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News

New book explores how genes and environment influence behavior

American Association For The Advancement Of Science (AAAS) : 25 March, 2004  (Company News)
If your parents are smart, will you be? Can someone be genetically compelled to act rashly? As a relatively new but growing field, behavioral genetics seeks to understand how both genes and environment contribute to the variations in human behavior such as intelligence, lifestyle choices or even proclivity for violence.
For example, 'if we learn that genes have a substantial influence on behavior, what will that mean for our belief that one is free to choose specific courses of action? Will our legal system's application of culpability for criminal activity need to be revised?' asks Mark S. Frankel, Director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program at AAAS.

A new book published by AAAS and The Hastings Center examines how genes and environment can shape people's moods, personality and intelligence. Behavioral Genetics: An Introduction to How Genes and Environments Interact Through Development to Shape Differences in Mood, Personality, and Intelligence is written for a non-scientific audience. The book describes the methods scientists use to study behavior and highlights some of the ethical and social implications associated with such research.

In particular, the book focuses on how advances in behavioral genetics may challenge conventional understanding of human nature, personal responsibility and equality. At a time when new discoveries in genetics are heralded in the popular press almost weekly, the book will provide readers with a good sense of what genetic science can tell us about behavior, and what its limitations are.

Each chapter begins with a fictional, yet plausible, vignette about an individual seeking answers to a question about behavior.

'The vignettes prepared especially for this book set the science into a real world context, enabling most readers to identify with the subject matter,' says Frankel.

One man grapples with the way his life has progressed into a downward spiral. Another ponders the effect a mixture of races will have on the intelligence level of his future grandchildren. The text then provides enough scientific background for the reader to address the question thoughtfully. A glossary indexed according to the chapters explains key words and concepts.

The publication was authored by Catherine Baker who has written or helped produce numerous easy-to-read materials in the fields of science, health and consumer education. Among her publications is another book produced for AAAS, Your Genes, Your Choices: Exploring the Issues Raised by Genetic Research.

'This new book should help readers better understand what genetics can tell us about behavior and what it cannot, thereby helping citizens distinguish between what is hype and what is credible when they read about advances in the popular press,' Frankel says, 'It should appeal to a broad audience, filling a void in the availability of publicly accessible information on behavioral genetics that is currently available.'

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science (www.sciencemag.org). AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves some 265 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of one million. The non-profit AAAS (www.aaas.org) is open to all and fulfills its mission to 'advance science and serve society' through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, www.eurekalert.org, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

The Hastings Center is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit bioethics research institute founded in 1969 to explore fundamental and emerging questions in health care, biotechnology, and the environment.
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