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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44.1 (2001) 146-148

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Book Review

Behavioral Genetics: The Clash of Culture and Biology

Behavioral Genetics: The Clash of Culture and Biology. Edited by Ronald A. Carson and Mark A. Rothstein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1999. Pp. 206. $39.95.

In Behavioral Genetics, Carson and Rothstein have brought together a multi-disciplinary team of experts to examine the issues raised in the study of the genetic factors that underlie human behavior. All of the authors hold several assumptions in common: (1) all human behavior is complex and involves multiple genes that interact with each other and with the environment; (2) these interactions are not static, but dynamic and evolving, and cannot be understood except within the life history of the individual; and (3) our understanding of the genetic factors and their interaction with environmental factors is rudimentary. Despite these commonalities, the authors' beliefs regarding the implications and potential uses of behavior genetics range from optimism to cynicism. The goal of this book is twofold: (1) to critically examine the science behind behavioral genetic claims; and (2) to formulate socially appropriate and ethically defensible responses to such knowledge.

The need to examine critically the science behind behavioral genetic claims is made disturbingly clear in the chapter by Nelkin, who documents that despite the academic dispute regarding the complexity of human behavior and its irreducibility to a purely genetic basis, this subject is not well understood by non-experts and is not helped by a media which publicizes controversial, preliminary scientific reports about the discovery of the genetic causes for different behaviors such as criminality or alcoholism without exploring the limitations of the findings (p. 156).

Two of the first three chapters are devoted to reviewing current research methods that attempt to tease out the genetic component of behavior. The authors describe the statistical complexities but are convinced of their utility despite the fact that these methods and the results are disputed by colleagues within their own discipline and are not accepted by all disciplines. For example, Rowe and Jacobson note that the hypothesis that "genetic differences among people are a source of their behavioral differences . . . is largely [End Page 146] rejected or ignored . . . [i]n fields such as cultural anthropology and sociology" (p. 12).

These chapters are followed by a sobering chapter by Schaffner, in which he develops a "philosophical framework within which to interpret . . . advances in behavioral and psychiatric genetics that use a molecular point of view" (p. 61). Schaffner offers eight rules relating genes (through neurons) to behavior to explain why it is so difficult to find genetic explanations for human behavior. Although he is doubtful that primary genetic explanations will be useful except for some very rare behaviors (e.g., Huntington's disease), he ends with some methodological suggestions that may help to elucidate the role of genetic factors in behavior, albeit incomplete and subject to exceptions (pp. 78-81).

The focus on the ethical issues raised by behavioral genetics research and the need to seek wide participation in policy development regarding the uses of such knowledge is underscored. As Nelkin notes, a genetic basis for mental illness might be welcomed by families with afflicted members, because it may exculpate parents who have been blamed for their child's problems on the grounds of poor parenting. And yet the exculpation only goes so far: even if we don't blame parents for their parenting style, we can still blame them because they have transmitted bad genes (p. 167). Worse yet, a genetic explanation of mental illness threatens to devalue those affected by defining them as "intrinsically bad" (p. 167).

Two of the most disturbing chapters are dedicated to the potential uses, misuses, and abuses of behavioral genetics by the law and the criminal justice system. Rothstein notes that lawyers in an adversarial system will argue that genetics is deterministic to repudiate their client's culpability, and the validity of this argument will be judged by juries who do not understand the complexities of genetics (pp. 102-6). Andrews...


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