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Behavioral Genetics

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and The Hastings Center conducted a project to provide tools for open and informed public discussion about the ethical and social issues raised by behavioral genetics. By tools we mean concepts and distinctions that facilitate clear, careful, and meaningful conversation among professional and lay groups. There are four components to the project:

1. The project worked to identify and describe the basic scientific ideas, distinctions, and methods of behavioral genetics research. This involved working with the project’s geneticists to explore, for example, what geneticists mean when they speak of heritability, what they mean by genotype-environment correlation, and what difference it makes if they’re talking about a molecular or a non-molecular study. The project also explored and describes the central debates about those core ideas and methods.

2. The project examined the extent to which behavioral genetics casts new light on enduring ethical and social questions and problems. Two large, interrelated categories capture the relevant issues: (i) identity and responsibility and (ii) equality and justice. How does behavioral genetics challenge some conceptions of human nature and personal identity? What are the implications for freedom and responsibility? How does behavioral genetics challenge some conceptions of equality? And what are the implications for social justice?

3. Investigation of the basic scientific, ethical, and social issues, refinement of the conceptual tools, and development of written and other resources were done in the context of three cases: bipolar disorder (a psychopathology); impulsivity (a label sometimes associated with a class of clinical diagnoses and sometimes associated with a personality trait that can be valued or disvalued, depending on the context); and intelligence (a trait not associated with pathology).

4. The project hosted a public conversation on these critical issues in behavioral genetics at a public meeting to culminate this multi-year effort. The conference facilitated discussion among diverse public constituencies and professionals who have an interest in behavioral genetics and who will mediate information about it to the public. These included research scientists, physicians, lawyers, judges, clergy, psychologists, science educators, policy makers, and journalists.

To disseminate these tools, the project produced several resources for lay and professional audiences, including an introduction on behavioral genetics for the general public, a special supplement of Hastings Center Report for professional audiences, a volume of essays for scholars, and this web site.


  • Publications
  • The Hastings Center supplement, “Genetic Differences and Human Identities”
  • Glossary