Personal Identity: Genetics and Determinism


Traditional theories that locate the identity of the human person in physical or psychological attributes are subject to reinterpretation in the light of advances in genetics. A person's genome may be regarded as the ‘essence’ of the person, or as the foundation of specific characteristics that are central to a person's identity. A view that there is no such thing as ‘essence’ may still give genes an important role to play in constructing a person's biography, both as regards the past (ancestry tracing) and the future (e.g. future health status). Collective identity is also an issue, in terms of common origin or disease groupings. Developments in direct to consumer testing and whole genome sequencing have the potential to reinforce both the importance accorded to the genome, and genetic determinism.

Key Concepts:

  • There is a wide range of views about the importance of genes to personal identity.

  • In a physical account of identity, genes offer a consistent basis for identity throughout many changes to an individual, but present problems in the case of division.

  • In a psychological account of the person, while genes may be relevant in setting the parameters within which a person develops, this should not be taken to justify a reductionist view of genes and identity.

  • On a constructivist account, individuals’ self‐perceptions may be influenced by genetic information. This is likely to grow in importance as personalised genetic information becomes more widely accessible.

  • If personal identity is tied up with genes, questions of identity will come to the fore in discussions of gene therapy.

  • Developments in direct to consumer testing and whole genome sequencing have the potential to reinforce both the importance accorded to the genome, and genetic determinism.

  • Although genetic determinism was claimed to be dead upon the completion of the human genome project, current developments such as genetic ancestry testing hint at a resurgence of a popular belief in a meaningful identity buried deep within the genetic code.

Keywords: genetic determinism; genetic reductionism; personal identity; essentialism and constructed identity; collective identity; reproductive cloning; DNA fingerprinting; genetic ancestry; genetic testing; whole genome sequencing


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Chadwick, Ruth(Aug 2012) Personal Identity: Genetics and Determinism. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005899.pub2]