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Genes, Environments, and Individual Choice


Unpublished Letter to the New York Times
Paul Grobstein, 20 December 1994

To the Editor:

The evidence for genetic influences on various aspects of human life and behavior is indeed snowballing (The Week in Review, December 18), and any biologist can easily predict that there will be much more to come. Fortunately, the prediction is not only easy but also positive. The more we understand about genetics, the clearer it becomes that while genetic information significantly influences both development and behavior, it fully determines neither. There is no war between nature (the genome) and nurture (the environment), except in some people's minds. In human development and behavior, as in the development and behavior of all other living organisms, the genome and the environment instead productively interact with one another, both contributing unique and valuable information to the emergence of distinctive individuals. What the genome provides is a personalized distillate of the collective experiences of one's ancestors: the only free information one will ever get, and an important contributor to one's individuality. It is information to be reflected on, savored, and valued, rather than to be feared. The "innate" is real, important, and of limited significance, as most people know intuitively. Nor is the genome at war with "free will", any more than is the environment, which, during opposite swings of the nature/nurture pendulum, has been an equal source of concern. In fact, the more we understand about development and behavior, the more obvious it becomes that nature and nurture are similarly influences rather than determinants, not only singly but also in combination. There is in each of us, and probably in all organisms, an unpredictability in both development and behavior which remains even when all of the information provided by both the genome and by the environment (including culture) is accounted for. Within this relatively unexplored space, there is plenty of room to find a third influence on development and behavior: a "self" which is also real, important, and able, in limited ways, to influence its own fate. As most people also know intuitively. Biology cannot subtract from what it is to be human. It can only add to our understanding of all that being human encompasses, and, in so doing, enhance our ability to explore and realize the potentials inherent in humanity itself.


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