Behavioral Science: The Duty of History
“Science knows only one commandment---contribute to science.” Bertolt Brecht
“Whenever science makes a discovery, the devil grabs it while the angels are debating the best way to use it.” Alan Valentine
The relationship between science and society is rapidly changing. With billions of dollars being spent on research, modern genetics is fast becoming a new faith. The Human Genome Project, for example, is the largest scientific undertaking in the history of humankind. In his State of the Union Address in 2000, President Clinton called the Human Genome Project, “a revolution in our ability to detect, treat, and prevent disease" (Clinton, Jan. 27). The discovery of more than 6,000 single gene disorders such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, and sickle cell anemia, has reinforced many scientists’ faith in the power of genetics, not only to cure disease but also to solve social problems such as crime and poverty. The foundation of this new faith is reductionism, the belief that complex phenomenon can be explained by examining organisms at the molecular level. Reductionism is known for reducing objects to their smallest parts instead of viewing them as a whole. As Ruth Hubbard has observed, we have become convinced that “the smallest things can have the most overwhelming effects” (Hubbard and Wald, 1993). As a result, people entrust reductionist scientists to find a solution to social problems. Reductionist scientists believe that antisocial behavior is rooted in defects in brain chemistry, which in turn are rooted in genetic anomalies. This belief is often referred to as Hereditarianism or Social Determinism, the belief that “human beings can be accounted for primarily on the basis of genetics” (Mehler, 1996). These scientists hope that one day they will be able to trace any illness or behavioral disorder to a defective genotype. They, however, ignore the complexity of social behavior. There are innumerable environmental factors at play on an individual at any one time. The scientific connection of genotype=phenotype is not always the case. According to Sally Lehrman, writer for the DNA files website, researchers should all understand the following: The link between a gene and a behavior is not the same as cause and effect… A gene does not make people do things. It doesn't code for emotions or thoughts. It may not even turn on or off without an instruction from its surroundings. Instead, a gene may trigger a whole cascade of biochemical events in the body, interact with environmental and developmental influences, and - together with these - increase the likelihood that you'll behave in a particular way. (2001) By this explanation, it is easy to see that scientists are limited in their ability to separate the effects of genes, the environment, and their translation to human behavior (Bailey, 1997); because of this, behavioral genetic research is susceptible to generalizations that allow a myriad of race, class, and sex-based bigotry.
In addition, the difficulty in defining unacceptable behavior plagues behavioral genetic research. Behavioral geneticists seek to find the foundation of unacceptable behaviors; but according to the Neuroscience Program at the University of Illinois, even the traits of aggression, dominance, and violence can all be socially acceptable depending upon one’s perspective. Since behavior is an ambiguous concept, behavioral geneticists have lost their validity or ability to measure what they have claimed to measure.
In spite of these impediments, findings within behavioral genetics have expanded into our culture throughout history, often seeping into our criminal law ideology. Repeatedly, its principles have been riddled with ignorance and prejudice that result in small-scale blunders or larger sized atrocities like that of the Holocaust. With these memories of science gone wrong slipping away, behavioral genetics is poised to create a new...
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