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Genetics, risk and behaviour

Genetics, risk and behaviour
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First Published: Mon, Apr 06 2009. 09 59 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Apr 06 2009. 09 59 PM IST
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil recently blamed the financial crisis on “white, blue-eyed” bankers. His racist comments are similar to another recklessly reductionist practice: explaining investment practices with genetics.
The argument goes like this: Certain genes make us more risk-taking, while others may make us more risk-averse. DNA is important in understanding human biology. But it is facile to explain human behaviour with genetics.
There has been considerable study on genes and risk-taking. But genetic variation accounts for little—if any—of our decision making. Recently, this newspaper published an article about researchers at the Kellogg School of Management and Northwestern University, who identified genes that play a role in financial risk-taking. But the researchers cautioned that less than 30% of the variation in behaviour could be attributed to nature.
Genetics and social science have a perilous history. Anyone studying the two in tandem needs tremendous judiciousness. There is little practical utility in using genetics to understand behaviour. With few exceptions, one cannot change genetic inheritability; it’s simply a given. We should, instead, focus on what we can control.
The debate hasn’t been limited only to financial modelling. Political scientists, too, have joined the fray. Two political scientists, John Alford and John Hibbing, published a paper in 2004 in the influential political science journal Perspectives on Politics, asserting that political scientists had neglected to look at the effects of evolutionary theory on political processes.
Politics is inherently a social process, concerned with human interactions and relationships. It cannot—and should not—be chalked up to simply genetics. The mixture of DNA and politics is a powder keg waiting to explode. Too much political violence of the 20th century essentialized individuals to their supposed biological tendencies.
Blaming actions on birth removes individual agency. As long as genetics is used to explain behaviour, individuals will never be held accountable for their actions. Such a practice is reckless and has a dangerous history.
Is genetics useful to explain behaviour? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Apr 06 2009. 09 59 PM IST