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Genetic Explanations for Human Behavior Eyed

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The use of genetic factors to explain human characteristics such as intelligence is associated, in certain population subgroups, with particular political and social ideologies, according to a study directed by Dr. Toby Jayaratne of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan and guest speaker on June 20 at the Human Genome Lecture Series. Her lecture, "White and Black Americans' Genetic Explanations for Perceived Gender, Class and Race Differences: The Psychology of Genetic Beliefs," concluded NHGRI's 2001-2002 series.


The media play a role in making genetic attributions salient to the public, Jayaratne noted. "We know that due to recent breakthroughs in genetic research — particularly work on the Human Genome Project — there has been increasing media coverage of genetic research, often reported in a dramatic way," she said, describing the effect on public perception. "There has been increasing acceptance of genetic research in the fields of psychiatry and psychology. Research in these fields is often what gets reported in the popular media."

Showing slides of newspaper articles — "Biology May Be Destiny" (linking sexual orientation and genes); "Study: Genes Determine IQ" (hinting at genetic determinants for IQ, personality and behavior); and "Born To Be Bad: Why Do Some Kids Kill?" (suggesting innate, irreversible tendencies for violence) — Jayaratne said the popular media often spectacularizes the science it reports. Even professional articles can be guilty of hyperbole, she said, citing an article in the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association that suggested that happiness is inherited.

Dr. Toby Jayaratne
"Despite the fact that no clear genetic mechanisms have been directly linked to specific, complex human behaviors," she pointed out, "the public is clearly being exposed to media coverage that can fairly be described as supporting a genetic deterministic view of human behavior." Jayaratne also briefly recalled eugenics and instances in history when genetic explanations were used to legitimize the social hierarchy.

"Given these controversies it is critical to understand what the public believes about genetic causes for human behaviors and how such explanations might support particular social and political ideologies," she explained. There can be tremendous social significance, Jayaratne said, because such beliefs "represent our view of human nature, reflect the way we see ourselves and others, and shape our self-perceptions and influence how we treat others."

When people perceive that certain actions are caused by a person's genes, she explained, there is the implication that "the behavior is stable, enduring and not volitional, and that the behavior originates primarily within the individual and not the environment."

In addition, she noted, attributing behavior to genetics can be used to imply enduring superiority or inferiority, particularly by individuals who are socially advantaged. They can "legitimize their status either by implying that those who are inferior can never move up the social hierarchy or by implying that they themselves will never move down."

Genetics can also be used to absolve people from responsibility for bad behavior, she pointed out, since the implication is that people are subject to their genes and do not have the freedom to choose right from wrong. "Genetic explanations have important social and political meaning and are not always statements about objective scientific facts," Jayaratne emphasized.

With that backdrop, she and her colleagues conducted research funded by NHGRI's Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications Research Program. The 3-year study included a 40-minute telephone interview with 1,200 black and white women and men. From responses to questions on genetic understanding, the researchers know that this sample of Americans had little sophistication about basic genetic science.

Seeking answers to two questions — What does the public believe about genetic causes for human behaviors? and Are these genetic explanations used by the socially advantaged to imply inferiority of socially disadvantaged groups? — the study examined people's belief that genes explain various human behaviors and abilities, including athleticism, math performance, drive to succeed, tendency toward violence, intelligence and sexual orientation.

According to preliminary study results, a majority of respondents indicated that each of the characteristics, except drive to succeed and sexual orientation, is explained, at least in part, by genetic factors. In addition, blacks and whites in the study were found to hold very different views about genetic influence, with whites significantly more likely than blacks to report genetic attributions for all characteristics.

The researchers also investigated the belief that genes explain perceived differences in behavior and ability between men and women, between the rich and the poor and between blacks and whites. Across all categories and among all explanations for differences, a sizable portion of the study population believes genes play some role in perceived gender, class and race differences, according to the data. "Given the fact that no clear genetic mechanisms have been directly linked to any of these specific behaviors or abilities," Jayaratne noted, "this is reason for concern."

The study also examined the association between genetic attributions and various attitudes toward women, the poor and blacks among those who are advantaged by their gender, class or race. "So, is there a link between genetic explanations and prejudice toward disadvantaged gender, class and race groups, as some have cautioned, or are we needlessly concerned?" Jayaratne asked.

Results varied, she reported. For example, among black men, but not white men, there was a significant effect of genetic explanations for perceived gender differences on resentment toward women. Among whites with a college degree, but not blacks with a similar education, genetic attributions for perceived social class differences predicted resentment toward the poor. Finally, among white men, genetic explanations for perceived race differences predicted both traditional and more current, nuanced forms of racism. This association was less consistent among white women.

"Biological explanations for race differences are an integral part of traditional racism," Jayaratne said. "Many have argued, at least theoretically, that biological explanations do not play a part in modern racist attitudes, but our data shows otherwise, at least among white men."

These findings appear to show that genetic attributions are associated with intolerance among some who are advantaged by their gender, social class or race.

However, Jayaratne also examined the connection between genetic explanations for sexual orientation and attitudes toward gays and lesbians. In contrast to the previous results, she found that these genetic explanations are associated with less prejudice toward gays and lesbians. Jayaratne suggested that because genetic explanations imply that a behavior is not volitional, they can be used to "remove a behavior from the moral domain to advocate for increased tolerance toward those who are marginalized by their behavior."

Assessing the results, she concluded that "many individuals use genetic explanations to justify or support their social and political ideologies, whatever they may be."

The results of the study have implications for those in the field of genetic science, she noted, pointing out that geneticists should be aware of how their research results are perceived. "It is important to be conservative in reporting research results to the public and to be cautious about how the media interprets research, so that the public is not misinformed," she advised.

Jayaratne also concluded that there is a critical need to educate the public about genetic science — particularly since policy decisions to remedy social inequalities may be influenced by public opinion on genetic issues.

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