Genes and behaviour

An important and fast-growing body of knowledge in modern biology is beginning to shed light on how genes relate to behaviour. In animal research, biologists use selective and systematic knockout technologies to remove a gene from an organism and assess the resulting behaviour, i.e. to link genotypes and phenotypes. Traditional research strategies in human behavioural genetics include studies of twins and adoptees, techniques designed to sort biological from environmental influences. More recently, investigators have sought correspondences between stretches of DNA and particular behaviours. To date, this approach has been most productive in identifying locations of genes associated with major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety, but research is aimed at finding the genetic basis of many other traits.

There is a consensus, however, that in complex organisms single genes do not univocally determine a particular behaviour. Behaviours are the outcome of interactions between multiple genes and diverse environmental and cultural factors. Carrying a genetic variant doesn't necessarily mean that a particular trait will develop, if the appropriate environmental conditions do not apply. This fact often gets overlooked in media reports 'hyping' scientific breakthroughs in genetic research. There have been instances of researchers in the field of behavioural genetics implicating genetic components in various behaviours including homosexuality, aggression, impulsivity, and even tendency to mid-life divorce. To what extent are such claims justified? To what extent can we, for example, equate aggression observed in the animal kingdom with the multifarious forms of ïaggressionÍ manifested by humans? In this session we would like to assess the current state of affairs in basic research in behavioural genetics, and reflect on the biomedical, social, and ethical implications of the results that this research is producing.