Genetics and human behaviour: the ethical context


Published 01/10/2002

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Research is exploring how genes and the environment influence behavioural traits such as aggression, anxiety, intelligence and sexual orientation.
Fetal scan

Will behavioural genetics research lead to eugenic policies?

Research in behavioural genetics takes place in the shadow of eugenic practices. Eugenics, literally meaning ‘well born’, is the idea of improving humanity using scientific methods, for example, by selective breeding. But the use of negative eugenics was a central aspect of some of the worst atrocities in recent history. In the US, Europe and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of people were segregated and sterilised. In Nazi Germany, ‘euthanasia’ programmes attempted to eliminate entire groups of people. These policies have been widely, and rightly, condemned. The report outlines the history of the eugenics movement, its impact on research into human behaviour, and the lessons that may be learnt.

We conclude

Despite its history, contemporary research in behavioural genetics is not necessarily eugenic. We conclude that it is important to understand and learn from the past, in order to prevent similar abuses happening in the future. Historical and philosophical studies of eugenic practices and policies should be encouraged.

Is the science robust?

Concerns about research in the field of behavioural genetics include:

  • the difficulty of defining and measuring behaviours;
  • the dangers of misinterpreting or misapplying statistical estimates of heritability;
  • the lack of replicated findings; and
  • difficulties in predicting how behaviour develops because of the complex interaction between genes and the environment.

We conclude

Despite these concerns, we think that it is both theoretically and practically possible to identify genes that influence behaviour, and to understand something about the way they work.

There are currently no practical applications of research in the genetics of behaviour within the normal range. But it is not too soon to examine ethical and social issues raised by potential developments.