Genomics and Determinism

In 2008 Stephen Pinker’s genome was sequenced and publicly released as part of the Personal Genome Project. In light of this, Pinker argues that even though our genes greatly influence our behaviour, they don’t determine who we are, concluding that “even when the effect of some gene is indubitable, the sheer complexity of the self will mean that it will not serve as an oracle on what the person will do.”

The scare word “determinism” [should not] get in the way of understanding our genetic roots. For some conditions, like Huntington’s disease, genetic determinism is simply correct: everyone with the defective gene who lives long enough will develop the condition. But for most other traits, any influence of the genes will be probabilistic. Having a version of a gene may change the odds, making you more or less likely to have a trait, all things being equal, but as we shall see, the actual outcome depends on a tangle of other circumstances as well.