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Paul Grobstein's picture

Genes, environment, story telling, and behavior/mental health

Lots of intriguing conversation here. Thanks all for pushing my own thinking along. Clearly some biology us relevant here; let me see if I can make it both more comprehensive and more comprehensible.

"virtually no behavior is determined by genes and virtually every behavior is influenced by genes" is an important part of the biological story but not at all the entire story. Probably a more complete/more useful? statement would be

Genes do not code for behaviors; they code for macromolecules. Behaviors reflect elaborate assemblies of macromolecules at multiple levels of scale. A given behavior is influenced by lots of genes/macromolecules and a given gene/macromolecule influences lots of behaviors. Hence, virtually no behavior is determined by genes and virtually every behavior is influenced by genes. Similarly all behavior is influenced but not determined by the environment, including culture, and by the story teller, including personal choices, and both the environment and the story teller influence multiple behaviors rather than just one.

Its important to understand that this is a description of observations, not an attempt to "spin ... or bribe ... or sweet talk." And that it has important implications. Among them is the need to stop looking for simple cause/effect relationships in thinking in this realm. If I knock a glass off a table and it breaks on the floor, I may feel responsible for the broken glass and it may be useful for me and others to hold me responsible, to ignore the fact that the glass would not have been broken if someone else hadn't put it there in the first place and would not have been broken if there wasn't a gravitational field, and so forth. That approach isn't useful for thinking about behavior. Any particular behavior is an expression of genes and environment and story telling/personal choice. The interplay (the loops) are integral to the phenomenon and can't be ignored.

"if we start making excuses for people based on their genes that people will be able to get away with anything"

"I think most behavior *can* be blamed on chemistry" ... one sign that points to nurture, not nature"

Its not nature OR nurture but both, and story telling/personal choice as well. And that means we need to seriously rethink what we mean by causation, including both "blame" and "excuses." To say that something is influenced by genes can be neither "blame" nor excuse. There are always other things involved as well.

" My guess is, all of our bad behaviors are genetically influenced"

So too, of course, are all of our "good" behaviors. Furthermore, it is often the same genes that are involved in both. The point, of course, is, again, that genes don't code for behaviors and, even more, certainly don't code for "bad" and "good." The influence that a gene has on any given behavior depends on other genes, on experiences, and on story telling/personal choices. And whether than behavior is "bad" or "good" depends on who is doing the judging and what standards are used to make the judgement.

Can we perhaps find a more nuanced approach, one that will help people understand the gene story in a way that doesn’t ignore its power, while at the same time doesn’t promote false views of us as helpless automatons condemned to march haplessly along a pre-determined path?

Yes, but to do so we're going to have to get over trying to replace more complex biological/cultural stories ("bad" and "good") with simpler biological ones ("genes"). And that probably means recognizing that understanding why a particular behavior occurs is often a quite different question from deciding what to do about it. That there is a genetic influence (and an envrionmental one and a story teller/personal choice one) may give us some useful infornation about how to do something about it without giving us any insight at all into whether we want to or ought to.

Is there something special about genes in this regard? some reason the "gene story" has particular "power"? I think the answer is both yes and no. We have no control whatsoever over the genes we have and, until recently, most people have had very little awareness of genes as an influence on human behavor. It is indeed useful to know that there are influences on behavior that are not chosen by individuals and that we and others may not know about. On the flip side, though, few of us are entirely choosing our environments or fully aware of the impacts they are having on us. Yes, its helpful to know that genes influence behavior in ways we might not have expected. The same is true for the environment? "the more we understand about the human experience [in all its facets] the better equipped we will be to deal with the varieties of that experience we encounter"?

I don't think though that one should leave it at that. A more nuanced story would emphasize that genes, having things that we did not choose to have, relates not only to "bad" things but to "good" things as well. Our genomes provide each of us with the only free information we'll ever get in our lives, a wealth of information about what worked in the past, distinctive information that lays an early foundation for our individuality. Among the other things it gives us is our capacity to tell stories, make meaning, and hence to make personal choices, to be in fact an influence, to one degree or another, on our own behavior.

"free will, not limitless human powers, but choice within the boundaries, different for each of us, of our mental faculties coupled with our environments, gives us another tool ..." 

Perhaps another way to define the goal of "mental health" is the maximization of each individual's free will, their ability to make their own choices?  And we should think of genes/environment/culture all has both assets and problems in that context?


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