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Guest Post: Genetics education, genetic determinism, and the trickle-down effect

Written By Johanna Ahola-Launonen

University of Helsinki

In bioethical discussion, it is often debated whether or not some studies espouse genetic determinism. A recent study by Tuomas Aivelo and Anna Uitto[1] give important insight to the matter. They studied main genetics education textbooks used in Finnish upper secondary school curricula and compared the results to other similar studies from e.g. Swedish and English textbooks. The authors found that gene models used in the textbooks are based on old “Mendelian law”-based gene models not compatible with current knowledge on gene-gene-environment-interaction. The authors also identified several types of genetic determinism, that is, weak determinism and strong determinism, which both were present in the textbooks. The somewhat intuitive remark is that genetic education has to have a strong trickle-down effect on how people understand genes, and that we should be careful not to maintain these flawed conceptions. Furthermore, it would be useful to separate the discussion on genetic determinism into the terms “weak” and “strong”, of which the strong version is undoubtedly rarer while the weak is more prevalent.

As Aivelo and Uitto state, the genetic determinism dispute, that is, how much genes actually determine us, shows how important genetics is for the understanding of  what being human means and how many connections it has to social and cultural issues. It is usual that teachers or scientists deny that they would espouse genetic determinism. However, in many countries the studies reveal that the textbooks or the teacher’s attitudes reveal strong genetic determinism.

Aivelo and Uitto separate strong and weak determinism. ‘Strong determinism’ implies a gross exaggeration of the role of genes; the misconception that genes alone determine some or many individual traits of organisms, including human beings. In contrast, ‘weak determinism’ means that genes are depicted as a more important factor than environment in relation to the expressed properties; and that genes have their own causal mode of determining traits, separate from the effects that the environment can have on gene expression.

In their study, Aivelo and Uitto found that the most prevalent gene model in the textbooks was historically the oldest Mendelian model. This model implies that a gene is a passive entity, phenotype and genotype are practically the same thing, and no environmental effects considered. The Mendelian model is important for understanding genetics, but it should not lead to the misconception that most human traits were Mendelian. In contrast, the modern gene model describes genes as a process: a network which is influenced by other genes and environmental effects.

Aivelo and Uitto found many common misconceptions in the textbooks. For example the following were present: gene and trait are the same thing, genes determine traits, traits are inherited, most traits are Mendelian, and genes and environment have distinct effects on phenotype. 79%-100% of the textbooks (depending on the study) included the misconception that the correspondence between a gene and a gene function is one-to-one. This misconception gives insight for the very prevalent view in bioethics that by manipulating a certain gene, a certain gene function could be enhanced. The “gene-fore” approach has been proved to be a very limited understanding of genetics. As a conclusion, Aivelo and Uitto argue that “genetics education needs to take more into account than environmental effects and there needs to be more emphasis on the temporal and developmental aspect of genotype-phenotype link.”

What Aivelo and Uitto discovered is both unsurprising, inexplicable, and warning. Unsurprising, because when I recall my own genetic textbooks from school, the Mendelian laws were the highlight in them. At least genetics assignments in Finnish matriculation examinations (like SATs or GCSEs) are often based on the knowledge of Mendelian hybridization. Furthermore the simple hybridization does give the first understanding about genes. As Aivelo and Uitto argue, the problem is not the representation of historical models, but rather the lack of the modern models. So considering this, the constitution of the textbooks is not very surprising.

However, the study’s result is also inexplicable. Taking account of all of the new applications of genome knowledge that are or will be used; for example, GMO organisms, genetic tests, and personalized medicine, how can it be that we think genetic education can lack so much from the current knowledge on genetics? Of course, the renewal of school textbooks might often be slow. But with all the fuss, fear, and excitement related to genetics, how is it possible that the basic genetics education is so historical and so vulnerable of serving serious misunderstandings?

Finally, the research outcome is a warning. If the populations’ basic knowledge on genetics is predominantly based on genetic determinism, what possibility does the public at large really have to understand human genetics and its applications? How many decisions, studies, and conclusions related to human genetics are affected by a flawed understanding of genetics? Especially warning is the idea that the emphasis on gene-environment interaction would be representation of leftist politics, wanting to emphasize the society’s effect and responsibility of citizens, and statist politics. Of course leftist politics aiming at this do exist, but it has nothing to do with a proper understanding of genetics, epigenetics, gene-gene-environment interactions and the developing process-like nature of it.

I suggest that all scientists, researchers and scientific journalists should pay more attention to the possibility of having a society and public discussion where understanding of genetics would be based on current knowledge, not on conceptions one wished would exist.


[1] Tuomas Aivelo and Anna Uitto: Genetic determinism in the Finnish upper secondary school biology textbooks. Nordic Studies in Science Education Vol 11, No 2 (2015)


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2 Comment on this post

  1. Christopher Chew

    Hi Johanna!

    You’ve certainly made a good point – the current knowledge of genetics and their downstream effects has certainly moved on from simple Mendelian gene-trait associations. And indeed, a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of genetics is definitely in the public’s interest.

    I wonder, though, if it’s necessarily either bad or avoidable that higher-secondary education includes some simplistic and outdated scientific models. I’m thinking, for example, of the Newtonian model of gravity, or the classic “orbiting balls” model of the atom. Both are, for example, pretty outdated and incorrect – the former has been supplanted by Einstein’s Theories of Relativity, and the latter by the “fuzzy clouds” model of quantum interactions (though given how rapidly science progresses, these may themselves have been outdated, for all I know!).

    The point is that, while not on the cutting-edge of genetic science, the Mendelian model, like Newtonian gravity and the “orbiting balls” model of the atom, has the distinct advantage of being simplistic enough for a higher-secondary student to comprehend and pass exams on within a year; and is arguably not TOO wrong (e.g. it doesn’t suggest that God takes karma from our past lives and condenses it into morally-valent traits – you get red hair if you were BAD!). Indeed, I’m not even sure that I understand the full complexities of genetics myself – and I’m a full six years into post-highschool education!

    I’ve noticed that a lot of science education seems to work like this (at least it did in my secondary education). We were fed a few simple but ‘close enough’ theories, which were then built on and/or corrected in the years to come to get closer and closer to the complexities of cutting-edge knowledge.

    All in all, though, I think that the most important thing that should be built into science education in upper-secondary is probably a healthy view of scepticism – that whichever theory you’re being taught is probably reasonably outdated and pretty incorrect and doesn’t really capture all the nuances, and that you should go out and do your own reading to see what you think. Far better than trying to ensure that students get the ‘correct’ scientific theory (whatever that is) it’s probably more beneficial to arm them with the healthy feeling of doubt to spur them on their own journey of discovery.

  2. Johanna Ahola-Launonen

    Hi Christopher,
    Thanks for your important comment! I totally agree with you that simplified models indeed are necessary in science education and including complex models comes with difficulty. However, I wonder whether there could be another way to build a simplified idea without continuing the raising masses of people who believe genetic determinism is the way to understand why human beings are the way they are. For example, there could be more emphasis on the difference how the phenotype of human beings (complex) and peas (the famous Mendelian cross-over example) is constitued. And much more. I bet that if the great educators tried, a satisfying model could be made.

    Furthermore, as I wrote, I worry about the trickle-down effect of genetic determinism in high-school education. As Aivelo and Uitto maintain, the understanding of genetics; and, consequently, the understanding of humanity and human beings, has such cultural and societal effects that attention should be paid to that. Especially when the growing market of genetic applications, as important as they are, might further contribute the the gene-per-understanding, along other misconceptions.

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