Behavioural Genetics

Palmistry for the genome: genetic fundamentalism fights on

by Charles Foster
A recent paper in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has the self-explanatory title Investigating the genetic basis of altruism: the role of the COMT Val158Met polymorphism. 1. The German authors aren’t as cautious in their claims as they should have been. They should have noted, nervously, the reception given to the infamous ‘God gene’ hypothesis,2 and entitled the paper something along the lines of ‘Some not very statistically significant correlations (from which we can’t begin to infer a causative relationship) between the COMT Val 158 Met polymorphism and some behaviour that might be markers of, amongst other things, being nice, whatever that means, ignoring other non-correlations with other more plausible markers of being nice.’

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Self-control matters – but to what extent can it be taught?

Recently in
the news, a report published by the independent think-tank Demos reminds us of
the importance of the capacity for self-control (it also mentions empathy, to
which most of the following remarks apply) in determining life outcomes. It
argues that self-control lessons should be taught at school if children,
particularly from deprived backgrounds, are to be given the tools they need to
succeed in life – low-self-control has for instance been shown to positively
correlate with length of unemployment or criminal behaviour, and negatively
with academic achievement. The report echoes renewed interest in the United
States in a now famous experiment by Walter Mischel on deferred gratification,
dating back to the late 1960s. Mischel tested the capacity of a group of
four-year olds to resist the temptation to eat straightaway a marshmallow he
had given them. The children who were able to refrain turned out to be better
adjusted, more dependable and to do better academically on the whole later in


The report
by Demos makes important points and its proposals deserve to be supported.
Nevertheless, even if they are put into practice, we might still feel concerned
about how effective we can expect them to be. There is indeed a body of
evidence suggesting that the capacity for self-control is to a large extent
genetically determined (Wright & Beaver, 2005; Beaver & al., 2009).


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