Personality, genetics and upbringing

geneThe aim of the workshop was to stimulate thought and discussion about reductionist positions that exist/are assumed to exist in science. Following a day during which students have learned about genetics with Prof. John Bryant and got hands-on experience of DNA extraction and cloning, in this workshop we moved away from theory and the lab to ask how genes shape our everyday life in practice.

Genetics has become an area in which reductionist thought holds sway in some quarters amongst scientists but also, more importantly, amongst the general public and in the popular media. Behavioural genetics, which examines genetic and environmental influences on human behaviour, has increasingly risen to public attention with research claiming to have identified the link between genes and complex behaviours such as artistic ability, altruism, sexual orientation, voting patterns, risk taking, happiness, depression and much more.

Lawandorder01One such piece of research has focused on the so-called ‘warrior gene’. The ‘warrior gene’ is a part of DNA responsible for the production of the monoamine oxidase (MAOA) enzyme. A lower than average presence of the enzyme was found to be associated with aggressive behaviour, especially in men with a history of abuse during childhood. In the workshop, we discussed two cases, one fictional and one real, in which the ‘warrior gene’ has been used in court to argue that murderers who have the gene should be found not guilty of the crime on the basis that they lack the capacity to control their aggressive behaviour.

Students were invited to think of which problematic issues, if any, were raised by the ‘warrior gene’ argument. We explored the idea that even though human beings are born with certain biological characteristics, our behaviours, personality and feelings vary greatly depending on how we experience the world around us and react to it.

We then explored two positions – one arguing that it is possible to think of human personality as being determined (some argue ‘predicted’) by factors discoverable by scientific methods – and another arguing that humans have a capacity to co-author their own personalities and futures. We agreed that these are metaphysical stances and interpretations and that they are beyond our current scientific knowledge and methods to test.

Finally, we reflected on how these matters are portrayed in both the scientific and popular debate, and we agreed that to reduce such complex questions to straightforward explanations such as “the gene for” is scientifically inaccurate.

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