April 21, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Does Ethics Emerge From Genes Alone?

Gene Robinson wants to get us “beyond nature and nurture” in discussions of behavior.  Robinson, of the Department of Entomology and Neuroscience at the University of Illinois in Urbana, wrote an essay in the April 16 issue of Science1 that suggests it is not “either-or” but “both-and” – both genetics and the environment affect the expression of genes.  Behavior, therefore, is a reflection of the dynamic interplay of both factors as they affect which genes are expressed.  Does this remove the fear of biological determinism?

When it comes to behavior, the nature-nurture controversy has not disappeared.  The public is leery of attributing behavioral influence to DNA rather than to the environment and free will; worries abound over the ethical implications of biological determinism.  Many social and behavioral scientists are skeptical as well, either because the concept of “DNA as destiny” does not jibe with their understanding of the dynamic nature of behavior or because they consider human behavior to be much more complex than that of animals studied from a genetic perspective.  By contrast, biologists have long accepted that genes, the environment, and interactions between them affect behavioral variation.  Traditionally, behavioral variation has been partitioned using statistical analysis into genetic (G), environmental (E), and G x E components, an approach that began long before the advent of molecular biology.  This retains the flavor of the nature-nurture dichotomy, which influences how research in this field is interpreted.  Fortunately, we can now study genes in enough detail to move beyond the nature-nurture debate.  It is now clear that DNA is both inherited and environmentally responsive.

Robinson provides three examples of genetic expression in animals (voles, fruit flies and rats) affected by environment.  Thus, he considers a biological explanation of behavior tractable at last: “All behaviors are influenced by the actions of many genes; the three highlighted here exert their effects as part of gene networks that give rise to diverse pathways of physiological activity.”  These animal models illustrate a new framework for explaining behavior, from animals to man:

Emphasizing the dynamic responsiveness of the genome over different time scales not only provides a framework that includes both mechanistic and evolutionary explanations of behavior at the molecular level, but may also attract more social and behavioral scientists to the quest to understand the relationship between genes and behavior.  In the past, social and behavioral scientists might have dismissed molecular studies of behavior in animal models by pointing to the greater complexity of human behavior.  Yet the examples offered here–pair bonding, foraging, and care of offspring, each involving molecules known to also be present in humans–illustrate complex behaviors performed over days and weeks or even a lifetime.  These behaviors have learned components and are performed in a social context.  The value of animal models can be further enhanced by applying genomics to generate large-scale expression profiles of individuals with different genotypes tested in different environments.  In addition, the application of informatics should enable new literature-based comparative analyses of behaviors across different species.

These new approaches might provoke multidisciplinary synergy: “Development of new tools marrying the vast literature on behavior with genomics could also spark increasing involvement by social and behavioral scientists in molecular genetic studies of behavior,“ Robinson says.  “This would be a welcome development indeed.”  Biologists need the collaborative input of sociologists, he suggests demurely.  He thinks the cross-disciplinary study of molecular genetics will also “help everyone get past the dilemma of nature versus nurture.”  From there, tackling the intricacies of the human psyche cannot be far behind: “Then we can all focus on both the tremendous opportunities and the challenging ethical concerns related to the study of genes and behavior.”


1Gene E. Robinson, “Beyond Nature and Nurture,” Science, Vol 304, Issue 5669, 397-399, 16 April 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1095766].

Gene (appropriately named), a genetic determinist, and a Gene E. with words, seems to believe he is thinking outside the box, but he has only rearranged the furniture.  The box is naturalism.  It was naturalism before, and it is naturalism now.  The couch of nature and the sofa of nurture have just been rearranged on both sides of the end table of genetics.  Now, the biologists and social scientists can both pour their coffee from the same pot as they discuss their common bond of naturalistic philosophy.
    Actually, his essay is a veiled attempt to woo the social and behavioral naturalists to the “nature” side of the debate, where he thinks the truth lies.  Robinson provided three examples of genes affecting behavior modulated by environmental cues.  He thereby gently chides the social scientists for their insistence that the human psyche is too complex to be described genetically.  And he hints at the possibility that naturalistic biologists can become the benevolent philosopher-kings for the public: he began, “The public is leery of attributing behavioral influence to DNA rather than to the environment and free will; worries abound over the ethical implications of biological determinism.”  He ended, “we [that is, the naturalistic biologists and the naturalistic behavioral scientists] can all focus on … the challenging ethical concerns related to the study of genes and behavior.”  Presumably, this means that the enlightened biologists can inform ethical policy if not control it.  In this box, soul and spirit and free will are all outlawed.  Biological determinism is the law.  Naturalists are like the Russian prison guards who believe in freedom of choice: “You have two choices: Gulag and torture, or Siberia and torture.”  (The worst torture comes from guards who sincerely believe they are trying to help you.)  Robinson doesn’t even seem to realize he is in prison himself.  How can his thoughts on behavior, genetics and ethics have any validity if they are ultimately just artifacts of gene expression?
    A thoughtful jury listening to this advocate might well ask, has Robinson proved that human behavior and ethics are traceable to genetic expression?  Three examples with rodents and flies seem a little insufficient to explain Bach, Locke or Jacques Cousteau, or eine kleine Einstein either.  So altering a gene can affect a mouse’s foraging behavior.  Fine.  Take away a man’s food, and the environmental cues will probably stimulate his genes, too, in a way that will urge him to go foraging for something to eat.  Let’s have Gene identify every environmental cue that modulated the expression of every gene in Einstein’s brain while he described general relativity, then he may have a case.  Let’s have him describe genetically the self-evident truths that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Without that, he has nothing but philosophical belief based on the fallacy of reductionism.
    Certainly nature and nurture can influence behavior.  Nobody, not even a Methodist, would deny that.  All humans have a human nature, and “mannishness” as Francis Schaeffer termed it, that manifests itself across all cultures and times.  Undoubtedly much of it is genetically determined, shaped by our physical characteristics, and influenced by our environment.  Social experiments can often predict behavioral outcomes.  To reduce everything to genes, however, is not warranted by such observations.  Though we may react similarly to similar stimuli, how does DNA explain Paul?  The human spirit is perhaps the best example in the world of irreducible complexity.
    Robinson’s view is also dangerous.*  One wonders what “challenging ethical concerns” he had in mind, if he believes behavior is ultimately reducible to particles in motion.  According to this view, it should be possible to describe natural laws of behavior.  If so, why not apply these, like the Russians did, to psychopolitics?  Politicians could employ the natural laws to control the populace.  Advertisers could employ the natural laws to separate people from their money.  Torturers could employ the natural laws to extract confessions.  Dictators could raise an army of obedient supermen, like the clones in Star Wars II, to conquer the universe.  One only has to know the rules, and the human pawns would fall in line.  The question then becomes, who gets the power, and ultimately, what forces are governing the behavior of the ones in power?
Tremendous opportunities, indeed.


*This is not to disparage Mr. Robinson – only his ideas.  After all, Charlie was a pretty nice guy in person.  He loved animals and children and acted politely.  But his ideas were used to rationalize genocide, racism, eugenics, and other dark deeds on scientific grounds, that they were logical outworkings of competition and survival of the fittest (Herbert Spencer’s phrase that Darwin embraced in preference to his own term, natural selection).  Ideas have consequences.  Charlie may have been a gentleman, but others knew exactly where his ideas would lead from the day they were published, and some took his ball and ran with it (see 09/22/2002 entry).  If we are going to learn from history, we cannot ignore what biological determinism means to ethics, religion, law, politics, the arts, and culture.  “Worries abound over the ethical implications of biological determinism” – because some of us have a memory, and read history books.  Just the other day, the History Channel showed a clip of Hitler giving one of his impassioned speeches, in which he challenged the Germans to prove themselves the fittest because natural selection was the law of nature.  See also “The Science of Evil” by Michael Ollove posted 4/22 on the Baltimore Sun about how believers in eugenics based their nefarious schemes on the “law” of natural selection.

(Visited 11 times, 1 visits today)
Categories: Politics and Ethics

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.