Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Thoughts on Behavioral Genetics

From a writing prompt on our Honors Psychology Discussion Board:
Behavioral genetics has always been of immense interest to me. Are emotions merely chemicals and firing neurons? Are we wasting our time on environmental solutions to societal problems? Eugenics...? It's a very interdisciplinary field, covering biology, genetics, pharmacology, psychology, the Human Genome Project, and even history.

Behavioral genetics is sometimes colloquially referred to as 'nature versus nurture'. This is a very simplistic term for a complex topic. Nature does not end at birth; it continues throughout childhood. Nurture does not begin at birth; it begins in the second trimester. Even the most strict reductionist experiments cannot account for nature and nurture working hand in hand to create a complete person. The best possible environment cannot make a child any smarter than their brain will allow, but the worst possible environment certainly can damage the long-term outcomes regarding intelligence. Nature? Nurture? It is not a fight. It is a balance.

Emotions are largely chemical. We know this. Neurons fire, serotonin releases, adrenaline rushes, and there we are, in a maelstrom of chemicals. Environment is largely changeable, and consists of much more than what your parents do or do not do in your first decade of life. Reactions, however, seem to be cultural. The idea of taking a second wife or a mistress might cause a divorce in Oklahoma, but nary the blink of an eye in Afghanistan or France. Therefore, while intelligence may be the product of genetics, nurturing that inherent ability is solely the province of our environment and trained responses.

As an example, consider a child with inherent intelligence. That is genetics. Imagine that child in a home with no books. That's environment. Does that child choose to seek out a library or merely content itself with television? That is response. How do these things form to become a college student? No one knows... yet.

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