Complexity and Research Strategies in Behavioral Genetics

Behavioral genetics has advanced rapidly in recent years (Kelner and Benditt 1994), and psychiatric genetics, in spite of some setbacks in the 1980s, is actively pursuing a behavioral genetic research program (Bock and Goode 1996; Gershon and Cloninger 1994). However, these advances and ongoing research projects are both problematic and contentious to many individuals and to some groups. As Nobel Laureate Thorsten Wiesel wrote, "Perhaps most disturbing to our sense of being free individuals, capable to a large degree of shaping our character and our minds, is the idea that our behavior, mental abilities, and mental health can be determined or destroyed by a segment of DNA" (Wiesel 1994, 1647). The appearance of Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve in late 1994 and the reaction to it (some of the printed reaction is gathered in two anthologies: Fraser 1995 and Jacoby and Glauberman 1995) represent one facet of this contentiousness. The Bell Curve also drew a response from the National Institute of Health's Working Group (Andrews and Nelkin 1996). Another highly fractious example revolved around the University of Maryland's project on genetics and criminal behavior, and especially the September 1995 conference. That conference was invaded by several dissident groups, who then had to be escorted off the conference premises by the authorities (Editorial 1995).

This chapter does not dwell on these more contentious examples, because I believe that they do not represent the best of behavioral and psychiatric genetics. Much of the research underlying The Bell Curve and studies of criminality and antisocial behavior is based on an earlier paradigm of behavioral genetics: twin, relative, and adoption studies that may confound genetics and environment by relying on a questionable "heritability" concept.1 The approach here, rather, is to try to provide a philosophical framework within which to interpret some of the most recent and exciting advances in behavioral and psychiatric genetics that use a molecular point of view.

This chapter, however, is not a paean to a reductionism, and in particular not to a genetic reductionism. Rather, its themes point toward complexity, multilevel interactionism, and the critical role of environment and learning in explanations of and interventions in mental disorders. Part of what motivates an interest in genetics, particularly psychiatric genetics, is the hope that identification of the gene, or more likely genes, contributing to serious mental disorders may give us information that we can use to diagnose and treat these disorders. This is based on the premise that an understanding of the molecular origin of a disorder such as schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness can simplify and clarify our approaches to existing illnesses. I have some doubts that such simplifications and clarifications will occur, but offer some suggestions for where we might look to achieve these hoped-for advances.

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