Do Genes Make the Person?

17 April 2005

Do genes make the person? If you listen to popular press reports of new genetic discoveries coming out at fairly rapid pace, you certainly might think so. Lung Cancer Gene! Gay Gene! Genius Gene! Little wonder that many people believe -- or should I say fear? -- that genes somehow directly and invariably determine who we are. One has visions of being able to choose the IQ, personality, and physical attributes of one's offspring with the ease and reliability with which one chooses a meal at a good Chinese restaurant. As Stephen Jay Gould once put it, "If we are programmed to be what we are, then these traits are ineluctable. We may, at best, channel them, but we cannot change them either by will, education, or culture." But even a brief perusal of the scientific and/or philosophical literature about the role of genes in determining who we are reveals that at least in this strong form, genetic determinism has little or no basis in either scientific fact or theory. Genes clearly play an important causal role in the development of a phenotype. And according to one standard, but by no means universally endorsed conception of evolution, genes are the units on which natural selection operates. But none of that entails rigid and direct genetic determinism. So what, really, is the big fuss?

That's precisely the question we hope to get clear about in this episode.   Our guest John Dupre  thinks the power of  genes to make the person has been vastly oversold.  Here's how he puts it in his book,  Human Nature and the Limits of Science  in the  context of discussing the idea that genes build brains:

We can now see how massively simplistic is the assumption that genes build brains.  Obviously genes can do nothing, let alone build a brain, on their own.  To build a human brain the genes must be properly located in a cell complete with all the properly functioning extranuclear machinery; the cell must be properly positioned in the uterus of a human female; and the child must be born into a social setting that will provide an extremely complex set of stimuli to the human organism in which the brain is located.  So is there really any sense in which genes build brains in which it is not equally true to say that wombs build brains, or even schools build brains? 

For Dupre the answer to this last question is clearly no.   And there is surely a sense in which he is right.  I think probably everyone who has thought much about it would concede his central point, since everyone agrees that genes are not, to coin a phrase, self-developing.  To get from a gene to a phenotype often takes a lot of steps.    And all sorts of things --  things in which the gene may have no direct role -- have to go right  along the way.  So again, it's fair to ask, exactly what the fuss is all about.

One thing that may be at the source of at least the popular understanding of the ways genes help to make the person is the very idea of a genetic code.  One imagines that there is something like a "Language of the Gene"  (LOG) in which certain biological imperatives on the developing organism are explicitly laid down.   "You will have a heart!"  "You will have two kidneys."   "You will have an IQ of 129!"  "You will be disposed to criminality!"  "You will suffer from Alzheimer's Disease!"  and on and on.   Although it might be conceded that genes need  help  translating their directives into phenotypic traits in the organism, still they are the ultimate sources of those traits, since they "explicitly encode" for them.    Just as you can't make a program run on a computer unless you compile it or interpret it,  so you can't translate a genetic program into a phenotype until you compile or interpret it.    If that's right,  maybe we shouldn't take so much comfort in Dupre's remarks that genes don't build brains any more than wombs or schools do.   Wombs and Schools are just part of the machinery for interpreting  or compiling  of the genetic program.

I don't think this is right.  Moreover,  I'm  sure we'll get Dupre to say a lot more about why this is not the right way to think about the distinctive role of genes in causing a phenotype.   If there is such a thing as LOG -- the Language of the Genes -- then LOG is, in a matter of speaking,  written in a pretty impoverished vocabulary.  To a first approximation,  LOG is probably only rich enough to express "statements" about amino acid sequences.  This can't be quite the whole story, because something has to determine in which order the various amino acid sequences get laid down and there do seem to be genes that have that role.  In any case,  it's a very very long and complex journey from even the orchestrated  laying down of amino acid sequences to constructing anything so complex as a human brain.   Of course,  there are normal and relatively stable developmental pathways that mediate between the genes, with their encoded instructions for building amino acids, and any large scale phenotypic trait.  And for some explanatory purposes, it might be useful to construe  the mediating developmental pathways as "black boxes" into which we need not look.   As I understand it, that's precisely what "genetic selectionists"  about the so-called units of natural selection tend to do.     But granting even this much is a very  far from endorsing genetic determinism or elevating the genes into uniquely privileged sources of  what we are.   Even the genetic selectionist, who claims that only genes are selected for,  has to concede that development is not the business of the gene alone.

There's a lot more to say here.   I'm sure we'll say lots of it on the air today.  And I'm sure both John and I and hopefully you too will learn a lot from our conversation with John Dupre.   But I'm tempted  to conclude already, that the whole boogieman of genetic determinism is based mostly on misunderstanding.   Dan Dennett is  probably  right to say that no one, at least no serious scientist, seriously endorses genetic determinism. It certainly is  hard to find anyone who admits to being a genetic determinist.  S0 exactly how does a view that has no hold in the scientific community take on such a life of its own in the popular imagination? 

It doesn't follow, though, there  are no remaining controversial issues about genes and their role in making us who we are.  Dupre, for example, holds pretty dismissive views about the explanatory promise of Evolutionary Psychology, a discipline that I myself find rather intriguing.   His dismissal is  partly based on his rejection of what he thinks is their misappropriation of genetic explanation.   I'm not sure he's right about that and I'm not sure that evolutionary theory has as little to teach us about universals of human nature as he apparently believes.  But we'll see.

Comments (11)


Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 18, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

It was unfortunate that you didn't have time to re

It was unfortunate that you didn't have time to really flesh out with John Dupre about the implications of his ideas for 'genetic engineering' and such. Perhaps it is incorrect to extend what was basically a conversation about human developement to plant gene engineering or animal gene engineering, but it seems to me that there must be similar processes in all living things. If the gene is not the only mechanism that makes a trait express in an individual organism, than it seems to me real hubris to think that we have control over the effects of genetically modified organisms.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 18, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Looks like an entirely terminological debate to me

Looks like an entirely terminological debate to me.
Nobody is unsure here around what happens when a brain develops, or than our physical makeup is contingent on our genes, including our brains.
If you don't like saying "genes maketh the man", then don't say it. In my own words, "Kabloo, ignagger fakwump. Blug blug igzoo". You didn't understand that? Well, that's because language is arbitrary. I'm *still not wrong* about genetics. A rose by any other name would still wilt after 5-7 days from delivery.
-MP

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 18, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

I do not know if genes make the man, but I have a

I do not know if genes make the man, but I have a question. How far does education go in developing a person? Can education improve all parts of the mind? Kant stated that education could not help develop judgment, but I also heard that Kant was a racist. In my view Will, Eros, and Reason are the most powerful parts of a human being, but I believe that artificial machines will be able to control all of the physical including the brain. Genes make up the genotype and phenotype of the human being, but I would be more concerned with the control of the mind. The mind can always use reason and will to manipulate genes through science, but what will the mind do when machines control the brain? If the spirit exists it has to go through the brain to produce action. If the brain is locked by a microchip, then it does not matter how much the spirit wants to move the arm if Will cannot go through brain. Artificial Intelligence, Genetics, its all about control. The most important control is the control of consciousness.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, April 19, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

"S0 exactly how does a view that has no hold in th

"S0 exactly how does a view that has no hold in the scientific community take on such a life of its own in the popular imagination? "
Journalists, for one. I think most educated people sense the slippery slope from the denial of free will to the social breakdown that would occur if we were deemed to not bear responsibility for our actions. Journalists pose genes as a threat to free will, and voila, Time and Newsweek have catchy cover stories.
The fundamental problem comes when real scholars feel this fear, and the reaction is to work backwards from the fear into questioning the details of the science involved. Not that we shouldn't question science. But if the motivation is a philosophical end rather than dispassionate rational inquiry, we get these corrupt memes working their way into pundits' and then laymens' heads because the attacks on science come from scholarly authorities.
Steven Pinker and (especially) Daniel Dennett take extraordinary pains to try and put thinking people at ease - modern science is not at odds with free will in any meaningful sense.
Daniel Dennett gave a great interview on these subjects (free will, determinism, evolution, etc) to Reason a little while back, it's a good introduction to some of his work as well:
http://www.reason.com/0305/fe.rb.pulling.shtml
-Steve

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, April 22, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Hey! Why is the latest show not up on the website

Hey! Why is the latest show not up on the website yet? Did you guys have a show on Genetics and Determinism?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 25, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Ken's initial point about the way the media portra

Ken's initial point about the way the media portrays "genetic determinism" (a misnomer indeed) made me want to plug a panel discussion on "Mind and Brain in the Media" that I have organized at the 2005 meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology (http://www.hfac.uh.edu/cogsci/spp/wwwanlmt.htm).
I worry that the media presents to the general public research in evolutionary psychology/genetics, neuroscience, and other cognitive sciences in a way that is sometimes misleading and potentially dangerous given the important ethical and legal issues affected by people's conception of human nature.
We'll be discussing the role philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists should play in having their research disseminated by the media (and popular works). Panel members include Paul Bloom (psychologist), Owen Flanagan (philosopher), Daniel Povinelli (cognitive evolution), and Dan Lloyd (philosopher). I'd like to get a science journalist there but have not had any success yet. Maybe Ken or John know someone??

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, October 24, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

They don't! But they do start the process of makin

They don't! But they do start the process of making the person.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 15, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Well i don't really know whether genes makes the p

Well i don't really know whether genes makes the person but this thing is for sure that they make up the genotype and phenotype of the human being.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 15, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

I have come to the conclusion that neither genes n

I have come to the conclusion that neither genes nor upbringing make a person. A more powerful influence are the power of words and reading. Can you think of anything that does not have a word.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 17, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Yes I can. I call it "unnameable" ......oops! B

Yes I can. I call it "unnameable" ......oops!
But with regard to whether the genotype determines the phenotype the answer is obviously no, since some organisms develop dramatically different forms and behaviours depending on their environment. On the other hand the genotype does limit the phenotype - I have already lasted more than seven days without wilting but alas I will never smell like a rose.
From listening to the show, I had to agree with Ken and John when they appeared to be suggesting that John Dupre was exaggerating the literalness of the public understanding of "gene for" this or that. I think most of us are aware that the situation is often much more complicated and that the "gene for" is really understood as a proxy for "inherited biological tendency to" - but even if the misconception is real I am not sure how much it matters. The fact that the details are often expressed simplistically (or even understood that way) should not be used to deny the truth that many of our characteristics *are* determined at conception (whether by genes or whatever).
Yes it is unfortunate when determinism is assumed for characteristics to which it does not apply - or to which it does apply but only in a statistical sense, and especially when such assumptions are used to justify socially harmful attitudes and policies, but it does not make sense to deny the possibility just because we don't like the way some people abuse it.
I do wish there had been more time to follow up on Ken's concluding reference to the determinism/freedom issue.
Thanks for fixing the link. It's great to be able to enjoy these shows so long after the fact.

 
 
 

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