Friday, June 16, 2006

Genetics, behavior and me   posted by JP @ 6/16/2006 05:04:00 AM

A number of people have pointed out that a post from my old site was quoted in a New York Times piece on recent results in behavioral genetics and the response of John Q. Public to the those results. The quote is this:
... to summarize, want to live until a ripe old age? Have parents that live long. Think you're a friendly, peaceful guy 'cause your mom raised you right? Think again. Able to try drugs just a couple times and never good hooked because of your strong will? Nope.

Now, lest anyone think I've gone completely nuts, I'd like to point out that I was quite conciously being hyperbolic, and the rest of the post puts that quote in context.

Also, Amy Harmon (the journalist who wrote the article) notes that "biologists are also quick to emphasize the role environment plays in activating genetic dispositions that might otherwise never be expressed, or mitigating those that are." I'd like to include myself in that group. Here's the response I gave to a comment of hers that it seemed like I embraced "rather cheerfully" that genes determine our destiny:
But genes don't "determine" our destiny nor who we are, at least in the commonly understood sense; they play a role (or "merely" play a role, depending on how you want to frame it). There's a lot of room for personal responsibility and simple random chance.

Case in point: I wrote a couple weeks ago about a study showing that some people have a mutation that makes it uncomfortable to drink alcohol. But some of them continued to drink anyways, despite this "protection". The factor they had in common: older siblings that drank. So genetic "determinism" is far from deterministic.

It's true I don't find it depressing at all to think our genes play a role in our destiny, just like I don't find it depressing to think that the society we live in plays a role-- such is life, we do what we can with the cards we're dealt, and studying it is fascinating.

So there you go. Overall, the article is well-written and fair, and her conversations with non-academics show how research is being interpreted out in the world.

Do you think it's frustrating to read about somebody saying, essentially, "I can't quit smoking. Probably got a 'smoking gene'. Ah, well, such is life"? I do. But if that's how people are going to react, it's good to know. And hopefully we'll be able, eventually, to inform people about the statistical nature of any association or, barring that, at the very least convince them to be skeptical of companies trying to sell genetic personality tests.