“Discuss ethical considerations regarding research into genetics.”
As modern technology becomes increasingly advanced, the possibilities of psychological research become endless. Already, the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, mapping out over 25,000 genes. However, genetic research in psychology must be treated with extreme caution, as its ethical problems may be seen in Twin Studies and other research.
Probably the most famous psychological study on genetic influences on behavior is the Minnesota Twin Study, conducted by Bouchard (1990); this study included over 2000 pairs of Monozygotic (i.e. identical) and Dizygotic twins from cultures al over the world. He found that there was a higher concordance rate for several behaviors among MZ twins than among DZ twins. As these twins were separated from birth, presumably the environment played little role in creating similarities (and even if it did, this effect would be mirrored between both groups, negating its impact); seemingly, then, genetics play an important role in shaping our behaviors, and the nature vs. nurture debate leans quite heavily toward the nature side. In fact, researchers have determined that a person’s happiness is determined from 50% biological, 40% personal, and 10% environmental factors. The Twin Study’s findings are also supported somewhat by the development of gender roles as seen in the David Reimer case study (though environment admittedly plays an important role in developmental psychology.
However, the principal criticisms of the Minnesota Twin Study arise from ethical considerations. Is it ethical to reunite twins that don’t know about one another? Once reunited, the participants will always know that they have a twin, and the research would have a lifelong impact. It might not be the place of researchers to inform someone that they have a twin; though one could argue that this could improve their quality of life, it might also produce cognitive dissonance.
Furthermore, other studies of genetic influences on behavior raise the important question of determinism. Aside from the concern of someone discovering that they have a genetic possibility of illness (which doesn’t relate to behavior per se), psychologists might discover a biological explanation for behavioral tendencies like crime. For example, Hutchins and Mednick (1977) fond that a child raised by a criminal parent had a 36.2% chance of perpetrating criminal activity; someone raised by an adoptive parent with no criminal record but whose parent had a criminal record had a 24.5% chance of crime; and someone raised by a criminal adoptive parent had an 11.5% crime chance, not far off from the 10.5% chance of a normal citizen. Of course, this study isn’t conclusive. First there are some methodological issues: what is criminal activity? Jaywalking or murder? Also, some adopted children were still raised by their parents until a certain age, calling into question this study’s Independent Variable. more importantly, everyone acknowledges that the environment plays a role in crime-if there were no possibilities of crime in the environment, or delinquent activity was swiftly punished (i.e. operant conditioning), crime wouldn’t be possible. Furthermore, Bandura’s social learning theory posits that children observe and imitate models, suggesting that the environment definitely plays a role in behavior. If so, we could question the criticism of determinism, which states that if science discovers certain genetic causes of behavior, people might be screened based on these genes for potential jobs, judged in court differently (as they might not be responsible for their own behavior) and become susceptible to self-fulfilling prophecies (e.g. if I have criminal genes, I might as well commit crimes anyway). These concerns become moot when we acknowledge the role the environment plays: coldn’t we screen people based on their parents’ criminal records, early life experiences, etc.? from the fact that we don’t do this currently, we could conclude that it isn’t an issue. Nevertheless, there are two problems with this argument: 1) Genetics are easier to detect/standardize than criminal behavior in parents, making the comparison untenable. It is much easier to say that someone has gene B527, and screen them by that, than to discover someone’s early life experiences and environmental influences. 2) Just as the environment undeniably shapes behavior (e.g. mirror neurons, conditioning, neural plasticity), so too does genetics; at the end of the day, genetics still influence behavior, and some degree of concern is warranted.
However, one might still question the determinist argument’s key assumption: that employers and the government have access to citizens’ genetic records. Though psychological research could discover concrete genetic influences on behavior, it wouldn’t matter if no one knew their own genetic records. Nevertheless, determinism still remains a concern: how can psychologists be positive that no government will require constituents to publish their genetic records, or that people won’t look at their own records and create self-fulfilling prophecies? What if social Darwinism turns into genetic Darwinism, and humanity actively attempts to improve the gene pool?
In my view, the strongest argument against research on genetic influences of behavior is the following: what is its practical use? Clearly, the information can be deadly when in the wrong hands (a reason why psychologists must ensure at all times the confidentiality of their participants, and that their names aren’t attached to their genetic records); the main application as of right now has been to resolve the nature vs. nrture debate. Even if one argues that genetic information could be helpful in psychological treatment, and that the determinist argument isn’t convincing, the risks of further research far outweigh the potential gains.
Thus, genetic research is a dangerous subject; humanity should seriously consider whether its pursuit is worthwhile.