APTE: Science is not tool for discriminatory agenda
As the field of genetics has advanced over the past several years, an interesting sub-field has emerged with exciting potential — behavioral genetics. This field of genetics attempts to ascribe genes, which are chunks of DNA that serve as the hereditary units that are transferred from parent to offspring, to certain behaviors, such as being aggressive or empathetic. There is groundbreaking evidence that genes are responsible for many human behaviors, including personality, mental ability, psychological interests and psychiatric influences.
As a geneticist, I am truly excited and interested by the fact that a few atoms put together could be responsible for people’s personalities and behavioral traits. Just imagine the consequences of such a discovery! Genes are each comprised of a few units of molecules called nucleotides, which can be arranged to code for proteins, which can consequently affect human behavior. So by simply altering the way in which nucleotides are arranged in DNA, we could potentially change the way that person acts.
However, while such discoveries are exciting and seem straightforward, the reality is more complex. Genes may play a large role in determining human behavior, but genes are not the sole determinants of that behavior. Environmental factors, such as an individual’s cultural and social context, play a large role in shaping that behavior as well. In fact, there is an entire field of genetics known as epigenetics that studies how the environment can alter which genes are expressed in an individual, and thus, alter that individual’s behavior. Furthermore, unlike the way in which popular science portrays this genetic phenomenon, a single gene rarely codes for a single behavioral trait. In reality, multiple genes interact in complex ways — ways in which we do not fully comprehend — to cause certain behaviors.
Thus, biological determinism, which is the idea that biology completely dictates human behavior, does not paint a completely accurate picture of how genes and human behaviors are related. When one ascribes to biological determinism, it becomes very easy to justify sexist, racist or other discriminatory practices as being “natural” and biologically innate. When one believes that genes are the sole cause of behavior “X,” behavior “X” is argued to be natural and therefore acceptable — even if behavior “X” is morally or socially wrong. For example, just because men are more likely than women to have genes that cause aggression, does not make it socially acceptable for men to be overly aggressive. A biologically innate quality is not necessarily a socially acceptable one.
The other issue with biological determinism is that it tends to imply that one can derive conclusions about an individual’s traits based on genetic trends in a population. For instance, it may be true that women are more likely than men to carry genes that elicit empathetic responses. Does that mean all women are empathetic? Absolutely not. Does that mean that no men are empathetic? Once again, definitely not.
The point is, there is nothing wrong with believing that some behaviors are genetically determined. Many scientists have worked tirelessly to identify genes that are responsible for certain human behaviors. There is, however, a problem with assuming that those behaviors are a) applicable to everyone within a certain population and b) acceptable because they are genetically determined and “natural.” Furthermore, the fact that genes may cause certain behaviors does preclude the possibility that the social and cultural context in which a person lives may influence those behaviors as well.
It is important that scientists — especially geneticists — strive to make this distinction between science and opinion, for many times, it is difficult for the general audience to distinguish for themselves. Perhaps this is because science is the truth, but the facts that the truth is based on are presented in fuzzy ways. What many do not realize is that the way in which facts are presented can be biased and discriminatory. Take, for example, the common way to dismiss a woman’s angry or emotional response: “Oh, it must be her time of the month.” Yes, there is scientific evidence that pre-menstrual syndrome causes behavioral changes in some women right before they get their periods. However, only about 30 percent of women actually experience any PMS symptoms at all. This scientific information regarding PMS has been popularized, exaggerated and used to justify dismissing women’s arguments.
The problem arises when science is used to justify discriminatory practices. Science is meant to be objective and factual, but we need to be aware of the potentially biased way in which those facts are presented to us. Science tells us what is. Science does not tell us what we should do.
Vandana Apte is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior majoring in biotechnology with a minor in women's and gender studies. Her column, “Under the Microscope,” runs monthly on Fridays.
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