Leading article: We still have free will in the age of genetics

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The Independent Culture
WHEN SCIENTISTS claimed to have found the "gay gene", they detonated a furious argument about free will and determinism. It had long been argued that the age of consent for homosexual sex should not be equalised at 16 because homosexuality was "just a phase", and young men might be "converted" to it at a vulnerable and ambiguous time of their lives. Those in favour of equality responded that most people feel sure about their sexuality long before they are 16. Some of them seized on the finding that homosexuality might be genetically determined as ammunition for their side of the debate, but this was premature.

Now another study claims to have found that bullying is in the genes. This is a gross simplification of the conclusion of a study that itself assumes that the lines of causation from genes to personality are simple. This is a rapidly growing area of research, which has recently produced findings (again, not yet replicated in other studies) that "cautiousness", and differences in behaviour between boys and girls, may be genetically determined.

The problem is that the way in which genes influence personality is neither simple nor well understood. It is understood even less by the lay public, who may be misled into thinking that the latest research in some way excuses bullying: "I can't help it, Miss, it's in my genes." So even if these findings are backed up by further research, we are still a long way from being able to make any practical use of them. When the ways in which character and intelligence are constructed from the information encoded in the 80,000 human genes are understood, then the difficult ethical questions begin. Then we face the prospect of the rich of the world being able to control their own evolution.

Meanwhile, it is more important to insist that nothing in the science of genetics absolves people from making moral choices about their own behaviour. From the earliest times, philosophers have struggled with the knowledge that free will is constrained. For a long time, the deep constraint was not genes but religion. But the wise philosophers have always concluded that people have choices and should try to use them for good. That is as true in today's secular age as it ever has been.