Are We Hardwired? The Role of Genes in Human Behavior

Are We Hardwired? The Role of Genes in Human Behavior

Are We Hardwired? The Role of Genes in Human Behavior

Are We Hardwired? The Role of Genes in Human Behavior

Synopsis

Books such as Richard Dawkins'sThe Selfish Genehave aroused fierce controversy by arguing for the powerful influence of genes on human behavior. But are we entirely at the mercy of our chromosomes? InAre We Hardwired?, scientists William R. Clark and Michael Grunstein say the answer is both yes--and no.
The power and fascination ofAre We Hardwired'lie in their explanation of that deceptively simple answer. Using eye-opening examples of genetically identical twins who, though raised in different families, have had remarkably parallel lives, the authors show that indeed roughly half of human behavior can be accounted for by DNA. But the picture is quite complicated. Clark and Grunstein take us on a tour of modern genetics and behavioral science, revealing that few elements of behavior depend upon a single gene; complexes of genes, often across chromosomes, drive most of our heredity-based actions. To illustrate this point, they examine the genetic basis, and quirks, of individual behavioral traits--including aggression, sexuality, mental function, eating disorders, alcoholism, and drug abuse. They show that genes and environment are not opposing forces; heredity shapes how we interpret our surroundings, which in turn changes the very structure of our brain. Clearly we are not simply puppets of either influence. Perhaps most interesting, the book suggests that the source of our ability to choose, to act unexpectedly, may lie in the chaos principle: the most minute differences during activation of a single neuron may lead to utterly unpredictable actions.
This masterful account of the nature-nurture controversy--at once provocative and informative--answers some of our oldest questions in unexpected new ways

Excerpt

Why are human beings so different from one another? Why are some people tall, some short; some brown-eyed, some blue-eyed? The fact that daughters and sons tend to look like their mothers and fathers suggests that physical features are heritable and therefore due in large part to genes. But what about behavior? Why, in the very same family, are some children assertive, others shy? Why are some people confident, others uncertain? Why are some highly emotional, others more reserved and [logical?] Are these traits heritable, too? Do differences in these traits among individuals also have a genetic basis?

The idea that at least some of the variability we see in human behavior and personality is heritable, and therefore genetically determined, would certainly come as no surprise to most animal breeders. For at least half a millennium or more, animals have been bred specifically to reinforce certain behavioral or personality traits. Some dogs, ranging in size from tiny terriers to massive pit bulls or Dobermans, have been bred for their aggressive nature. Others, such as collies or spaniels, faithfully transmit a docile, loving nature from generation to generation. Still others have been bred to carry out specific tasks related to hunting or managing flocks of animals. In the laboratory, rats and mice have been selectively bred for many generations to create strains that are fearful or aggressive. These strains pass on their personality differences each time they breed. No one seriously questions the role of genes in the development of animal behavior, or of inheritance in passing these traits from one generation to the next. Yet we are reluctant to acknowledge a similar role of genes in guiding human behavior.

At a deeper level, we know that the lives of cells are closely governed by genes, whether those cells are individual, free-living organisms such . . .

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