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Vol 39  No 7
Dec. 14, 2006


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Student View

By Jillian Terry


Where did you get those genes?

Science and modern medicine are fields that are advancing rapidly in our increasingly technological society. In particular, the study of genetics and its role in human life has garnered a great deal of media attention in recent years, especially with the research being conducted in an attempt to cure illnesses such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. As a student with an Arts background, reading about the daily developments being made by geneticists around the world, and even in our own city, is extremely fascinating. All this talk of genes as the blueprint to human life got me thinking at the beginning of this holiday season about family, and begged the question – how much of who you are comes from your parents?

Behavioural genetics, as I have recently learned, seeks to understand both the genetic and environmental contributions to individual variations in human behaviour. As a relatively new field, this understanding does not come easily or without criticism from many other areas of the scientific world. However, from what I could discern from my scientifically amateur research into the matter, developments are current and ongoing, and it is becoming easier to predict behaviours that may be seen in children based on their parents genes.

Take, for example, the trait that everyone has learned about in one biology course or another throughout high school – the ability to curl one’s tongue. Depending on whether or not your parents carry the dominant genes for this specific trait, you may or may not be able to curl your own tongue. But the distinction is not based solely on the inherited genes, as you could learn to curl your tongue on your own. This mix between genetic and environmental influence is what scientists have been dealing with since the first discovery of human genes, and it is why the origins of an individual’s behaviour is so difficult to pinpoint.

The statement that you are “just like” your mother or father is one that you often hear as a child, and perhaps even into adulthood, from relatives and family friends. Whether or not this similarity comes from the large amount of time children spend with their parents, or from traits decided at birth, is part of the contested field of behavioural genetics. Clearly, the fact that your dad is an all-star basketball player doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll be able to sink baskets from centre court, but it may indeed have an influence on your physical abilities.

We all learn from our parents. Before we even get to kindergarten, our parents teach us many of the basic skills we need in life, as well as some general rules on how to act in public, which are undoubtedly important to an individual’s success in society. However, the “learning” that behavioural genetics proposes happens much earlier, even before birth. And if the given hypothesis is valid, and behavioural traits can indeed be at least partially explained through genes, parents are able to evaluate what a potential child may be like, simply by examining their own genetic makeup.

Since no one gene influences any specific behaviour, determining what exactly influences someone to act in a certain way is a complex and virtually impossible process. Nevertheless, behavioural geneticists continue to investigate the intricate world of what we’re made of, and more precisely, how it makes us who we are. So, as you’re spending some quality time with your family over the holidays, take a closer – perhaps even scientific – look at your parents, as you may just be able to blame their genes for all that procrastinating you did this past semester.

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