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Genes and Human Behavior

CITATION:  Rose, R. J. (1995). Genes and Human Behavior. Annual Review of Psychology. Palo Alto. 46. 

ABSTRACT:  This volume of the Annual Review of Psychology marks anniversaries of both old and new approaches to human behavioral genetics. This review of genes and human behavior appears 35 years after the field of behavior genetics was christened with a monograph bearing that name (Fuller & Thompson 1960), and 25 years after the Behavior Genetics Association was founded and its journal, Behavior Genetics, launched. This volume appears 15 years after recognition of the utility of using DNA markers for gene-mapping, which initiated the use of restriction fragment length polymorphisms (RFLPs) for genetic linkage studies. And 1995 is the fifth year of the United States Human Genome Project, a project to map the human DNA sequence, one so successful that three years into it, a new, more ambitious five-year plan was launched (Collins & Galas 1993). There are exciting developments in both old (quantitative) and new (molecular) approaches to human behavioral genetics; this review attempts to highlight the excitement, promise, and controversy surrounding contemporary human behavior genetics.

Cover-story reports of behavior genetics (Science 1994) testify to the field's vitality and visibility, but controversy follows. The most influential popular periodical in US science headlined "The dubious link between genes and behavior," subtitling its "lack-of-progress report" in behavior genetics as "Eugenics Revisited" (Horgan 1993). Others charge that the "allure of genetic explanations" (Alper & Natowicz 1992) for complex social behavior leads to poor science and pernicious social policy, and that problems endemic to the old genetic analyses will reoccur in the new (Billings et al 1992). Amid such controversy, an initiative to enhance NIH funding for violence research was put on hold, and an NIH-funded conference on "Genetic Factors in Crime" was canceled. A gene for a form of familial aggression was announced by Dutch scientists (Brunner et al 1993), who subsequently were denounced (Simm 1994) for studying violent behavior as a phenotype. And while the media debates whether genes affect behavioral outcomes, some behavioral geneticists declare the nature-nurture war to be over (Scarr 1987) and, presuming they have won, now throw down a gauntlet to "socialization theorists," arguing that children's behavioral individuality is a product of children's unique genes. The notion that parental behaviors, and the home environments parents create, cause differences in children's outcomes is rejected: "Being reared in one family, rather than another...makes few differences in children's personality and intellectual development" (Scarr 1992, p. 3; for replies, see Baumrind 1993, Jackson 1993). A new monograph, provocatively entitled The Limits of Family Influence, broadly extends that theme (Rowe 1994). Such claims about the nature of nurture challenge basic social and scientific assumptions; hopefully, the challenge will elicit empirical replies and redirect inquiry into the interplay of genes and behavior.

Except among monozygotic (MZ) co-twins, an exception of central importance to behavior genetics, each of us has a unique genotype. Our genetic individuality is at the core of our personal lives, rendering us differentially susceptible to life events and leading us to seek environmental niches within which to behaviorally express our genetic dispositions. Evidence from behavior genetic research on fruit flies and rodents (Barinaga 1994), success in gene targeting mouse embryos (Capecchi 1994), and progress in identifying genetic etiologies of neurological disease (Martin 1993) raise profound questions relating genes to behavior (Wiesel 1994). The questions are not whether genes matter, but, rather, how they matter and how genetic effects are modulated across lifespans of environmental interactions. This review explores the treatment of such questions in recent research.

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