HBD: The Gene Genie


Nature or nurture? The answer might be yes!

This is one of a series where I discuss issues and elements of what is referred to as HBD. Similar to my Random Thoughts series these posts will be more personal and less scholarly. If you want deeply footnoted reference work, please look elsewhere. Disclaimer aside, I do hope to give a passable overview of the subject.

Nature or nurture? Man has pondered that question long before he discovered the spiraled staircase with the unpronounceable name (thankfully they gave us the easier to say “DNA”). Is our nature fixed? Are we, in some way, predestined to a life corralled by our abilities and temperament, or are we a blank slate unto which we can paint the artistic creation of our imagination? Where in older times “nature” was thought to reside in humors, the discovery of DNA has pushed the study of “nature” towards genes. The question still remains, you may not be able to fight City Hall but can you fight nature?

Genetics is a complex and technical area, so I will not make a fool of myself by getting in over my head (“I am not waving, I am drowning”). A quick scan of the literature yields expressions such as: genotype, phenotype, RNA, DNA, coding, non-coding, transcription, gene expression, and so on. It should be clear that discussions of genetics will never be simple.

Before arriving at the nature or nature argument, you have to understand the nature of genes. How much genes control and how much they are controlled (via gene expression) may not always be clear; it certainly will not be clear to a lay man.

My suggestion for parsing stories about the “gene for…” is to substitute a phrase such as: “we have discovered a sequence of DNA that is linked to a higher probability of…” Just as with nature and nurture, genes are themselves subject to environmental effects (some paleo diet advice appears to be based on this idea). Indeed the environment for genes may include things that we do not normally consider such as the health of the mother during pregnancy, the health or stresses imposed upon the child around developmental milestones. So, even if genes give us our nature, it could be that nurture gave us our genes.

While I believe that genes give us a lot of our nature, and our nature gives us a lot of ourselves, we are slaves to neither. While we may not be a blank canvas, nature limits our color palette and brushes, we are left with some chance for artistic expression. Nature or nurture? Genes or environment. I believe the answer is a cooperative venture.


While I believe that continued investigation will show us the links between genes and traits, I also believe that they will show us how much more complex they are than “the gene for…”

I am certainly not denying that traits such as intelligence, adult height, and aspects of personality have a strong heritable component. I am suggesting that nature or nurture argument will never be fully resolved.


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