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Are We Hardwired?Review - Are We Hardwired?
The Role of Genes in Human Behavior
by William R. Clark and Michael Grunstein
Oxford University Press , 2000
Review by Gordon Fisher, Ph.D.
Jan 1st 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 1)

The authors present extensive but concise descriptions and interpretations of recent experiments and observations bearing on the influence on behavior in organisms directed by their genes, as they interact in combination with each other, and with environments of the organisms.

In the first seven chapters, inferences are made about observed behavior of various non-human organisms, mainly under laboratory conditions, which the authors take to be of use in the study of human behavior, inasmuch as various gene patterns and their chemistry have been preserved in the course of evolution. The organisms range from single-celled paramecia to non-human primates. Many of the usual suspects are reported on, such as round worms, marine slugs (sea snails), fruit flies, and of course rats and mice. There is a special chapter on the roles and physiology of pheromones, chemicals released as signals to be picked up by senses of other organisms, of the same or different species. Examples are the much-publicized sexual attractors picked up by smell, although there are also pheromones which are sexual repellers. Early manifestation of learning and memory are treated, as in the marine slugs and fruit flies. There is also a special chapter on biological clocks, said by the authors to be "one of the most fundamental regulators in all of biology", and whose study they recommend as "one of the more fruitful fields of analysis in understanding the genetic basis of human behavior."

Beginning with Chapter 8, the authors concentrate on genetic effects on human behavior, with due attention to the role of environments interacting with genes, and due attention to the fact that single genes are not often found to be the causes of identifiable human behaviors. Here, of course, laboratory conditions and techniques for observations are of a different nature from those available for many non-human organisms. Again, some of the usual suspects are exposed, such as inferences made from studies of monozygotic and dizygotic twins. There is little on inferences one can make from clinical studies of people with brain or other dysfunctions of that kind, no doubt because the authors are, respectively, an immunologist and a biological chemist. However, there are some references to a few human diseases.

To start with, there is a chapter on genetic control of the activity of neurotransmitters, chemicals which act as messengers between body cells. The authors then turn to genetic bases of specific human behaviors of special interest, as follows: "The Genetics of Aggression", "The Genetics of Consumption, Part I, Eating Disorders"; "The Genetics of Consumption, Part II, Substance Abuse"; "The Genetics of Human Mental Function"; "The Genetics of Human Sexual Preference" (especially homosexuality). In each case there are fairly detailed reports on a variety of comparatively recent researches into the action of genes on behavior associated with these characteristics.

The last chapter of the book includes a brief examination of the relative roles of genes and environment in behavior of organisms, and a brief venture into that great and perennial swamp, problems of free will and determinism. The authors suggest, without going into much detail, that chaotic (nonlinear) behavior in the sense mathematicians introduced the term "chaotic", may provide an escape from the presumed deterministic actions of genes, on the one hand, and environmental conditions exterior to organisms, on the other hand. Their idea seems to be that nonlinear processes may and often does lead to unpredictable behavior, and that somehow this is taken by humans, presumably in their becoming conscious of such behavior (although this is not stated explicitly by the authors), to have been an action of "free will". This seems to imply that what humans take to be acts of "free will" are in fact the result of some sort of illusionary artifact. The authors suggest that "free will" is not something we humans can control. They say (p. 269): "… the very definition of chaotic behavior suggests that it would operate outside of human consciousness and memory. So if chaos is a factor in generating human behavior, then it may be that what we are calling free will is simply a way of accounting for a certain level of longed-for indeterminacy in our behavior, of trying to fit it into a pattern that we can understand - and think we can control." To which I can add that mathematicians, on the whole, regard chaotic behavior, mathematically speaking, as describing behavior (e.g., as specified by trajectories of differential equations) which is deterministic although unpredictable, in senses if these terms which should be made as mathematically precise as possible. The authors seem to me to confuse, to some extent, unpredictability with indeterminism. It's hard to tell, though, because they give no definition, to speak of, of the term "free will", much less that of that term now widely taboo among scientists of "will" tout court. Among other things, the authors seem to be dealing with choosing to do an action, without paying attention to the conscious generation of choices (if such exists), followed by selection of one or none or perhaps more than one of these choices, followed by attempts to carry out the selection, followed by possibly "free" modifications of the ensuing behavior during interaction of organisms with their environments (including, of course, other organisms, which themselves may have "free wills" to some degree).

There are two appendices, one an enlightening one about procedures used for finding and identifying genes, and relations between genotypes and phenotypes, and another on that bugaboo of genetic studies and their applications, the history of eugenics.

© 2002 Gordon Fisher

Gordon Fisher, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics & Computer Science, one-time Senior Lecturer in Mathematics & History and Philosophy of Science.


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