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Regional Meeting Report

5 June 2010

By Lucía Ariza

The latest Regional Meeting of the PFGS took place in April at the University of Lancaster under the provocative title ‘Genetics and Behaviour: from the Science to Society’. As part of ongoing or already defended doctoral theses, for which the PFGS features a characteristically welcoming space, the papers delivered were a good proof of the variety of forces through which relationships between genetics/genomics and behaviour are currently being brought to life by medical and medical humanities studies. Overall, the papers were concerned with the emergence and consolidation of fields of knowledge (behavioural genomics, behavioural genetics, genetics), to signal in each case particular determinants or salient continuities throughout these constitutions.

By analysing interviews from a wide array of experts researching on human behaviour and interested in genomic evidence, Richard Holdsworth’s paper examined the extent to which it is possible to talk of ‘behavioural genomics’ as a consolidated and internally homogenous field. Using criteria developed during the thesis to identify key features of the various disciplines under analysis, Holdsworth paper arrived at the conclusion that the diversity of objectives, methods and concepts of disciplines interested in using genomic evidence to study human behaviour prevents us from asserting the existence of an internally coherent field of ‘behavioural genomics’.

Following the lunch break, Lucía Ariza’s paper focused on views of psychologists and medical doctors involved in egg and sperm donation during reproductive treatment in Argentina. Ariza’s paper explored practitioners’ opinions on the relationships between genetic material –transferred from donor to children through donated gametes- and future behaviour of offspring. The paper analysed how practitioners routinely deny any involvement of genetics in expected behaviour of children born of donated gametes, unilaterally ascribing behavioural traits to environmental causes such as upbringing and personal experiences.

Also focusing on medical practice, although guided by the need to expand nurses’ awareness of genetics and genomics as tools used to assess and manage health risks, Verity Leach’s paper sought to identify key behaviours and activities that help to distinguish nurse adopters of genetics from non-adopters. Analysing survey data collected among genetic nursing experts, the paper contributed a fresh understanding of the relationship between behaviour –here analysed through nurses’ opinions and attitudes- and genetics. Finally, the last paper of the day, which was presented by Andrew Divers, undertook a critical exploration of the value-related continuities that lie beneath the apparently ‘disconnected’ emergence of behavioural genetics as a ‘new’ field of studies. By retracing a genealogy of ideas concerning the causes of human behaviour from disciplines as diverse as psychiatry, biology and sociology, Divers showed how some recent accounts of the causal links between, for example, aggressive behaviour and genetic makeup are deeply rooted into previous understandings of deviant behaviour as biologically determined, traceable to Cesare Lombroso’s early studies of criminal behaviour, and present  throughout the twentieth century in the form of a persistent overlap between understandings of disease and crime.

Guided by these interesting and varied papers, the day-long meeting proved to be an informative space from which to keep thinking about the recent development of expert fields of knowledge that enact relationships between genetics/genomics and behaviour. A point raised by most of the participants was the need to complement the days’ exchange, which was mostly centred around discourses of expertise, with lay views of the connections between behaviour and genetics. This is particularly important since much empirical research and medical interventions currently carried out or proposed for the future rely heavily on genetic material obtained from contemporary  human or historical populations. The day was a reminder to keep an attentive view towards the ethical aspects of genetic research on human behaviour.

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