are we enslaved to our genes?

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

4 thoughts on “are we enslaved to our genes?

  1. Sipech says:

    Hi LucyI’ve only found your blog relatively recently, and am finding it very interesting and thought-provoking. Keep it up!On the subject of genetics, I would highly recommend Francis Collins’ book, The Language of God, if you haven’t already read it. As well as being a Christian, he was the director of the Human Genome Project for many years and has some very helpful insights on the role of genes in our lives.


  2. Lucy Mills says:

    Ahh yes – embarrassingly I think we actually own that book – my husband buys so many that I can't get through them all! Thanks for reminding me to look it out! Glad you like the blog 🙂


  3. Stuart says:

    I'm in a double weird position.Firstly, I know little of my biological father – except that I look somewhat like him – and so goodness only knows what genes I have from that side, as I know nothing of his family.Secondly, on my maternal side, there is a history of mental problems that run down the female side. I am the first male to inherit this trait.Doh!


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