Behavioral Genetics Key Elements of the Science

Moral judgments about personal responsibility for behavior or social discrimination must take into account relevant well-established scientific facts. Thus, it would be morally wrong to hold an individual who is completely in the grip of psychotic delusions responsible for his or her behavior in the same way one does with a person with normal rational capacities and moral sensibilities. At least two popular beliefs associated with genetics represent a gross distortion of the actual science and an equally gross distortion of related moral judgments.

The first belief is that people's fate is in their genes, that the genetic endowment of an individual is a future diary of that individual. In other words, people's behavior is at least very strongly determined by their genes. The second belief is that for any biological fact about people there is a gene for that biological fact. Thus, if scientists look hard enough, they eventually will find a gene for depression, a high IQ, aggression, criminality, being gay, and so on. A headline from Time magazine (Lemonick) is illustrative: "The Search for a Murder Gene."

What is referred to colloquially as the Huntington's gene would reinforce both of these popular misconceptions. That is, if an individual has inherited this gene, it is almost 100 percent certain that that person will have the disease (although there is considerable variation in the age at onset and the intensity of the disorder). That person is fated in a very strong sense. No personal behavior and no environmental variables can alter that fate. However, this picture of genetic determinism seems to have an extremely limited range of application. No human behavior of even minimal complexity seems to be genetically controlled in that simple a fashion (Ehrlich and Feldman; Beckwith and Alper; Ridley; Schaffner).

This entry does not address the philosophic issues and arguments associated with the free will—determinism debate or the debates in the philosophy of mind about whether mental events are nothing more than mechanistic brain states. However, a review of core scientific propositions that would be endorsed by a wide range of behavioral geneticists and a linking of those propositions with core scientific propositions in the neurocognitive sciences probably would provide a better basis for identifying and addressing related moral and political issues such as the question of the possibility of moral responsibility.

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