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scientists comment on ethics council report on behavioural genetics

This week the Nuffield Council on Bioethics published their report on ‘Genes and Human Behaviour’ to tackle the contentious ethical issues in this area of research. The report concentrates the influence which genes have on ‘normal’ behaviour, rather than on specific diseases.

Professor Sir George Radda, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, said:

“Poor mental health, serious behavioural disorders and mild learning difficulties can present significant problems for medical, educational and social services, and cause a great deal of suffering for the people affected and their families and friends.

“Research in behavioural genetics can provide pieces of the scientific jigsaw which have been unavailable until now. While such research needs to be guided by open ethical debate, and individual projects need rigorous independent review, we believe that scientific projects in this area should be seen as an integral part of modern psychological research.”

Professor Ian Deary of the Department of Psychology, Edinburgh University, said:

“The nurture – nature debate is often presented as being very polarised, but in fact most researchers in this field occupy the middle ground, believing that both environment and genes contribute to individual differences in personality.”

Professor John Burn, Medical Director of the Institute of Human Genetics, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, said:

“There could be problems if defense counsels begin to claim genetic predisposition as a mitigating circumstance, as has occurred in the United States. In my opinion this is a dangerous path. Claims that women acted in an uncontrolled manner due to premenstrual tension fall into the same category and are no more defensible that attempts to absolve adolescent males because their genetic makeup led to a surge in testosterone for 6 years.”

Dr Matt Ridley, Author of ‘Genome’ and Chairman of the International Centre for Life, Newcastle, said:

“The more we look inside the genome, the more it becomes clear that genes are not puppet masters pulling the strings of personality. They respond to other genes, and to outside influences. Being told your personality is the product of genes is no more fatalist than being told it is the product of parenting or social background. To get this notion across to the public, which has been told by both sides of the nature-nurture debate that genes are fate, will not be easy.”

Dr Raj Persaud, Consultant Psychiatrist at The Maudsley Hospital, London, said:

“This is an important report in a rapidly developing area of science with profound ethical and social implications.

“If we can better identify genetic predispositions we can work more effectively at prevention. For example, if I know I have a high genetic loading for schizophrenia I can take care to not smoke cannabis, improve my coping skills and avoid severe stress. It is often environmental factors that decide whether genes get expressed or not.

“There is a huge difference between having a gene and that gene actually being expressed. So research on genes could actually reduce genetic determinism, not increase it.”

Professor Jim Stevenson of the Department of Psychology, University of Southampton, said:

“The study of genetic influences on behaviour, personality and intelligence continues to enthrall and alarm. Some people believe that human behavioural characteristics are too complex to be analysed using the same methods used to study height, eye colour or blood pressure. Others are concerned that such investigations seem to threaten our notions of free will, or hark back to eugenic practices such as the sterilisation of people with ‘undesirable’ traits. Consequently, there is a great deal of scepticism about behavioural genetics, and constant calls to limit such research for ethical reasons.

“This report provides a valuable service to both the scientific community and to the general public in providing a clear and succinct account of scientific and ethical issues in this research. Scientists are making rapid strides in answering questions about how both genetic and social differences between people act together to shape our behaviour.

“I’m also pleased that the report urges scientists to avoid speaking about genes ‘for’ particular behaviours. A combination of many different genes can influence certain personal characteristics, but a whole host of environmental factors are also extremely important in shaping our behaviour.”

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