Behaviour Genetics: A Critical Perspective on the Role of Genes in Behaviour


Much effort in behavioural genetics has been motivated by the hope that one day aspects of human behaviour will be explicable in genetic terms. This hope is based on the assumption that the contribution of genetic and environmental factors to behaviour can somehow be partitioned. However, recent advances in genomics, epigenetics, cellular and developmental biology and developmental psychology have made it clear that such partitioning is biologically implausible. The functional significance of genes or any other influence on phenotypic development can be understood only in relation to the organism–environment system of which they are a part. Genes and environments are neither alternative nor independent causes for behavioural development.

Key Concepts

  • Genes, in and of themselves, cannot produce any behavioural outcome.
  • The function of a gene cannot be separated from the multiple contexts and environments in which it functions.
  • Contrary to the assumptions of behavioural genetics, genes and environment do not make independent contributions to behavioural development.
  • Behaviour without genes is as impossible as is behaviour without an environment.
  • It is not possible to meaningfully estimate the risk of getting a given disease only on the basis of genetic factors.

Keywords: genes and behaviour; organism–environment system; human development; disease; behavioural traits


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Further Reading

Ehrlich PR (2000) Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Washington DC: Island Press.

Gottlieb G (1997) Synthesizing Nature/Nurture. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Lewontin R (2000) It Ain't Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions. New York: New York Review of Books.

Lickliter R and Honeycutt H (2003) Developmental dynamics: towards a biologically plausible evolutionary psychology. Psychological Bulletin 129: 819–835.

Moore DS (2002) The Dependent Gene: The Fallacy of “Nature vs. Nurture”. New York: Freeman.

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Järvilehto, Timo, and Lickliter, Robert(Aug 2016) Behaviour Genetics: A Critical Perspective on the Role of Genes in Behaviour. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0006181.pub3]