Is it all in our genes?


Ever since Watson and Crick got to thinking about things genetic, the scientific community, with the help of modern technology and all that good stuff, has been giving us more and more excuses for misbehaving.

I was not surprised, therefore, to read in the newest novel by Richard Russo a perfect example of this by his first-person narrator, who says that one of the important ideas that surprised him on the way to manhood was the discovery that people behave as they do because of who they are. In the story, he is made aware that a classmate who frequently ends up in jail for robbery, despite being “smart enough to learn from his mistakes” is not, in fact, “a thief because he steals” but “steals because he is a thief.”

In times gone by, people were held accountable for their every act. You borrowed money you couldn’t repay, you went to jail. You lifted a loaf of bread because you were starving and you were sent to jail to starve there. Thousands were chained in madhouses because they misbehaved in public. No one was ever given a second chance, and prisons were in no way intended to “rehabilitate” or educate, merely to punish.

Now we show leniency to those who commit crimes while insane or under the influence of drugs - or failure to take prescribed drugs. Will a genetic predisposition toward larceny, violence, or other anti-social behavior one day be the cornerstone of criminal law? It’s a tantalizing thought.

Brain scientists have been toying with the idea that there may be a “God gene.” Which should lead us all to be more tolerant than we are toward atheists. After all, they may be simply genetically deficient, not willfully “wrong.” I am indebted to a Columbia University professor of Buddhist studies for the insightful suggestion that we inherit a “spirituality” gene from the person we were in an earlier life. “The spirituality gene helps establish a general trust in the universe, a sense of openness and generosity,” he said.

That ties in nicely with something called the Williams Syndrome, reported by a geneticist who says that some of us are “born nice” because we are missing a small segment of Chromosome 7. Such good folk are terrible with numbers and friendly to such a degree that they have zero fear of strangers. In other words, the “shy guys” are normal; it’s the extroverts that are genetically deprived.

A popular course in college when I was there was “Abnormal Psychology.” We expected to learn why apparent decent citizens or fictional characters like Dr. Jekyll suddenly became monsters like Mr. Hyde. We thought it was because something “went wrong” with their brain wiring. Now we have to ask whether they are just genetically “different.”

I’m sure you’ve all heard about investigations intended to prove that either heredity or environment dominates our personal behaviors. That was everyone’s favorite debating topic when I was in high school and, as far as I know, neither side ever drew a clean-cut victory in the debate. Don’t hear as much on that question of late. Perhaps they’ve run out of identical twins, separated at birth, to study.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying, “What ever happened to free will?” Surely we choose some things in our lives. Well, so far I’ve not found one geneticist who says we don’t get to choose our political affiliations, based, of course, on what our parents tell us is wrong or right with the parties they affiliate with. However, I recently read that whether we become regular voters or not depends on whether we have a certain gene that … ENOUGH already!!