Human Genetics Alert response to Nuffield Council consultation on behavioural genetics


Human Genetics Alert is an independent watchdog group focusing on social and ethical issues raised by human genetics and reproductive technologies.

Question 4.1: What you think are the likely advantages and disadvantages of research in behavioural genetics?

We see few advantages, and few are mentioned in the consultation paper itself. Behavioural genetics research is part of an ongoing social process, which tends to define social problems as being due to on the biology of individuals, and therefore seeks technical solutions to these problems, most often in the shape of medical intervention on those individuals. Behavioural genetics is both driven by this tendency and exacerbates it.

Typically, this tendency works by medicalising and pathologising normal behaviour. The consultation paper itself exemplifies this process: at several points it talks of treatment for what is defined at the beginning as normal behaviour. This process creates a demand for medical treatments, such as drugs which create profits for pharmaceutical corporations. Often, these very corporations are centrally involved in the process of creating anxiety that certain behaviour is a problem. A current example is the attempt to market drugs to treat shyness, by a US corporation. An inherent part of this overall dynamic is decreasing acceptance of unusual or subversive behaviour, leading to social and sometimes even state-sponsored coercion of people to accept treatment. This is exemplified by increasing pressure from teachers and other state authorities to force young children that display 'hyperactive behaviour' to take Ritalin, in the USA. The result is the stigmatisation of individuals and social groups, and a decreased willingness by society to accept responsibility for remedying the social causes of the problem.

This medicalisation of behaviour, because it is essentially a reductionist approach, inevitably does violence to a proper understanding of individual people's life histories and their difficulties in society. It is therefore not surprising that such approaches very often cause even greater damage to the people subjected to them.

Question 4.2: Do you think that behavioural genetics has special features?

The main special feature of behavioural genetics is its historic and ongoing intimate links with organised eugenics of the far right-wing variety. Leading proponents of behavioural genetics, such as Arthur Jensen, have been associated with Eugenics Societies and with the far-right Pioneer Fund. This link is not restricted to a few 'eccentric' individuals. For example, a former president of the Behaviour Genetics Association, Glayde Whitney wrote a supportive introduction to a book by David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan; leading behavioural geneticist, Robert Plomin, spoke at a meeting of the British Eugenics Society, sharing a platform with the self-declared scientific racist, Christopher Brand; other leading behavioural geneticists spoke at the same meeting.

Question 4.3: Should there be limits to scientific inquiry in this field?

We reject the philosophical basis which underpins this question, and indeed the consultation paper as a whole: that scientific research is a neutral and objective quest for knowledge, unrelated to social interests, and that the knowledge generated by it is necessarily 'good'. In this model, bad consequences can only derive from 'abuse' by non-scientists. Scientific research, as we have already noted, is always driven by social interests and ideas, and a choice is always made when deciding to fund scientific research as to which knowledge is interesting and worth investing funds and effort in discovering. Contrary to the suggestion in section 5 that research 'merely' increases our understanding, the creation of knowledge is always an intervention in the world, an act of creating a particular future, and is done with particular outcomes in mind, even if these are not realised. In our society, the choices made as to which knowledge should be developed are systematically biased, for example, against looking for the social and environmental causes of disease or behaviour, and for concentrating on molecular causes which are likely to produce salable products for the pharmaceutical industry. This bias is often openly stated in official science policy documents. In our view it is this restriction of choices, in the name of science, that constitutes censorship and limits inquiry.

We would argue that society should take a decision not to fund behavioural genetics research, as part of a decision against going in the whole direction that this research takes us. This applies particularly strongly to research on IQ, violence and sexuality. Research expenditure in behavioural genetics should be drastically downgraded, and the funds redistributed to social and environmental research, or to measures devoted to alleviating the known social and environmental causes of problems.

Question 4.4: In your view, will research in behavioural genetics have a negative or positive impact on research into social and environmental issues?

In our view the effect of this will be and is negative. It is sometimes suggested that genetic research will help understand how environmental causes work, and will help identify individuals and groups most indeed of protection. However, where there is a known social cause of certain behaviour, (eg. poverty and bad housing are known to lead to violence) it is much better to alleviate the social problem, thereby providing benefits for everyone, then to attempt to identify those most likely to be violent. Once these individuals, or groups are identified, intervention upon them will inevitably be coercive to some degree and risks stigmatising them.

Question 5.1: Should genetic tests for behavioural traits and personality characteristics be developed? Why all why not? Does the supply to all types of behavioural trait?

Such tests should not be developed for the reasons outlined in our previous answers.

Question 5.2: Would the pre-natal selection of behavioural and personality traits within the normal range be morally acceptable?


Question 6.1: What, in your view, might be the effect of research in behavioural genetics on our understanding of health, illness, disability and abnormality?

We have described above the way in which the social process of shifting definitions occurs. The problem is not that defining the boundary between 'normality' and the 'extreme' is 'difficult and open to accusations of arbitrarness', but that definitions are manipulated by a powerful social interests and forces, most commonly the profit motive and social prejudice working in tandem. A well-known example of the latter is the history of homosexuality as a 'pathology', as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Most attempts at 'enhancement' using existing technologies, such as cosmetic surgery, chemicals and drugs are intended to overcome the impact on individuals of powerful social prejudices, such as sexism (breast enlargement, liposuction), ageism (facelifts), racism (the use of skin bleaching chemicals by black people, nose jobs by Jews) and prejudice against short people (injection of short children with no growth hormone deficiency with growth or hormone). These trends are driven by advertising campaigns for the products and services of the companies that profit by them.

Question 6.2: Is there a moral difference between the correction of a trait thought to be the result of a genetic abnormality or defect, and the enhancement of that same trait for a 'normal' individual? If so, why?

This question cannot be answered in universal terms by abstract moral theorising, but only in reference to the social context, as discussed above. Medical resources should not be used for 'enhancement'. The trends described above both feed off and enhance prejudice, leading to ever-narrowing boundaries of acceptability in society.

Question 6.3: Is the genetic enhancement of behavioural of personality traits morally different to enhancement by non-genetic means such as education or medical intervention?

We are opposed to physical interventions in individual people's bodies for the purposes of 'enhancement'. This is entirely different from improving your mind by education.

Question 6.4: Are there implications of research in behavioural genetics for our general responsibility for our behavioural and personality traits?

Genetic influences on behaviour are highly unlikely to be sufficiently strong to override free will.

Question 6.5: What are the implications for criminal justice, and the legal process generally of research in behavioural genetics in the areas of aggression and antisocial behaviour.

Such research, as exemplified by the 'Violence Initiative' in the USA is most likely to target and stigmatise particular social groups and aim for coercive 'preventative' medicalisation. Violence is not, as defined by that project, a 'public health problem': it is a social problem.

Question 6.6: In your view, might research in behavioural genetics heightened or reduced discrimination, stereotyping and social discrimination between groups?

Given the right-wing connections of the field, and the social processes within which it is embedded, behavioural genetics is almost certain to encourage discrimination and stereotyping. Findings about difference in prevalence of 'IQ genes' between different groups will be exploited by racists, no matter how scientifically unsound the claims. Contrary findings are simply ignored.

Question 6.7: What do you think will be the impact of genetic knowledge about behavioural traits on the individual, on families and on communities?

See points made above.

Question 6.8: How might health professionals, governments, employers, insurers, education authorities and others use genetic information concerning human behaviour?

Insurers already have a record of discrimination, and will no doubt be interested in information concerning a person's likelihood of being involved in violence, and their tendency to take risks. Likewise, governments and education authorities have a long history of segregating individuals based on their supposed 'educability'. There would need to be strong reasons, which are not evident, for concluding that a different pattern will apply to behavioural genetic information.

Question 6.9: Are there any circumstances when such information should be available to third parties, either with or without the consent of the individual?

Until the social conditions favouring discrimination are removed, no.

Question 6.10: How can we ensure that consent to the disclosure of such information is properly informed and freely given?

Given existing power relations in society, this is impossible.

Question 6.11: Given the complex and sensitive nature of research in behavioural genetics, how can members of the public best be informed about it?

Public money must be devoted to a major programme of education dedicated to combating genetic determinism, eugenics, and the negative social forces described in this submission. This is necessary to combat rampant hype, and misinformation by scientists and the media, and the resultant, well-documented climate of genetic determinist 'commonsense' in society.

This response may be included in the list of those who have commented: Yes

This response may be quoted in the report: Yes

This response may be made available to other researchers interested in the topic: Yes

If you have answered 'yes' to any of the above questions, please indicate your name and/or the title of your organisations as it should appear in print:

Dr David King
Coordinator, Human Genetics Alert
Unit 112 Aberdeen House
22-24 Highbury Grove
London N5 2EA
020 7704 6100

30 July 2001