The Implications of Genetic Science on the Perception of Existence

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality—The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The notion of free will has always held immense importance to human beings, and as such has shaped people’s understanding of themselves. It has also imbibed a degree of determinism in humans, of properties that are innate and not covered under the paradigm of free will. However, there has to be something that accounts for differing traits that are not within a person’s control. This is a question that has given rise to many controversies and schools of thought over the years. 

Representation of DNA and its implication in human personality traits.
The idea that the genetic code is responsible for a person’s personality traits has, for a long time, been a controversial and polarizing one, raising questions about free will and its place in human existence. (Image: magic pictures/Shutterstock)

Traits in humans, which are often thought to be out of the purview of control, have for a long time sparked a controversial debate: nature versus nurture. These are mutually exclusive possibilities. Properties could either be innate and embedded in genetic code or could be endowed in the individual as a result of environmental context or early circumstance. 

The Argument for Nature and Eugenics

The genetic revolution provided a strong impetus to the argument for nature. Sickle cell anemia is a molecular disease, for instance. Those who are inflicted with it are biologically determined to have it. In light of this, it could be said that a person’s individuality is a result of their unique genetic code, not their decisions or memories. 

Unlike health problems that are a result of environmental interactions—exposure to bacteria or viruses, for example—in genetic ailments, the problem is within the inflicted person him or herself. 

Since illnesses are inherently seen as bad, this school of thought sees the flawed genetic code as bad, and it is not a far leap from here to imply that the inflicted victim him or herself is bad. This line of reasoning gives rise to the doctrine of eugenics, according to which the alleviation of general suffering and sickness can be done by eliminating genetic flaws by preventing faulty genes from being part of the gene pool. 

While this notion comes with deeply negative connotations today, the idea of social engineering initially came from a desire to eliminate real human pain. 

Since nothing could possibly be done after birth, here the ethical obligations began before birth. Eugenics, as a movement to minimize human suffering, as it was originally, saw it as a moral failing to allow a person to be born with a genetic ailment that limited their ability to flourish. 

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Problems with Eugenics

Eugenics sought to eliminate genetic diseases from the human population by making sure that there were no more carriers in the population. But what exactly is disease? A condition that shortens life span? What about debilitating conditions that cause pain, deformity, or the inability to perform everyday tasks? 

This question would warrant disease to include any condition that precludes one from maximally succeeding. In turn, this would warrant questions on the very meaning of human success!

Logo of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921.
Eugenics was not always as negatively perceived a notion as it is today, and was, at one point in time, looked at merely as a way to alleviate human suffering. (Image: Harry H. Laughlin/Public domain)

The politicization of these questions meant that while including thoughtful discourse, eugenics as a notion would always be a function of power. Take, for instance, the eugenics program of Germany, which existed before the rise of Hitler. People working on eugenics saw the Nazi vision of a master race as deplorable. Some thought that the far right followers of Hitler would go on to give up their power and return to rationality, but while they were in power, they should be used to fund eugenicist work. Others saw Nazism as a perversion of their movement and wanted to boycott it. Natural selection develops in accordance with changing environmental stresses, but artificial selection proceeds according to the whims of those in power. And that is the biggest problem with eugenics. Eugenics applied to people will inevitably give the power-holders the ability to define what counts as success, or flourishing, and would inevitably find a way to entrench their power, deeming any differences as deficiencies.

However, it is also a fact that genetic diseases do not eliminate the very essence of human existence. 

Representing Genetic Illness in Mass Media

While artistic representation does tend to create a degree of exaggeration, movies such as Brian’s Song do a great job of convincing viewers that despite tragic endings, genetic ailments do not mean a life that was not worth living. 

On the other hand, films such as My Left Foot take a different approach, showing the humanity behind the severe life-afflicting genetic condition of cerebral palsy. The character is shown, with both positives and negatives, as human. This track comes with the argument that in trying to remove the suffering that comes from genetic defects, eugenists fail to see that people are defined by their humanity, not their disease. 

However, genetics programs did take off, and their success gave rise to the doctrine of genetic determinism. 

Learn more about medical technology and death.

Genetic Determinism

Genetic determinism was not completely a deterministic ideology, in that it was never believed that it was the DNA that established every action of a person’s life. But it still raised many questions on the extent to which the genetic code determines a person’s life. Was it a far stretch to say that if genetic code could determine hair color or height, it could also determine talents and qualities?

Humans have recognized the innateness of certain aspects of personality, and the success of genetics has created a notion that innate traits are somehow a result of a person’s genetic makeup. 

This notion comes in contravention to the human need for autonomy, and yet it comforts the human need for explanation and understanding. 

Humans have abundant mythology and folklore that try to reinforce the beliefs that are held in a society. The Greek myth of Heracles, or Hercules in Latin, for instance, is seen as a tragedy. Not only is he extraordinarily powerful physically, but he is also prone to going into a blind rage and using his strength to cause harm. He killed his own children, unaware of what he was doing. This myth is resonant with the severe anger issues seen in people in reality. These characteristics are sometimes explained in terms of upbringing, but there are also cases of people from a perfectly peaceful upbringing who suffer from anger issues, which forces recognition of the innateness of these characteristics. 

Hercules was a Greek legend who killed his own children in a fit of anger. (Image: Zwiebackesser/Shutterstock)

The nature versus nurture debate is so controversial and polarizing because there are strong arguments and empirical evidence for both sides of the debate. On one hand, there is no denying the power that the environment can have given the malleability of humans in a social context. On the other hand, though, there is also the notion of a person being innately who they are, of there being an inherent nature to a person’s identity, which is genetic. 

Learn more about genetic engineering.

Common Questions About the Implications of Genetic Science on the Perception of Existence

Q: What is the nature versus nurture debate?

The nature versus nurture debate is a controversial debate about whether the personality traits of human beings are innate and embedded in a person’s genetic make-up, or are a result of environmental and situational learnings.

Q: What is the problem with eugenics?

Eugenics, which seeks to eliminate any weaker genetic material from the gene pool, and in this manner eliminate suffering due to genetic ailments, fails to recognize that while genetic diseases might cause problems for the afflicted, they do not manage to eliminate the entirety of human existence.

Q: What is genetic determinism?

Genetic determinism, though not a fully deterministic ideology, takes forward the notion that the genetic code of an individual determines a significant amount of their traits, and raises questions about the extent of this influence.

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Nature and Nurture: The Root of Human Behavior
Personality and the Nature-Nurture Debate
The Role of the Environment in Shaping Personality
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