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It's in my Genes...Or Is It?

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I wanted to know, from those who may be more familiar with the hard science of biology, whether or not a "genetic" predisposition is more or less a form of biological determinism.

For example, I keep hearing on the news and reading in newspapers - in regards to "medical discoveries" - that _________ (you fill in the blank, there are so many "diseases" and "disorders" that go in there) is genetic.

Example: "Cancer is genetic", or "alcoholism is genetic", "there is a gene that controls ________ (any disorder, disease, or undesirable trait)?

I was wondering if this wasn't just Determinism in disguise?

Yes? No? Maybe in certain circumstances? How would one go about discerning truth from falsehood in this area?

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Your genes determine what proteins you are capable of synthesizing. Proteins are responsible for most of what happens in the cell, including cell reproduction. Cancer is caused by mutations during reproduction, ergo having too little/much of certain proteins would predispose people to cancer. Same with metabolism. I don't enough about the biology of addiction to know if the same logic would apply to alcoholism.

However, in most cases it is simply a predisposition. Someone with a cancer-causing gene can take action to prevent cancer. People are not born equal, but that does not contradict free will (unless you think that everyone is born with the same intelligence, ability, etc.)

There definitely is a tendency for people to overstate the role of genetics in determining their lives. As for determining truth from fiction, I think hard science is the way to go.

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Well from a molecular biologist’s point of view:

There are some genetic mutations/diseases which clearly and consistently produce physiological or mental impairments. Having an extra copy of chromosome 21, for example, will result in an individual having down's syndrome. So I suppose that would be determinism. Genes do control an awful lot in our body and the fact is there are some things which willpower, reason, strength of character, etc. simply cannot overcome. I would lump cancers in this area as well. Cancer quit literally is due to some form of genetic mutation.

Things become more complex with diseases which may have a genetic factor. A great example that you brought up is alcoholism. The problem with these “diseases” is that when the media reports scientific information they oversimplify so a result like, "there appears to be genetic factors which make an individual more prone to alcoholism" gets shortened to, "Scientists find alcoholism gene!" In this regard I think it is carelessness on behalf of the media or people in general who are misrepresenting a scientific finding. The truncated statement seems to claim that a genetic factor is solely responsible for a behavior. Here we now have a case for biological determinism which is invalid because it was not demonstrated experimentally.

I'm sure there are people out there who intentionally contort scientific findings (scientists or otherwise) to attempt to present evidence for biological determinism where none exists.

The best way to figure out if something was true or not would be to read the original paper published by a scientist. First, what did the scientist claim compared to what you heard? The next step would be to understand how the scientist came to his conclusion. Looking at the data do you reach the same conclusion? Finally you'd want to read other papers by other scientist in the field. Have they studied the same gene? Did they find a similar result? Clearly this kind of analysis is impossible for all genes. I would advise using a more common sense approach:

From what I’ve observed and been taught, I think some actions may be influenced, not determined, by genetic factors. So when a researcher can locate a genetic element like a gene and show that the presence of a mutation in this gene appears to correlate with a certain behavior I am unsurprised. (This is not to minimize the importance of the discovery) Were someone to claim that they had identified a mutation in a gene which almost always leads to alcoholism I would be highly skeptical because I would find that highly surprising. Assuming the second finding was true, children with two alcoholic parents would have, at minimum, a 75% chance to be an alcoholic and from what I’ve seen that simply isn’t true.

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Well from a molecular biologist’s point of view:

There are some genetic mutations/diseases which clearly and consistently produce physiological or mental impairments. Having an extra copy of chromosome 21, for example, will result in an individual having down's syndrome. So I suppose that would be determinism. Genes do control an awful lot in our body and the fact is there are some things which willpower, reason, strength of character, etc. simply cannot overcome. I would lump cancers in this area as well. Cancer quit literally is due to some form of genetic mutation.

Things become more complex with diseases which may have a genetic factor. A great example that you brought up is alcoholism. The problem with these “diseases” is that when the media reports scientific information they oversimplify so a result like, "there appears to be genetic factors which make an individual more prone to alcoholism" gets shortened to, "Scientists find alcoholism gene!" In this regard I think it is carelessness on behalf of the media or people in general who are misrepresenting a scientific finding. The truncated statement seems to claim that a genetic factor is solely responsible for a behavior. Here we now have a case for biological determinism which is invalid because it was not demonstrated experimentally.

I'm sure there are people out there who intentionally contort scientific findings (scientists or otherwise) to attempt to present evidence for biological determinism where none exists.

The best way to figure out if something was true or not would be to read the original paper published by a scientist. First, what did the scientist claim compared to what you heard? The next step would be to understand how the scientist came to his conclusion. Looking at the data do you reach the same conclusion? Finally you'd want to read other papers by other scientist in the field. Have they studied the same gene? Did they find a similar result? Clearly this kind of analysis is impossible for all genes. I would advise using a more common sense approach:

From what I’ve observed and been taught, I think some actions may be influenced, not determined, by genetic factors. So when a researcher can locate a genetic element like a gene and show that the presence of a mutation in this gene appears to correlate with a certain behavior I am unsurprised. (This is not to minimize the importance of the discovery) Were someone to claim that they had identified a mutation in a gene which almost always leads to alcoholism I would be highly skeptical because I would find that highly surprising. Assuming the second finding was true, children with two alcoholic parents would have, at minimum, a 75% chance to be an alcoholic and from what I’ve seen that simply isn’t true.

I would really like some clarification on your use of "determinism". Because, if you are saying that Determinism is a valid concept, then we have a problem. If there are "cancer causing genes", is calling this "Determinism" mislabeling?

The reason I ask is because the theory of Determinism, as I know it, is a contradiction in terms.

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whether or not a "genetic" predisposition is more or less a form of biological determinism.

Genetic predisposition may never turn into an illness. It is hightened sensitivity which can and often is modified by the environmental conditions (that is why it is useful to know that you have such a predisposition so that you can take the necessary steps to prevent it). For example, a disease maybe 40% genetic and 60% environmental (or some other combination) in its occurrence or 100% genetic (not much you can do about it).

There are many different cancers and they vary in terms of what is necessary for a person to develop an illness. For example 70% of cervical cancers can be prevented via HPV vaccine because HPV infection is the environmental factor which triggers it.

The reported "having a gene" does not mean having an extra gene (which runs in a family). We all have all the genes. Having a gene means that you carry a mutation - occurance of which increases your probablity of developing this disease by some X because the protein product made from this gene is not as it should be and as a result it does not function properly and that happens to be significant. We have two copies of each gene so if the other happens to be fine - you maybe in luck (you are still producing some, smaller level but enough of that protein). For some diseases unfortunately just one faulty copy will be bad news.

Maybe in certain circumstances? How would one go about discerning truth from falsehood in this area?

Case by case bases.

Sometimes, people are definately looking for an excuse out of personal responsiblity. You may have a predisposition for alcoholism but alcohol won't get into your system by itself and repeatedly.

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I do find the public today constantly being swayed by the idea of genetic determinism, as you are calling it, which I think is second only to the evil of societal determinism. I think the science of genetics is so new that a lot of people are thinking "Genetics are our building blocks! It's how God programs us! This is what makes our lives personalities and future!" When really they affect mostly chemicals. Can chemicals have an effect on personalities and personal choice? Yeah, but does this equate to being slaves to our genetic code? Nah not really. The proof, as we all know, is in the axioms.

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I would really like some clarification on your use of "determinism". Because, if you are saying that Determinism is a valid concept, then we have a problem. If there are "cancer causing genes", is calling this "Determinism" mislabeling?

The reason I ask is because the theory of Determinism, as I know it, is a contradiction in terms.

Determinism is the belief that our behaviors are determined. A set of prior occurrences will control how we behave. The assumption is that these occurrences are beyond our control. In most cases with "diseases," such as alcoholism, genetics may play a factor. This clearly would not be determinism. Genetics may influence how we behave but in most cases there are other factors which are present. If I have a mutation which makes me more likely to be an alcoholic, that fact is not determinism because I can still ultimately decide whether to drink irresponsibly or not. Genetics may make it harder on me than other people but I still have a choice so nothing is determined.

On the other hand there are some diseases (like down's) which produce a result. It is a simple cause and effect equation, if you have this extra chromosome you will have this period. I would call this determinism, perhaps erroneously, because it is an absolute* cause and effect.

*If anyone knows of someone who has an extra chromosome 21 and is not retarded let me know.

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The reason I ask is because the theory of Determinism, as I know it, is a contradiction in terms.

But causality is not. Determinism as you are referring to it deals with the issue of free will. It is certainly possible for you to have biological characteristics that will put you at greater risk for cancer, and that these characteristics are (among other things) genetic in nature. That doesn't violate any aspect of causality.

The place Determinism and causality split is on the issue of will.

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I'm trying to reconcile what you are all writing about determinism vice the actual definition...

de·ter·min·ism /dɪˈtɜrməˌnɪzəm/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[di-tur-muh-niz-uhm] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation

–noun

1. the doctrine that all facts and events exemplify natural laws.

2. the doctrine that all events, including human choices and decisions, have sufficient causes.

Definition one says that all things that are exist within natural laws. Which I take to mean that you can not throw a rock into the air and have it hover in space because gravity (a natural law) will make it return to earth.

I read definition two as indicating that cause and effect shapes why things happen and leads to conclusions as to what should happen. While I understand that human beings, being conscious are free to disregard the "sufficient causes" and choose their own path (which in and of themselves are the result of reason for a rational man and the facts of the matter) that fact does not alter that at least some of the choices available to a conscious being have been illustrated by the circumstances of the events themselves.

I don't see how, using this definition and my explanation that determinism can be viewed as such an evil doctrine. Or is this another case of the definition being corrupted through time to mean or include things which are not an actual part of the real definition?

If the definition said "the doctrine that all events, including human choices and decisions, are preordained." then that would be blatantly false and evil, but it does not claim that. The only claim is that everything that happens has a cause... and to deny that there are causes is illogical in the extreme.

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"Determinism" refers to the idea that man's choices are physically pre-determined, that he has no free will. It does not refer to the fact that the law of gravity causes bricks to fall to earth or that a correctly-applied electrical field can cause the human heart to regularize its beat. Man does not have complete volitional control over all aspects of his body, e.g. he cannot will himself to stretch like a rubber band. Nor can he will himself to be blond (though he can volitionally dye his hair to achieve that effect).

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I'm trying to reconcile what you are all writing about determinism vice the actual definition...

OED has the definition your dictionary is missing:

1. The philosophical doctrine that human action is not free but necessarily determined by motives, which are regarded as external forces acting upon the will.

And the quotations they provide give more insight as to how they derived this definition:

  • 1855 "The theory of Determinism, in which the will is regarded as determined or swayed to a particular course by external inducements and formed habits, so that the consciousness of freedom rests chiefly upon an oblivion of the antecedents to our choice."
  • 1860 "The latter hypothesis is Determinism, a necessity no less rigid than Fatalism."
  • 1866 "He arrived at a system of absolute determinism, which entirely takes away man's free will, and with it his responsibility."

Edited by brian0918
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OED has the definition your dictionary is missing:

And the quotations they provide give more insight as to how they derived this definition:

Thank you brian, that is a much clearer/better answer. I understand now.

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But causality is not. Determinism as you are referring to it deals with the issue of free will. It is certainly possible for you to have biological characteristics that will put you at greater risk for cancer, and that these characteristics are (among other things) genetic in nature. That doesn't violate any aspect of causality.

The place Determinism and causality split is on the issue of will.

In regards to Downs Syndrome and it is likely the same with cancer (or similar), there are probably environmental factors that set these things in motion. I was thinking that the extra chromosome 21 would be more of a cause and effect thing. Especially when I read some of the causes:

For parents of a child with Down syndrome due to translocation trisomy 21, there may be an increased likelihood of Down syndrome in future pregnancies. This is because one of the two parents may be a balanced carrier of the translocation. The translocation occurs when a piece of chromosome 21 becomes attached to another chromosome, often number 14, during cell division. If the resulting sperm or ovum receives a chromosome 14 (or another chromosome), with a piece of chromosome 21 attached and retains the chromosome 21 that lost a section due to translocation, then the reproductive cells contain the normal or balanced amount of chromosome 21. While there will be no Down syndrome associated characteristics exhibited, the individual who develops from this fertilized egg will be a carrier of Down syndrome. Genetic counseling can be sought to find the origin of the translocation. - Source: http://pediatrics.about.com/od/birthdefect..._syn_causes.htm
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  • 4 months later...
In regards to Downs Syndrome and it is likely the same with cancer (or similar), there are probably environmental factors that set these things in motion. I was thinking that the extra chromosome 21 would be more of a cause and effect thing. Especially when I read some of the causes:

Sorry to chime in so late on this thread but here you go:

but our molecular biologist friend above, is vague and not quite accurate in his explanations.

If you're interested in genetic predisposition, i would be happy to explain further, if you want.

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Sorry to chime in so late on this thread but here you go:

but our molecular biologist friend above, is vague and not quite accurate in his explanations.

If you're interested in genetic predisposition, i would be happy to explain further, if you want.

My point was an extra copy of a certain chromosome leads to mental retardation. A more exact translation would be trisomy of chromosome 21 leads to mental retardation. Is this an inaccurate statement? Does it not demonstrate the point that genetics can, in some cases, be solely responsible with how a person will act?

Please share your wisdom with us! Please explain how I was vague and how my comments were not accurate. Simply posting comments about your knowledge and making little quips about posts without explaination is not terribly useful.

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I wanted to know, from those who may be more familiar with the hard science of biology, whether or not a "genetic" predisposition is more or less a form of biological determinism.

I wouldn't call it biological determinism, since you are what you are biologically due to your genes -- i.e. you have two arms and two legs and two eyes because of your genes. You also have a volitional consciousness because of your genes; that is, you were born human.

When it comes to cancers and medical predispositions, I still wouldn't call this determinism, but rather biological causation. Determinism as has been pointed out earlier in the thread was initially proposed to discredit volition and free will in man. But if you have a medical predisposition to getting cancer, getting cancer or not getting cancer was not open to your free will in the sense of directly controlling your biology anyhow. I mean, you can avoid certain risks that might lead to cancer, but you cannot directly will yourself to not get cancer.

In some ways, though I don't mean it as an insult, this is like the Maverick Philosopher's clique saying that we don't have free will because we cannot will ourselves into becoming a basketball or will ourselves to pick up 200 lb rocks -- it has a wrong focus or what is and what is not open to our free will. I can exercise my free will to type this message, but I cannot use my free will to make the message come across in some ineffable means not using a computer and a key board. Likewise, even though man has free will -- so long as he is a healthy human -- it doesn't mean he can will himself out of cancer or will himself not to have neurological problems. We just don't have that type of control over the biological functions of our body.

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Sorry to chime in so late on this thread but here you go:

but our molecular biologist friend above, is vague and not quite accurate in his explanations.

If you're interested in genetic predisposition, i would be happy to explain further, if you want.

Sure. Go for it. <_<

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