9 December 2005, EMBL Monterotondo (Rome)

The new behavioural genetics and the sociology of susceptibility

Nikolas Rose, BIOS Centre for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society, London School of Economics and Political Science

In the shift from behavioral genetics to behavioural genomics, many of the simplistic assumptions made by enthusiasts of an earlier age about the relation between 'genes' and conduct have had to be abandoned or revised. Those who are concerned with the possible relations between DNA sequences and mental disorder, addiction, impulsivity and other variations in human conduct must now reframe their arguments in the language of susceptibilities and predispositions, in terms of the interaction between multiple allelic and SNP variations – some protective and some increasing vulnerability – at multiple sites, and in terms of the regulation of gene expression by environmental factors from thus at the cellular level to those in early experience or environmental insults. Nonetheless, the genomics of susceptibility, which remains so alluring and yet elusive in relation to common complex 'organic' disorders, is also generating a programme of research and intervention in relation to complex behavioural conditions from anxiety to alcoholism, from aggression to depression. In this discussion, I consider some of the social drivers for, and implications of, such a programme of research and intervention, especially in a context where the idea of prediction and prevention, of asymptomatic illness and presymptomatic patients, is gaining such a hold, and where some already suggest the need for widespread screening of children for susceptibilities and early 'preventive' intervention using psychopharmaceuticals. I compare the patterns emerging in relation to these psychiatric and para-psychiatric conditions with the forms of ‘biological citizenship’ emerging in relation to other conditions and consider the implications.