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Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsReview - Wrestling with Behavioral Genetics
Science, Ethics, and Public Conversation
by Erik Parens, Audrey R. Chapman and Nancy Press (Editors)
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006
Review by James Sage, Ph.D.
Sep 5th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 36)

This volume of edited essays aims to provide tools, information, and resources to help guide a public dialogue concerning behavioral genetics. Supported by several grants and working in close partnership with The Hastings Center, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and funded largely by the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) division of the National Human Genome Research Institute, the editors and contributing authors were united by the idea that behavioral genetics, while largely misunderstood by the general public, nevertheless occupies a central role in a number of socio-political issues.

The editors and collection of interdisciplinary contributors (all of whom are outstanding in their specialties) were commonly motivated by the worry that much of the general public lacked an accurate understanding of the issues raised by behavioral genetics (this misinformation is especially true regarding the abbreviated journalistic treatment of genetics offered in modern mass media). Instead of waiting and hoping that some serious, in-depth, careful journalism takes place, this thoughtful group of researchers, scholars, philosophers, and historians took it upon themselves to translate the complex (and interesting!) field of human behavioral genetics to the general public directly.

The volume, then, speaks to this missing piece of public discourse regarding the field of behavioral genetics by providing a basic introduction to the history of the field, the current factual understanding within the field, as well as an open and candid discussion of the controversies and difficulties facing the field. As a philosopher of science, I found this volume to be an excellent introduction to the field; it was also quite valuable in its ability to pull together both science and public policy issues.

All in all, this volume of essays covers topics including: basic science and history of science (biology, genetics, mental health, etc.); social ethics, public policy and criminal justice; as well as social/political aspects of public discourse in an open and democratic society. While several chapters are challenging to non-specialists, they are well worth reading for a broad range of interested people (from scientist to philosopher, from public health administrators to elected officials).

In what follows, I will provide some brief details about significant parts of each of the three Parts. Given the immense amount of information contained in this volume, however, my discussion will be quite abbreviated. Overall, the volume is highly recommended.

Part I: Basic Scientific Concepts and Debates

In this first Part, five chapters are devoted to tracing both the historical and contemporary developments within the field of behavioral genetics. Part I is designed to get the reader up to speed on the basics of terminology, concepts, and methods.

In the first two chapters, historian and philosopher of science Kenneth Schaffner provides an invaluable introduction to the field of behavioral genetics. Rather than providing a long list of terms and concepts, Schaffner presents his overview as a series of three dialogues between a fictional State Supreme Court Judge ("Judge Jean") and a Behavioral Geneticist (with no other nickname except "BG").

In any event, such a format lends itself to an approachable, conversational-style that allows for both basic and complex issues to be raised and understood. Throughout the course of these dialogues, Schaffner introduces such terms as: DNA, chromosomes, alleles, genotype, phenotype, locus/loci, environment, norms of reaction, traits, and behavior. He also introduces a number of related concepts such as: heritability (both broad and narrow), variation, the equal environments assumption (EEA), etc.

Also within these dialogues, Schaffner is careful to discuss "big picture" ideas, such as the basic split within behavioral genetics between quantitative approaches and molecular approaches, and the types of studies within each general approach (e.g., family studies, twin studies, adoption studies; linkage analysis and allelic association).

Finally, Schaffner weaves into his dialogues a number of specific topics to help Judge Jean (and the reader) follow along. These examples include: the genetic basis of IQ, novelty seeking and risk taking (and criminality), ADHD, and schizophrenia.

Readers should not be worried, however, by this conversational style. Schaffner is able to skillfully convey an amazing amount of information about behavioral genetics while also keeping the reader's attention. Schaffner also introduces a number of criticisms and difficulties associated with the field of behavioral genetics and explains, in the context of the above cases, how researchers are actively adjusting their methods and assumptions to improve the reliability of their findings.

On the topic of criticisms and difficulties, Jonathan Beckwith (professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Harvard Medical School) provides a sober account of the current state of the field of behavioral genetics. Not pulling any punches, Beckwith provides a series of pointed criticisms, including challenges regarding the "equal environments assumption" (introduced by Schaffner), problems associated with twin studies and family studies, difficulties regarding the molecular approach (especially difficulty of linking multiple genetic influences for a single complex behavioral pattern, such as schizophrenia), and a number of problems posed by the various techniques associated with statistical analysis.

Throughout this discussion, however, the reader is not discouraged as to the potential growth and improved understanding associated with such a field. Despite the considerable challenges faced by researchers, Beckwith's discussion does not leave the reader with a sense of despair. His message, in a nutshell: Yes, the field of behavioral genetics faces challenges, but the researchers in the field are hard at work to make sense of them.

In a somber and reserved chapter, Eric Turkheimer (Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia) discusses a number of worries associated with the use of twin studies. Specifically, Turkheimer introduces three different models of explanation within behavioral genetics: "one-environment-one-effect" (OEOE) model is the simplest; the "quantitative environmental effect" (QEE) model is more complex (relying on multiple regression and other statistical techniques); and finally they "gloomy" model is the most complex (a model that identifies far more numerous variables than can be teased out).

The introduction of these three models allows Turkheimer to discussion two other important issues. First, it allows him to discuss the difference between statistical models (whether overly simple or prohibitively complex) and causal models: even if statistical models could prove to be accurate and reliable, it's still not clear that such models help us to understand the causal links between genes, environment, and behavior. Moreover, statistical models lend little help to the area of intervention and therapies.

Second, the discussion of these models allows Turkheimer to trace three parallel genetic models (again, from simple to hopelessly complex). And this means that the hopes of ever discovering the "genes for" schizophrenia or intelligence or juvenile delinquency are "pathetically futile". Regarding these models, Turkheimer states, "Which of these causal models you choose to believe in depends on the particular balance of scientific optimism versus realism you prefer" (p. 107).

More significantly, however, his discussion of these different models helps to illustrate a fundamental challenge faced by the entire field of behavioral genetics. In a nutshell, here is the challenge: when conducting careful studies (sorting out the relative influence of shared/nonshared environment and genetics), researchers commonly uncover significant environmental influence as well as significant genetic influence (depending on the behavioral trait under investigation). So, researchers know that genes and/or the environment contributes significantly to such complex traits as intelligence or criminality. But when researchers attempt to identify precisely what in the genome or the environment contributes to the trait in question, the apparent effect of the condition disappears.

Broadly speaking, then, we know that "our genes" or "the environment" is significantly responsible for phenotypic effects in different cases; but when scrutinized more carefully, no single (identifiable) element of "our genes" or "the environment" seems to significantly contribute to the expression of the phenotype in question. While statistically relevant, upon further examination, the causal influence of such conditions seems to evaporate.

Needless to say, this is a fascinating riddle, and contributes to Turkheimer's "gloomy" (yet humble and patient) perspective.

Finally, rounding out Part I is a chapter by Steven Hyman (Professor of Neurobiology, Harvard University) on the broad topic of the "promises and risks" of behavioral genetics. While Turkheimer (in the previous chapter) expresses some gloomy sentiments, Hyman expresses what he takes to be more of a nightmare. As the former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Hyman provides the background leading to his nightmarish outlook on human behavioral genetics.

With a mixture of history and personal narrative, Hyman conveys a number of key points, including a general skeptical take on the human genome project with regard to its prospects for contributing meaningful causal explanations for mental illnesses. In this chapter, Hyman lays out a number of background factors leading up to the idea that identifying relevant characteristics of the human genome would help to contribute to both the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. This discussion focuses on the notions of genetic complexity and the difficulties associated with identifying clearly defined phenotypes of mental illness and behavior.

While cautious and hopeful during his tenure as Direct of the NIMH, in this chapter Wyman expresses deep reservation as to the future of molecular explanations of mental illness and the overall contribution of molecular genetics to public health policies.

Part II: Basic Ethical and Social Concepts and Problems

In the group of essays comprising Part II, we find a number of fascinating "case studies" illustrating the close connection between behavioral genetics and social issues. The first essay (summarized below) introduces the reader to various important concepts, such as the social construction of phenotypes and the notion of medicalization (especially interesting in the area of mental illness). The other essays each carve out a specialized niche of their own, including: the legal dimensions of genetics; societal notions of fairness, equality, and justice; the use of those who are arrested and/or incarcerated populations in genetics research; the notions of race and economic class; the relationship between impulsivity and criminality; the freewill/determinism debate (both philosophical and legal); and the notion of "normality".

In the essay "Social Construction and Medicalization" Nursing Professor Nancy Press introduces the notions of "social construction" and "medicalization". This essay is a very balanced and reasonable discussion (unlike some discussions of social constructivism that are out there). Instead of inflammatory remarks and quasi-philosophical assertions, Press's presentation is thoughtful and on the mark.

Essentially, Press claims that one of the fundamental challenges faced by behavioral genetics is what's called "the phenotype problem" or "the problem of phenotype definition". (Within philosophy of biology, this is a problem with biological trait individuation.) Press makes the case that the phenotypes that get our attention (and become the focus of behavioral genetics research) are social constructions: phenotypes are clusters of features or traits that are thought to be real, grouped together by our tendencies to conceptualize the world in a specific way. But this is especially tricky for behavioral phenotypes (i.e., "the type A personality") or categories of mental illness (i.e., "the manic-depressive"). Since the categories picking out mental illness are socially-constructed clusters of behavioral and dispositional traits, it makes the phenotype incredibly difficult to pin down (and especially difficult to find repeatable and/or cross-cultural empirical support).  These problems are generally known as problems of construct validity.

But the problem of the social construction of phenotypes doesn't end with mental illnesses; the problem applies to every other major psychological/behavioral phenotype that gets our attention: intelligence, memory, learning, leadership, and "personality" in general.

And the real problem for the field of behavioral genetics is that these socially-constructed categories of behavior, psychology, and psychopathology are forming the bedrock of behavioral genetics, which renders the entire field vulnerable to errors regarding construct validity.

Press goes on to discuss two additional topics worthy of brief mention: the first is the (problematic) distinction between disease and illness. Some insist that the distinction allows us to say that illness is socially constructed, according to which illness is understood as the lived experiences of those who live with various symptoms and/or disabilities (including those family members of those with such symptoms and/or disabilities).

Clearly, this seems agreeable: people from different societies and cultures will have different "experiences" disease (whether it is mental illness, diabetes, or what have you). But what the distinction between illness and disease also enables the idea that underlying illness is a very real notion called "disease" that apparently escapes the grip of social construction. It is this maneuver (which amounts to reifying disease) that Press find problematic: invoking the illness/disease distinction allows people to acknowledge some social construction (in the domain of illness), but then it allows them to maintain the reality of disease independent of our conceptualizations. Press explains her position carefully, and she is quite convincing.

The second topic addressed in Press's essay is the idea of "medicalization" (including the "geneticization" of various pathologies). Most directly, to be "medicalized" is to be brought under the purview of medicine. When various (clusters of) behaviors are recognized by our socially constructed conceptual schemes and labels them as pathologies (such as ADHD or aggressiveness), what soon follows is the temptation to "pathologize" such conditions. Once pathologized, such conditions can then be treated under the rubric of medicine. What Press suggests is that in addition to medicalizing behavior, we are embarked on yet another stage of development: to "geneticize" various behaviors by finding their genetic underpinnings

And, presumably, this tendency to medicalize / geneticize is accompanied by the inclination to find "treatments" or "therapies" or "remedies" for such genetic "maladies" ranging from ADHD, shyness, homosexuality, novelty-seeking, alcoholism, etc. And this, of course, raises all sorts of ethical questions. Each of the essays in Part II takes up a handful of such issues and provides careful normative analysis (including legal, ethical, and social aspects of such questions).

The other essay from Part II I would like to discuss at length is the essay by philosopher Dan Brock ("Behavioral Genetics and Equality"). This outstanding essay weaves together a number of key arguments regarding the influence of behavioral genetics with issues of equality. Brock is able to navigate this territory with amazing clarity and illustrative examples (or thought experiments from the philosopher's "idea lab"). Brock identifies two broad "consequences" of genetic advances that may impact issues of equality.

The first consequence of genetics research has to do with the idea that natural differences between people (thanks to the "genetic lottery" of chance) will (to some degree) come under our control, including such broad traits as intelligence, physical skill, behavioral aptitudes, etc. This means that we might (someday) be in the position to manipulate our children's biological inheritance to a significant extent.

The second consequence of genetics research has the potential to influence our beliefs regarding people's equal moral worth (which itself depends on our belief about their natural equality as persons, sharing a common human nature). Genetics research has the potential to undermine the belief in equality between all humans by the application of direct manipulation ("enhancement") of an individual's genetic endowment.

Brock provides a detailed treatment of both potential consequences and traces the philosophical worries associated with each. In the first case, among the worries is that the ability to "overcome" the "genetic lottery" will be largely unavailable to many people because of the costly nature of such therapies. This introduces the notion of inequality based on socio-economic class. The other worrisome (potential) outcome is that such genetic manipulations will further exacerbate social inequalities by producing biological inequalities. So, rather than using genetic therapy for "leveling the playing field" (i.e., to compensate for difference in natural genetic endowments or to remove socially-based disadvantages), Brock is worried that such therapies will serve the interests of only the wealthy minority, giving them access to genetic "enhancements" for their offspring that will continue to increase the inequalities among individuals in society.

On the other hand, the potential to genetically manipulate new generations of humans has the worrisome consequence of undermining our belief in equal moral worth of all persons. With real genetic differences emerging as a result of genetic therapies, human beings will be challenged to continue to maintain a kind of egalitarian assumption. Inequalities that arise will not be merely the result of the "genetic lottery" but a form of socially-caused inequality.

Side note: while reading Brock's essay, I was continually reminded of the ideas presented in the film "Gattaca" which portrays a future human society in which the economically privileged are able to genetically screen and select their offspring. This film illustrates many such issues of equality raised by Brock's essay. Together, the film and this essay could provide a valuable pedagogical tool, bringing a bit more rigor and a rich philosophical discussion to a popular film. Of course, the film also exaggerates a number of things, so the incorporation of popular media into an otherwise serious debate requires some careful guidance.

Part III: Promoting Public Conversation about Behavioral Genetics

Part III contains three chapters which provide an excellent set of ideas, tools, and strategies for engaging in public discourse on issues related to behavioral genetics. For example, in the chapter "Creating Public Conversation about Behavioral Genetics," philosopher Leonard Fleck presents 15 "norms" or recommendations for facilitating "rational democratic deliberations" about behavioral genetics.

These norms include such things as: identifying and discussing various internal conflicts participants may have; the value of including factual information from scientific studies; the process of giving reasons for one's views; the goal of identifying public interests (as opposed to private interests); the importance of respecting value pluralism within a liberal political state; the tendency to engage in the deliberative process in a fair and impartial manner; treating each other respectfully as equals; fostering tolerance and mutual understanding; as well as the ability to identify assumptions (both within oneself and others) and to identify consequences of various policy recommendations.

In all, this chapter presents an enormously rich resource for anyone interested in creating a public conversation about behavioral genetics; I believe that it can also serve as a workable model for how to generate meaningful public discourse on a variety of issues (say, the relationship between creationism and evolution, public policy issues regarding social assistance programs, and socio-political worries regarding the role of corporations in government, etc.). Many of Fleck's "norms" also form the bedrock of sound pedagogical advice for discussing emotionally charged ethical issues in courses such as bioethics and environmental ethics.

In their essay, "Laypeople and Behavioral Genetics" authors Celeste Condit, Roxanne Parrott, and Tina Harris report their findings of focus group research (utilizing transcripts from 17 different focus groups). The authors, all of whom are either researchers and/or professors in Communication and/or Speech Communication, report a number of crucial factors that suggest that laypeople have largely complex (but also fairly accurate) views regarding the influence of genes on behavior.

The authors clustered and summarized the focus group responses around four main models of genetic influence: (i) the "equal genetic capacities" model, (ii) the "environment catalyzes different predispositions" model, (iii) the "malleable genetic predisposition" model, and (iv) the "you've gotta play the hand you're dealt" model.

Analyzing their findings in terms of these four general models helped to identify they aspects according to which laypeople had similar/different views than professional genetics researchers. Their findings, roughly, were this:

  • that laypeople have already generally incorporated the idea that genes play a role in human behavior (in some cases attribute far more role to genes than do researchers, while in other cases attributing far less role to genes);
  • that laypeople have a nuanced view of both genetic and environmental influences on human behavior (subscribing neither to genetic determinism nor environmental determinism);
  • that laypeople are interested in a much larger array of human behaviors than researchers have dared to explore (probably a consequence of both experimental constraints, funding restrictions, and the imposition of ethical standards on human subjects);
  • that laypeople's ascription of the role of genetics in human behaviors varies depending on the behavior;
  • that laypeople tended to include only immediate family and childhood experiences in the realm of "the environment" rather than larger, social institutions that shape our cultural environment; and finally…
  • that many laypeople express the same critical worries about behavioral genetics research as to the "disciplined" critics.

In the final essay, "Behavioral Genetics and the Media," Rick Weiss (Staff Writer for the Washington Post) discusses a number of issues related to the role of the media in conveying the various scientific findings of behavioral genetics.

Throughout the volume, authors had hinted at the role of the media in shaping public understanding. Many of those previous authors were quite critical of the abbreviated and distorted picture of genetics research provided by popular media.

In the essay by Weiss, we find a careful treatment of much of the science reporting on behavioral genetics, tracing the history of the reporting on such topics as manic-depression, homosexuality, alcoholism, and schizophrenia. Weiss presents an analysis of several key news reports on scientific findings, noting both the positive and negative aspects of the stories. Importantly, Weiss notes that it is irresponsible for science journalists to oversimplify the science, admonishing journalists with the following advice:  refrain from writing that there is a "gene for" any trait or that genes "cause" behaviors; include sufficient details (and qualifications) of the research being reported; avoid "glamorizing" lead-ins; include sophisticated details about genetics (don't dumb-down the reporting!); try to balance the dual desires of (i) absolving people of blame for their genuine illnesses, and (ii) giving people a sense of control over their lives.

Given that many of the demands of commercial newspaper business are at odds with the state of modern genetics research, Weiss urges science writers to keep the above tenets in mind when reporting the latest findings in science. With wisdom and wit, Weiss is able to portray some of these "business demands" of modern news reporting, including the problem of "The Shrinking New Hole" (the diminishing space in print news for actual news as opposed to photos and advertising) and the problem of the "Shameless Marketing of Science" (how scientists and science organizations are engaged in promotion of their work to a wider audience via news reports).

Weiss concludes his essay with five "basic rules" of science journalism that he presents as a personal mission statement for himself, and useful as a model for others. He also recommends that science reporters remember two key questions that need to be asked with more frequency when conducting interviews or researching the latest findings in science: "What do you mean?" and "How do you know that?"

I believe that this is also good advice for those of us who read science journalism (or anything for that matter).

As a whole, this volume of essays includes a broad array of topics and case studies. It also provides the reader with important background information about the science of behavioral genetics, the types of studies and approaches found within the discipline, as well as an inventory of careful critiques. Instead of a universal promotion of behavioral genetics, this volume presents a fair and honest treatment of the field that is both cautious at times and also optimistic and hopeful.

© 2006 James Sage

James Sage is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.  In addition to teaching courses in epistemology, philosophy of science, and philosophy of technology, he also has interests in philosophical psychology and the history of science.


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