Science-2008-genes&behavior

Science-2008-genes&behavior - Genetics of Behavior...

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VOL 322 SCIENCE www.sciencemag.org 892 CREDIT: RYAN SNOOK; JESSICA NEWFIELD/ SCIENCE Genetics of Behavior NEWS SOME YEARS AGO, A SCIENTIST-EDUCATOR told Science she would never be convinced of a biological basis for sex differences in math performance until someone showed her a “math gene.” The comment rests on a com- monly held misconception: that simple one- to-one links exist between a gene and each facet of our personalities. Headlines such as “ ‘Ruthlessness’ Gene Discovered” or “ ‘Divorce Gene’ Linked to Relationship Troubles” feed that impression. For some of us, it’s satisfying to attribute social awkwardness to anxiety genes or to think that the driver who cuts off other cars as he zips across lanes is pumped up by the “warrior” gene. Was it a bad dopamine receptor gene that made author Ernest Hemingway prone to depression? Can varia- tions in a vasopressin receptor gene—a key to monogamy in voles—help explain adul- terous behavior? But as scientists are discovering, nailing down the genes that underlie our unique personalities has proven exceedingly diffi- cult. That genes strongly influence how we act is beyond question. Several decades of twin, family, and adoption studies have demonstrated that roughly half of the varia- tion in most behavioral traits can be chalked up to genetics. But identifying the causal chain in single-gene disorders such as Huntington’s disease is child’s play com- pared with the challenges of tracking genes contributing to, say, verbal fluency, out- goingness, or spiritual leanings. In fact, says Wendy Johnson, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, U.K., understanding genetic mechanisms for personality traits “is one of the biggest mysteries facing the behavioral sciences.” All we really know so far is that behavioral genes are not solo players; it takes many to orchestrate each trait. Complicating matters further, any single gene may play a role in sev- eral seemingly disparate functions. For exam- ple, the same gene may influence propensities toward depression, overeating, and impulsive behavior, making it difficult to tease out underlying mechanisms. Each gene comes in a variety of flavors, or alleles, with varying degrees of sequence variation. One allele might contribute to a winning personality whereas another may raise the risk of mental illness. Environment plays a strong hand, bringing out, neutraliz- ing, or even negating a gene’s influence. And genes interact with one another in unpre- dictable ways. Science took a look at a few genes that have been in the news, with an eye toward understanding just what we do—and can— know about genes behind individual variation in temperament and personality. Published by AAAS
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Science-2008-genes&behavior - Genetics of Behavior...

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