Gene × environment interplay and human agency: The role of the person in a genome-sequenced world

Gene × environment interplay and human agency: The role of the person in a genome-sequenced world

Our first contribution to this wonderful new blog and website system is a brief overview of a project on which we are working, and which forms part of the $3.5 million “Genetics & Human Agency” research initiative, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, with support from the University of Virginia, and lead by Professor Eric Turkheimer.

Over the previous 100 years, human cognitive ability has risen by standard deviations – the “Flynn Effect“. No theory of this effect sets a limit on what can be achieved: We may be capable of raising ability and agentic traits such as generativity and cooperation to still higher levels. At the same time, genes also remain strong influences on differences in intelligence, and even more complex outcomes, like education and socio-economic status [1].

In this project, we will study how environments and genes may cause these increases in capability – What Bronfenbrenner called a “BioSocial” model of development [2]. We will also ask how agent’s mental states themselves may increase capability: An agentic or Bio-psycho-social approach to human flourishing.

At the same time, philosophically, terms such as “genetic influence” are vague to the point of concealing questions we need answered. “Genes for” traits like education are discussed as if the genes themselves are at school, while in educational and sociological forums, genes are often ignored entirely, or suffer from being “lost in translation” as they move from geneticist’s data to educational forums [3]. Finally, many agency-related constructs have never been examined within genetically-informative studies. As a result, few models incorporate both genes and agency: the area is ripe for conceptual innovation at levels of genetics, psychological agency, and culture [4].

This new project we will critically examine concepts such as agency, capability, and actualization in the context of a philosophy of education. We will host meetings asking “what could genetics tell me” with experts in human-capital. We will collect new data on agentic and eduction-linked traits in offspring and parents, capitalizing on twin cohorts spanning infancy to retirement [5]. The project will advance knowledge and understanding of how genes, environment and human choices to assume more or less agency over our lives impact realized human potential, or alter the nature of potential itself. We will produce papers and freely available video lectures and discussion in philosophy of education, develop new talent, and share new work in genetics in both scholarly outlets and broader public venues.

Principal Investigator: Timothy C. Bates, University of Edinburgh

Co-PI(s) and affiliated institution(s)
Professor Duncan Pritchard, University of Edinburgh.
Dr Michelle Luciano (University of Edinburgh)
Dr Gary J Lewis (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Dr Oliver Curry (Oxford University)

  1. Okbay, A., Beauchamp, J. P., Fontana, M. A., Lee, J. J., Pers, T. H., Rietveld, C. A., . . . Benjamin, D. J. (2016). Genome-wide association study identifies 74 loci associated with educational attainment. Nature, 533(7604), 539-542. doi:10.1038/nature17671
  2. Bronfenbrenner, U., & Evans, G. W. (2000). Developmental Science in the 21st Century: Emerging Questions, Theoretical Models, Research Designs and Empirical Findings. Social Development, 9(1), 115-125. doi:10.1111/1467-9507.00114
  3. Bates, T. C. (2012). Education 2.0: genetically-informed models for school and teaching. In S. Della Sala & M. Anderson (Eds.), Neuroscience in Education (pp. p. 188. 126 pages). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Lewis, G. J., & Bates, T. C. (2013). The long reach of the gene: Prejudice, politics, and religiosity. The Psychologist, 26(3), 194-199.
  5. Bates, T. C., Lewis, G. J., & Weiss, A. (2013). Childhood Socioeconomic Status Amplifies Genetic Effects on Adult Intelligence. Psychological Science, 24(10), 2111-2116. doi:10.1177/0956797613488394
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