The brain behind history

  • 30/08/1995

The brain behind history Take a look at this scenario: researchers trying to trace the causes of the Bosnian war, in deficiencies in seratonin-reuptake mechanisms, in the brain of the Radovan Karadzic(Bosnian Serb leader), or studying a corrupt politician in a bid to identify the genes that make him corrupt.

The emerging synthesis of neurogenetics may offer the prospect of identifying, ascribing causal power to -- and if need be -- modifying genes affecting brain and behaviour, they argue. Says David Reiss, a psychiatrist at George Washington University in Washington D C, "the cold war is over in the nature and nurture debate".

Proponents of this concept -- mainly psychiatrists in the United States -- say that the causes of all our pains and pleasures, vices and virtues lie within the biological realm. A man is an alcoholic because he has genes 'for' alcoholism and a woman is 'shizophrenic' because she has genes 'for' schizophrenia.

The supporters of neurogenetic determinism argue there is definitely a genetic basis of many conditions, ranging from alcoholism to gay behaviour. "The evidence is overwhelming", says Joel Gelernter, a psychiatrist at the Yale University. "The purpose is not to push people into trouble but to pull them out and the information could be used for evolving more effective treatment".

But many disagree. Behavioural genetics is the same old stuff in a new bottle. Its another way for a violent, racist society to say people's problems are their own fault, because they carry 'bad genes'", says Peter Beggins, director of the Centre for the Study of Psychiatry in Bethesda, Maryland.

Stevan Rose of the deparment of biology, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, and the co-author of the anti-eugenics polemic, Not in Our Genes, believes that genetic influences exist and are real. But the main problem is society's tendency to translate this likelihood into what he calls as 'neurogenetic determinism' -- in which genes determine behaviour rather than influencing it in concert with personality and social environment.

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