Sometimes it feels like some people think that our genes make up everything about us, that we cannot escape them and it is pointless to try. I keep coming across things to do with this as part of my research – although I’m looking at how people think, learn and remember, I stray into behaviour and personality and get rather sidetracked by talk of genetics on occasion.
(I’m no scientist, but I’m more likely to pick up a copy of the New Scientist than I am Woman’s Weekly. I find the former fascinating…the latter less so.)
From what I’ve read it falls in line with my own muddled thoughts on the matter: that there is no nature versus nurture or one thing that determines us, rather our lives are chock full of influences and leanings – be they external or internal.
In the words of Robin Barrow and Ronald Woods:
We are not determined by our genes; they are rather potentialities or tendencies that place limits on who we can become, but do not dictate specifics.1
Yes, genes have power, but they are not all powerful.
In a magazine article looking at the relationship of genes to criminal punishment, Kevin Beaver says that
With criminal behaviour, or virtually any behaviour, genes are not fatalistic nor are they deterministic – they simply increase the odds of someone committing a criminal act.2
Long before we explored our genes we knew that we all had different problems, our own tendencies, our own weaknesses. Does knowing there may be a genetic element to these mean that we should give up on ourselves? Does knowing a possible reason mean we should not try and overcome it? E.g. if, in a classic example, I have a tendency toward violent behaviour am I in someway not ‘responsible’ for what I do? Do I have no power over myself at all? Or, do I identify the things of tendency and potential within me and choose to nurture the good and overcome the harmful?
My genes influence, guide, attract. But I refuse to accept them as my master. Some would say I have little choice, but that is where we disagree the most. I would say we always have choice. Some choices will be harder than others. But none the less, we have the capacity to make them, because I still believe we are more than the sum of our parts.
I should add that I mean this in a general sense. I know that there are serious genetic conditions which do rob people of the power of choice, among other things. This is just rambling on a topic from a non expert who does not claim to be otherwise.
1 Robin Barrow and Ronald Woods, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, p23
2 Kevin Beaver, Should your genes determine your punishment in court? BBC Focus Magazine, Issue 212, February 2010, p23 (again!)
Image from University of Sussex website