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The Gene Myth

One important issue is the difference between the public perception of genetic function and laboratory truth. It pertains to the growing popular image of the gene as the all-determining factor in the human condition, and begins with the thought that if we could only find the gene for a certain disease, then we could find the cure by simply manipulating this gene. The logic then continues: Why stop with diseases? Do genes also determine behavior? If so, should we blame persons for their anti-social behavior, or judge them as victims of their genetic makeup? Should we try to alter the genes of individuals or groups with aberrant or unacceptable behavior?

This line of thinking belongs to what can be called the ‘gene myth,’ namely, a widespread cultural thought form that says, “it’s all in the genes.” The gene myth is deterministic in two senses. The first is puppet determinism, wherein we assume the DNA acts like a puppeteer and we dance on genetic strings like a puppet. If the DNA determines our hair color and what diseases we will have, then perhaps the DNA determines how we will behave and may even control our virtues and vices. The second is Promethean determinism, wherein we assume that once our scientists have learned how DNA works we can then take charge; that is, we can get into the DNA with our scientific tools and modify it so as to guide our own evolutionary future. Puppet determinism presumes that we are victims of our genes, whereas Promethean determinism presumes that we can take charge of our genes. Both belong to the gene myth, and both point to a significant question: Will the concept of genetic determinism—might we call it genetic predestination?—compromise our confidence in free agency?  

To attempt an answer we must ask difficult scientific questions. The most obvious one is: Does the science of molecular biology support the deterministic assumptions of the gene myth? No. For the most part, laboratory scientists see little or no evidence supporting a philosophy of genetic determinism that would alter our understanding of human freedom. At minimum, nurture remains as important as nature. Molecular biologist  R. David Cole, who claims  that genetic determinism does not automatically erase free will at the human level, puts it this way:

There is no reason for the non-scientist to be intimidated by the success of the deterministic approach in elucidating the biological role of genes in human nature, and certainly no reason to be intimidated by any scientist who might try to convince us that determinism is all that is. Although the case for free will cannot be rigorously proven, those of us who believe in it need feel no threat from the findings of the Human Genome Initiative.Dean H. Hamer, Stella Hu, Victoria L. Magnuson, Nan Hu, and Angela A. L. Pattatucci, "A Linkage Between DNA Markers on the X Chromosome and Male Sexual Orientation," Science, 261:5119 (July 16,...

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Ted Peters

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