Mental Health and Genetic Determinism Paper

Intro: I wrote this for my second philosophy requirement. Out of a list of second philos (FI-loh, or FYE-loh, NOT fee-loh), I took Philosophy of Science. This was my final paper, which includes my midterm paper. I asked one question after class one day near the beginning of the semester, and he gave me a few articles, assigned my group presentation a topic that informed my original question, and encouraged me to pursue the topic for my midterm and final paper – encouraging me to completely ignore the prompts he set up for the rest of the class. 🙂 Apparently, only a few of us did this. It was awesome.


Ashley Knipp, Philosophy of Science, Final Paper

Perspectives on Genetic Determinism and Its Relevance to Mental Illness Treatment

0. Abstract

Sociobiology is an area of deep controversy worth discussion. Do our genes determine our behaviors? What does that mean in terms of sociobiology? Does it even matter? The reality is that sociobiology and genetic determinism have multiple definitions, depending on which sociobiologist you’re talking to. In this paper, I will define three primary ways to define genetic determinism and argue that it doesn’t matter whether genes determine behaviors. However, it does matter whether we, as a society, decide to promote whether it matters or not. For example, are the symptoms of clinical depression and anxiety behaviors? If they are, depression and anxiety are inheritable under sociobiology. If they’re not inheritable, these are learned or chosen behaviors. If they aren’t inheritable, will society respect clinical depression and anxiety any less? If everyone agrees that it doesn’t matter whether these are inheritable, can we all agree that people diagnosed with these conditions deserve respect and proper treatment?


  1. Intro

Genetic determinism has been used as highly flammable, intellectual and emotional fodder for controversy in the scientific community for years. Susan Oyama describes the idea as a kind of vampire-horse; reacting to the accusation that talking about genetic determinism is like beating a dead horse that keeps reviving itself over and over again. No matter how much debaters dislike its persistence, the topic remains prominent in scientific and philosophical scholarship. Perhaps this is because there are so many ways to interpret the term. Debaters on either side are fighting one another on completely different understandings of the topic. In this paper, I will showcase a few important ways that the academic community interprets genetic determinism, and how each is not necessarily mutually exclusive – causing and perpetuating an overall confusing and under-developed debate. Then, I will argue that it does not matter whether genetic determinism is valid or not, but it does matter whether progressive society believes it’s valid or not.

What is genetic determinism? Well, that’s the problematic question, isn’t it? Contributors to the debate seem to agree, at a basic level, that genetic determinism describes our behaviors as expressions of our genes – but that’s all they seem to agree on. In this paper, “behavior” encompasses the choices and actions culminating in the ultimate definition of identity. In the following sections, I will attempt to unpack genetic determinism viewed as a claim against education, an impossible attempt to simplify human consciousness, and an attitude toward the relationship of genes and development.


2.1. Origins: A Claim Against Education

E.O. Wilson is known as the father of sociobiology, under which genetic determinism lies. His interpretation of genetic determinism claims that our behaviors, choices, and ultimately, our personalities are solely dependent on our genes. Before further analysis, the rationale is natural. Genes are popularly (but not necessarily correctly) defined as the instructions for life. Human behavior is a set of reactions to the human experience, life. With these definitions so deeply intertwined with “life,” one would consider them connected. This begins the debate between nature and nurture – which is the catalyst in developing who we are? His theory implies that culture and education (nurture) have no significant impact on behavior. Here, education is defined simply, as learning. He claims that someone who has committed violent acts is a violent person because they are programmed to be a violent person and the program guide is contained in his genetic code (nature).

As a running example, consider Rebecca, an exceptional baker of cookies. Her mother was also an exceptional baker of cookies. People might say that baking cookies is “in the genes,” implying that Rebecca was born with the unquestionable tendency to bake high-quality cookies. Now let’s consider that Rebecca’s mother died in childbirth (thus never teaching her daughter how to bake cookies), no one told Rebecca about her mother’s tendency to bake (thus removing a familial, psychological motivation to learn how to bake exceptional cookies), and that she has had no opportunity or motivation to learn how to bake exceptional cookies until an undetermined point in her adult life. Wilson’s theory suggests that Rebecca will be able to bake exceptional cookies because she inherited the “exceptional cookie baker” gene from her mother. This hypothetical requires extreme controls for Wilson’s claim to be understood. Similarly, a test of his theory would require extreme controls for any human experimentation. Beyond the lengths of observation or pharmaceutical experimentation, these controls would require several generations of clinical subjects to willingly allow experimenters to control every influence in their environment over their entire lives. Only by removing any argument for environmental influence can one prove that behavior is solely dependent on inherent biological factors. Whether the genome should be the factor in question is up for debate in section 2.3. Due to these highly demanding requirements for study, Wilson’s opposition harbors an almost antagonistic approach to genetic determinism.


2.2. Opposition: An Impossible Attempt to Simplify Human Consciousness


Challengers of Wilson’s theory reveal numerous flaws in his logical process. The theory is easy to discredit due to the complexity of consciousness. Refer again to this paper’s definition of behavior and understand that genetic determinism is attempting to explain choice and preference, and as a combination of choices and preferences, it is attempting to explain identity. These are indisputably rooted in human consciousness, most simply defined as the voice in one’s head, which says “I like this, not that,” and “I will do this, not that.” Because of this inherent complexity, it is easy to attack an over simplification. Philip Kitcher explains the persistence of genetic determinism as a desperate attempt for humanity to make simple sense of human behavior and/or to communicate the complex science of causation to a wide audience.

The opposition rejects Wilson’s argument for genetic determinism due to its lack of evidence, and foundation on which the argument is made. In his book, “The New Synthesis” Wilson tends to begin each claim with a hypothetical. Instead of using hypotheticals as tools for understanding, he uses them as a means to an end. He presents his conclusion as true, despite the fact that his argument rests on an unsupported assumption he presented. For example, he might say something like, “assuming that preferences are inheritable, Rebecca’s affinity for baking cookies matching her late mother’s affinity for baking cookies proves that that preferences are inheritable.” Clearly, this strategy culminates in a circular argument.

  • Wilson’s theory also requires his audience to believe that specific genes are associated with individually experienced behaviors and preferences. He claims that religion, ethics, altruism, and violence all have specific, individual string of genetic code. Authors from the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People state that genetic code of this type doesn’t exist in terms of anatomy. There is no specific section of DNA that codes for an ankle, a toe, or a kneecap, though determinists are attempting to argue (sans evidence) that although anatomy doesn’t follow this framework, behaviors do. Surprisingly, despite the fervor of their arguments, disputers of genetic determinism fail to reject the idea of genetic determinism entirely. Humanity’s dependence on life in terms of biology and evolution can only suggest a relationship with social behavior, but cannot prove anything.

2.3. Rebuttal: An Attitude Toward The Relationship of Genes and Development


Defendants of Wilson’s theory have desperately tried to separate themselves from the logical fallacies of his original argument, claims “traits develop as a result of both genetic and non-genetic [learned] factors,” (Griffiths). Paul E. Griffiths supports Oyama’s ideology, defining genetic determinism as an underlying attitude to genes and their role in development. They claim no sole dependency, no oversimplifications committed by their predecessors, but that the term “refers to something deeper than a pattern of interaction between genotype and environment that may or may not hold in any particular case.” This ideology makes a claim that genetic determinism should only be understood without hard and fast arguments for causation, but rather asks the audience to accept an undefined relationship between genetics and behavior. True, it doesn’t match the definition of determinism, but it does make a claim toward how one should consider the genetic impact on behavior. This community argues for the idea that genes can affect behavior, but doesn’t necessarily believe that genes determine behavior.

Returning to our example, proponents of this view would suggest that Rebecca could have inherited a predisposition for patience, work ethic, focus, and/or awareness from her mother, but there is no genetic code for the ability to bake exceptional cookies, the preference for baking cookies over cakes, or believing in the value of a home-cooked dessert. The latter elements are to be learned by Rebecca throughout life from environmental influences.

Some studies attempted to model Wilson’s theories in animals forced into influence-deprived, controlled environments, finding that prevention is just as important a catalyst as expression. Social deprivation of monkeys interfered with their ability to mate when first introduced to other monkeys. Scientists agree that the tendency to reproduce is “innate,” so this study suggests that the lack of environmental influence prevented a genetic behavior from being expressed. Another study placed a bird and a rat under the same experimental challenge in the same controlled environment, but each one completed the challenge by learning two different skills. Here, the environment was the control and the variable was genetics. This provides evidence toward a convergence theory.

Convergence theory requires that causation/determination does not have to come from a single source. Nature vs. nurture implies that either our genes are the code to our identity, or our experiences create our identity. This ideology calls for the rejection of the idea that the genome is necessarily a set of instructions that leads to a phenotypic, observable result. Griffith claims that the “blueprint” metaphor of popular science has negatively narrowed the scope of the discussion around genetic determinism. Peter Godfrey-Smith states, “All the genes can code for, if they code for anything, is the primary structure (amino acid sequence) of a protein,” which essential means that the “attitude” ideology chastises the first two ideologies for obsessing over singular causation when the word “gene” is not necessarily a language containing the instructions for life, but remains just a theoretical term, despite its popularity in popular science.


2.4 Response to Three Perspectives


One could say that genetic determinism is an underdeveloped field of science. One community makes claims against commonly understood laws of logic, another community ruthlessly discredits the claims of the first without offering alternative solutions, and a third community rejects the definition of the topic and calls all scientific discoveries into question, bringing us back to square one. What is genetic determinism? More importantly, does it matter?


  1. Does it matter?


I could debate the variations of genetic determinism indefinitely, but I will argue that reaching a consensus on the definition is largely unproductive. It doesn’t matter if genetic determinism is valid or not. However, it does matter whether our society promotes the validity of any definition of genetic determinism. In her paper, “Genetic Determinism and the Innate-Acquired Distinction in Medicine,” Maria E. Kronfeldner’s argues, “whether or not specific diseases are considered as innate is of utmost importance, in science as well as in society.” Because the distinction between a “disease” and an “illness” is controversial, this argument will operate under the assumption that they are one and the same. Whether depression and anxiety are mental illnesses, diseases, disorders, or something else presents further controversy. This paper assumes both depression and anxiety are mental illnesses. For the remainder of this paper, I will apply elements of Kronfeldner’s argument to the discussion around mental illness in today’s society.

Kronfeldner presents a paradox: “nobody believes in genetic determinism, but the number of diseases that are counted as genetic continues to grow.” She suggests the existence of a trend in which medicine uses genetics as a default causation explanation. Kronfeldner supports her suspicion by stating that some genes are connected to several, separate diseases, and some diseases are linked to several, separate genes. This concerns patients who are told they face the risk of having a certain disease because their DNA contains a specific gene. The National Institute of Health defines a genetic disposition, or genetic susceptibility, as “an increased likelihood of developing a particular disease based on a person’s genetic makeup.” Barring some clear exceptions like Down syndrome, these risk levels are extremely difficult to quantify. Going forward, this paper will focus on mental illness, especially clinical depression and anxiety. Kronfeldner claims that “everybody” believes that traits of organisms are always caused by genes and environment,” but this is far too bold in a broad perspective. In the discussion around mental illness, environmental impact is virtually uncontested. Earlier, I suggested that all definitions of genetic determinism suggest a relationship between behaviors and genes. The prominent symptoms of depression and anxiety are behavioral, making these mental illnesses appropriate foci for a discussion on genetic determinism.


3.1 Society A Validates Genetic Determinism


First, I will present a society that validates genetic determinism. This society says that depression and anxiety are inheritable. Today we are quickly approaching this hypothetical. The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) published a study claiming, “disorders traditionally thought to be distinct – autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia – were more likely to have suspect genetic variation at the same four chromosomal sites. These included risk versions of two [specific] genes.” This society is more likely to respect mental illness as innate, out of the control of the individual, and all together worthy of treatment. Overall, the stigma around mental illness would be gone, but major issues could arise.

Patients who are considered genetically predisposed to depression and anxiety may fall prey to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here, genetic susceptibility is a sufficient condition for declaring the possibility of mental illness. Kronfeldner cautions us against sufficient conditions, claiming knowledge about statistical causes can be used for both preventing and bringing about something. In this case, a patient who has been warned about a predisposition for clinical depression could be influenced to react more strongly to negative events. Consider our earlier, example, Rebecca. Rebecca is told she is predisposed to clinical anxiety. The week after, she has three exams and a paper due, meetings for clubs, and shifts for work. She is nervous, stressed, worried, tired, and overwhelmed. Instead of thinking to herself, “This is going to be a horrible week, but I can handle it,” she might think, “This is going to be a horrible week. I probably have diagnosable anxiety. I won’t be able to handle this week.” Her overwhelmed state could become crippling fear and a state of paralysis.


3.2 Society B Rejects Genetic Determinism


Next, I present a society that rejects genetic determinism. This society is also realistic, given that the same NIMH study mentioned above admitted, “Although statistically significant, each of these genetic associations individually can account for only a small amount of risk for mental illness, making them insufficient for predictive or diagnostic usefulness by themselves.” The researchers just admitted that their discovery isn’t capable of application. This society views mental illness as purely environmental, and thus, the patient’s behavior is understood as comparable to the general populace. This suggests that the individual has control over their behavior deviating from the norm. Society is less likely to respect mental illnesses as illnesses because blame can be placed on the patient. Kronfeldner cites Alfred L. Kroeber, who approached the debate between nature versus nurture as heredity versus culture. Here, society could identify depressed persons as a subculture surrendering to negative events, obsessing over sadness, and excusing a lack of responsibility due to claimed inability.

Returning to our example, society’s perception would surely damage Rebecca. Assume diagnosis doesn’t require a genetic cause. Rebecca is diagnosed with depression and experiences behavioral symptoms such as oversleeping and negative mood. She received a D on her first exam, which has sent her into a depressive episode. She didn’t study much and failed her next exam. Her roommate and classmate, Jen, has also been struggling in class, but when she received a D on her first exam, she studied much harder for the next exam and passed. Jen represents society. She sees Rebecca as weak and irresponsible because she shirked her responsibility to study and gave up on the class, while Jen studied hard and improved. In this scenario, society does not respect the struggle of depression and places blame on the diagnosed patient.


3.3 Ideal: Society C Decides Genetic Determinism Irrelevant


Today’s society questions the heritability of depression and anxiety. The promotion of one ideology over the other presents the issues detailed in the sections above. I argue that the validity of genetic determinism is irrelevant in regard to mental illness such as depression and anxiety because the cause is not the primary issue. The primary issue is treatment. Whether the cause is in or out of the individual’s control, the individual experiences suffering and that suffering should be treated for the good of the individual and the community around the individual.

Kronfeldner asserts, “Many genes interact with each other and with environmental factors in complex ways. Scientific progress in this area is still quite tentative.” She believes that all scientists believe that both genes and environment impact behavior, but no one knows exactly how. If this is tentative, why waste time and energy when we do know that individuals are suffering? Kronfeldner brings up an excellent point in her paper. In medicine, patients don’t want to hear about the complexity of the issue they’re dealing with. They go to a doctor to find a solution, not to get true but unsatisfying answers. She suggests that simplification (i.e. “it doesn’t matter how it’s caused. Let’s treat the symptoms”) may be the best option, asserting, “in the clinical context, it might well be that it pays to accept some simplicity to have some handles for prevention and treatment.”


  1. Conclusion


Ultimately, the discussion around genetic determinism is highly intellectually stimulating and promotes a yearning for a deeper understanding of life, why humans are the way they are. I argue for the third perspective, one that advocates for a combination of both genetic and environmental factors, using both biological and sociological perspectives. However, intellectual stimulation doesn’t always directly translate into effective real-world application. The validity of genetic determinism, whether our genes determine our behaviors, doesn’t matter in medicine. Moreover, it shouldn’t matter in medicine, or complications arise as a result of trying to cope with the promotion of the cause.

Priorities are the saving grace of scientific theory and discovery. Being alive ranks high above thinking about why my brother’s aggression made him great for football. Sustaining life and well-being ranks high above the term for a certain kind of suffering (whether depression and anxiety are diseases, disorders, illnesses, etc.) or its cause. No one really knows what causes cancer, but what’s more important – the cause or the cure? Do we willingly let people die to figure out what gave them cancer? Or do we desperately try to treat cancer to save the lives of the victims? This is not to say we shouldn’t actively research to discover the cause of cancer. Discovering the cause could certainly allow us to prevent cancer in the future, preventing human suffering. Considering the causes of behaviors allow us to reach to better understand humanity, which should lead to more empathy, and a more respectful, overall healthier society. Though all intellectual discussion is positive, application requires priorities that move us forward, rather than keeping us stagnant or pushing us back.








“The New Synthesis” by E.O. Wilson

“The Fearless Vampire Conservator: Philip Kitcher, Genetic Determinism and the Informational Gene” by Paul E. Griffiths

“Genetic Determinism and the Innate-Acquired Distinction in Medicine” by Maria E. Kronfeldner

Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium. “Five Major Mental Disorders Share Genetic Roots.” National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 Mar. 2013. Web.

“What Does It Mean to Have a Genetic Predisposition to a Disease? – Genetics Home Reference.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health, n.d. Web.





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