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Bad Behaviour
By Juliet Tizzard
October 23, 2002

The article first appeared on www.spiked-online.com

A new report on genes and behaviour from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics provided a perfect media moment in which to talk about a fascinating field of genetic science. Unfortunately, the opportunity was squandered.

The report, entitled 'Genetics and Human Behaviour: the ethical context' (1), is the result of 18 months of consultation, fact-finding and deliberation. The main bulk of it examines the progress that behavioural genetics has made in uncovering the contribution that genes make to intelligence, personality, antisocial behaviour and sexual orientation.

At the press conference in London, Professor Terrie Moffitt of the Institute of Psychiatry summarised the findings. She said that quantitative genetic studies (those looking for behavioural similarities or differences between twins and siblings) and molecular genetic studies (those looking for genes or gene clusters associated with particular behaviours) carried out to date are unable to tell us much more than that genes play a role in normal
behaviour.

To what extent genes do play a role in determining human behaviour and how they do so is still largely unclear. The report identifies a number of problems with research so far:

  • the difficulty of defining and measuring behavioural traits;
  • the dangers of the misinterpretation and misapplication of heritability estimates;
  • the lack of replicated findings relating to specific genes that might influence behaviour.

With such a thorough examination of the limited findings of behavioural genetics, you might expect the press coverage surrounding the publication of the report to concentrate on these issues. But it didn't. BBC News focused its story about the report's publication on 'Concern over baby gene selection', while the Daily Telegraph preferred to summarise it with the headline: 'Call for ban on designer babies chosen for IQ.'

Both headlines refer to one of the 20 recommendations made in the report: that embryo selection for behavioural genetic traits should be prohibited.

It is tempting to put the flavour of the news coverage on the Nuffield report down to journalists' obsession with designer babies - an obsession that has many scouring a lengthy and detailed report for the one paragraph that mentions embryo selection. But it turns out that the media focus was an intentional result of how the Nuffield Council presented its report.

The press release issued by the Council has as its first line: 'Embryos should not be selected for behavioural traits such as intelligence on the basis of genetic information.' (2) Not until much later in the press release does it say that 'there are currently no practical applications of research in the genetics of behaviour within the normal range'.

Given the wording of the press release, it is no surprise that the newspapers led on the designer babies angle. Does this focus matter? Yes - for two reasons.

The Nuffield Council of Bioethics places great importance on discussing the ethics of various biotechnological advances before they happen. In the context of behavioural genetics, the Council is keen to focus on the ethical issues arising from genetic tests that might be developed if particular genes are identified as contributing to particular behaviours. Should parents, for instance, be able to screen their embryos for intelligence or terminate a pregnancy because their child will be gay?

Discussing the ethics might seem a reasonable thing to do. But the report goes much further than mere discussion: it calls for an outright ban on embryo screening for behavioural traits. Rather than cautiously exploring a potential ethical tension, the report sensationalises the issue and gives it an air of urgency that it doesn't merit.

After all, there is not much point banning something that is not likely to happen. As a result, members of the public reading the press coverage could be forgiven for assuming that if embryo screening for behavioural traits needs prohibiting, it must already be a reality.

The other problem with the press release's focus on embryo screening is that it is probably the only thing that people will remember from a report that considers so much else, not least the current state of the science of behavioural genetics. At the press conference, members of the Nuffield Council expressed concern about a skewed public perception of behavioural genetics that overestimates the power and influence of genes. Indeed, one of the report's recommendations is that 'researchers and those who report research have a duty to communicate findings in a responsible manner'.

But the way in which the report was published did little to dispel the myth that genes determine the way we act. In fact, by calling for a ban on embryo screening for behavioural traits - and by promoting it to the media - the Nuffield Council has helped to perpetuate this myth.

(1) 'Genes and human behaviour: the ethical context', Nuffield Council on Bioethics, September 2002

(2) New Report tackles controversial research into genes and behaviour, Press release, 29 September 2002

Juliet Tizzard is editor-in-chief of BioNews, a free weekly digest of news in human genetics and assisted reproduction, where this article was originally published. She is also a contributor to Designer Babies: Where Should We Draw the Line? Published by Hodder & Stoughton and the Institute of Ideas, £5.99.

 

 
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