritage, but your very own name that carries predispositional baggage?

My last name means "drunken brawler" in one of my ancestor's languages. Found that out when I looked up my name in a book of surnames and online. It's polish, if you're curious.

Talk about labels!

A friend's family name's motto? "Grip Fast" (Scottish Highlands invoking some kind of rugged swordsman)

Dave said...

In what language does "polish" mean drunken brawler?

Atticus said...

In English: "Let's polish off another bottle, boys..."

Cat said...

Marghlar said it best.

The whole, "because I'm Irish," thing drives me crazy. So therefore, I am a drunk or have a high tolerance for alcohol. Where I come from, this is typical thinking (or non-thinking).

So stupid.

The movie Gattaca with Ethan Hawke played the other side of the coin on the "it's all in the genes," by taking a look at what world where pre-conception genetic manipulation of children is the standard. Hawke's parents decided to go the natural route with him and therefore, due to his genetic imperfections (ie needed glasses) it was predetermined that he could only rise as far as physical labor. So astronaut was out of the question regardless how hard he worked to meet the standards (training,wearing contacts) Neat movie.

Finally, the third side is that there is this expecation that anyone can do anything they put their mind to. That we all have equal abilities. Therefore, if you're a janitor or a handiman (or any blue collar job), then you must lack ambition or something vs. someone being proud of being the best janitor ever. Not good enough or you should be embarrassed somehow that you are "just a janitor." Stupid!

Tristram said...

Hawke's parents decided to go the natural route with him and therefore, due to his genetic imperfections (ie needed glasses)

Actually, his real problem was a weak heart. That is the reason he need the fake monitor to pass the runnning treadmill training. (I mean, we have laser eye surgery today, what will the fure hold to improve vision w/o mechanical optics?)

Brad said...

All of this will have a great impact on how we understand cultural differences.

Blondie said...

My last name is Polish (as in of the country of Poland), not the word "polish".

Sorry, should've capitalized.

WV: "Joyal" ... Polish for "drunken joy"? Or should that be "Joyalski"?

Cat said...

Tristram - you're right. As I was writing my post I remembered the whole treadmill test scene and couldn't remember why that had to be faked (but posted anyway...). But he didn't have lasic either (maybe flawed people - what was the word they used for those who weren't genetically ideal? - weren't allowed? Don't recall an explanation) and had poor vision. Remember how he had a hard time crossing the street without his glasses or contacts and that's how Uma's character knew something was up.

Pogo said...

It is curious to me that people are in any way surprised that our behaviors and family tendencies (to a weakness for wine, tomcatting, or hooliganism) are in some way genetic. Of course our DNA -and the ways our brains are contructed- affect how we behave. That the physiology is now more detailed is a bit interesting, but it relates nothing really new about human behavior, choice, or determinism.

More simply, knowing more precisley how the modern internal combustion engine functions in a car doesn't help my driving much. And I don't pretend that the car's limitations force me to take the wrong exit to downtown Milwaukee. Again.

hygate said...

Cat, the reason the reason given for not surgically correcting his vision was that it would leave tell-tale scars.

Johnny Nucleo said...

This post made me laugh out loud. (I don't use LOL because when I read LOL read "loll." I just don't like LOL).

It's fascinating, this subject. This quote is the whole shebang:

"A growing understanding of human genetics is prompting fresh consideration of how much control people have over who they are and how they act."

What the hell does that mean? That's crazy! Crazy but true. (The key phrase is "how much".) If the ultimate scientific deconstruction of human nature is possible, what will that mean? Hell, we're almost there, aren't we?

M. Simon said...

I was on to this years ago.

What I found was that long term PTSD has two parts. One is genetics the other is trauma.

Is Addiction Real?

Funny thing is the Republican head of NIDA agreess with me. She says that 50% of addiction is genetic, and 50% is environmental factors (what I prefer to call trauma, which is in fact is a more precise description).

Now what we will do about it is another thing. Is it fair to punish those who "can't get over it" due to genetics and need drugs to make up for what the body does not provide? So far the answeris: perfectly fair.

I don't think it will stay that way forever.

I think the libertarian idea of you own your own body is the answer. If you feel compelled to stick knives in your own body. OK. If you feel compelled to do the same to another without permission - not OK.

M. Simon said...


So far given decades of search, no one has ever found a consistient descriptiion of an addictive personality.

However, if you would like to make medical history have a go.

Genetics and trauma have a better correlation to "addiction" than any set of personality traits.

aaron said...

I'd say depression and suicide have more to do with biology than environmental factor.

Depression usually makes no or little sense. Niether is really logically justifiable.

The lines of thinking that lead to each can just as easily be evaluated logically to produce posetive feelings and drive, but biologically we seem to lean the other way.

Balfegor said...

Genetics and trauma have a better correlation to "addiction" than any set of personality traits.

Er, yes. Genetics. As in, "heritable," no? Which is exactly what I'm saying. In our family, we are susceptible to addiction. We have addictive personalities!

I'm not sure how useful the warning would be if we had "addictive personalities" somehow separate from our genetic profile -- there's no particular reason we'd expect that to pass from generation to generation, is there?