EP28. 27 June 2008
Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Sharpe. All rights reserved.
To appear in the proceedings of the Silver Anniversary Conference of the Center for Process Studies, Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, USA, 4-9 August 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Kevin Sharpe.


Behavioral Genetics:

The New Reductionism?




Kevin Sharpe

Graduate College, Union Institute and University, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
Harris Manchester College, Oxford University, Oxford, UK
Oxford Institute for Science and Spirit, Oxford, UK
Founder of
Science & Spirit Magazine
10 Shirelake Close, Oxford OX1 1SN, Uunited Kingdom


Rebecca Bryant

Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK


ĎA personís baseline levels of cheerfulness, contentment and psychological satisfaction are largely a matter of heredity [or genes],í according to molecular biologist Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute. Our genes represent a point in the evolutionary process, our evolutionary heritage. So do our happiness levels, according to the science of behavioral genetics.

Our knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the world around us also represents a process. Different disciplines feed into one another, mutually interacting, to produce a unified explanatory whole. Or at least they should.

This paper examines spiritual and scientific approaches to the concept of human happiness, with a view to answering the question, ĎIs behavioral genetics the new reductionism?í


Behavioral genetics, evolution, genetics, happiness, reductionism, science and theology.


Introduction. 2

Happiness: Spiritual Approaches. 2

Happiness: The Genetic Approach. 4

Reactions to the Genetic Approach. 5

Conclusion: The Non-Reductionism of Behavioral Genetics. 7

References. 7


ĎA personís baseline levels of cheerfulness, contentment and psychological satisfaction are largely a matter of heredity [or genes],í according to molecular biologist Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute (Hamer 1996: 125). Our genes represent a point in the evolutionary process, our evolutionary heritage. So do our happiness levels, according to the science of behavioral genetics.

Our knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the world around us also represents a process. Different disciplines feed into one another, mutually interacting, to produce a unified explanatory whole. Or at least they should.

This paper examines spiritual and scientific approaches to the concept of human happiness, with a view to answering the question, ĎIs behavioral genetics the new reductionism?í

Happiness: Spiritual Approaches

Many religions and their philosophies focus on happiness and advise us to seek out spiritual happiness in everyday life:

         Reformation Protestants focussed on justification by grace through faith. They believed that through this grace we could share what God offers, a positive loving action. The Bible presents a picture, to their eyes, of a gracious and loving deity who desires everyoneís happiness. Happiness arises from God.

††† Spiritual leader Robert Schuller writes about The Be Happy Attitudes: Eight Positive Attitudes that Can Transform Your Life. Along with charismatic and Pentecostal tendencies in the spiritual traditions of the contemporary west, such books and movements assume that religion intends for happiness. Happiness is nearness to God.

††† Happiness comes to the person who lives a life of intellectual contemplation. So thought philosophers in ancient Greece. Epicurian and Stoic philosophers similarly proposed Ďhappy wisdom.í Aristotle thought of happiness as the highest good. Happiness equates with virtue, he believed. ĎThereís no fool who is happy, and no wise man who is not,í the Roman philosopher Cicero reiterated (Myers and Diener 1995: 10).

††† Augustine accepted the basic tenet of the ancientsí ethical theory: we should aim our behavior toward the achievement of well-being or happiness, the only universal desire. Aquinas concurred with Aristotle and Augustine: happiness is the basic human pursuit. He also agreed that happiness had to do with intelligent reflection. The highest form of happiness derives from the highest use of the intellect: thinking about spiritual matters and in particular about God .

         Theologians and artists of the Renaissance believed in happiness and pleasure as the aims for life, particularly for the Christian life. Virtue formed only one route to happiness. Happiness supersedes virtue.

Several spiritual traditions and churches also emphasize the promise of happiness to come in the afterlife:

         In Christian orthodoxy, happiness lies elsewhere, a place of original bliss and innocence (the Garden of Eden) or of future joy (Heaven, our eternal and happy home where we will see God face-to-face, or the Promised Land where we will find happiness and complete satisfaction). ĎHeaven is destination and reward,í writes David van Biema, Ďsuccor and relief from earthly trialsí (van Biema 1997: 72). Adds Jeffrey Russell from the University of California at Santa Barbara, Ď[Heaven] is an endless dynamic of joyí (van Biema 1997: 77).

††† Islam views the paradise of afterlife in heaven as a garden of pleasure where the righteous enjoy the highest of spiritual and sensual happiness. Happiness embraces divine pleasure and physical enjoyment.

††† According to many modern philosophers, religious people prize another world and therefore despise this world and feel uncertain in their attitudes toward the world around them. Religion thus dries up and attacks any happiness this world can provide, while promising happiness in a life hereafter Ė which some humanists call Ďpie in the skyí or an Ďopiate of the people.í

††† Plato occupied a compromise position in the battle between happiness in this life and the life to come. In Platoís Republic, Socrates described the man [sic.] at peace with himself as being in perfect balance between the three elements desire, passion, and reason Ė a condition attainable in this life. However, the Phaedo indicates that the true philosopher attains utmost joy only when he retracts from the senses and carnal distractions. The philosopher genuinely experiences his final goal, purity of wisdom, only upon fully quitting the body (Kaplan 1951: 80-83, 301).

††† Hinduism also advocates withdrawal from the world of pleasure. Hindu scriptures suggest spiritually mature people abandon desires, lose their appetite for joys, and withdraw from their senses. The Bhagavad Gita depicts the ideal person as one of discipline, one who acts without worrying about the results of the action, unaffected by praise or rebuke. Actions in prior lives influence the situation of the next life and decide the degree of happiness or unhappiness between lives in the hereafter.

††† The Buddha preached life as suffering. If we accept the intrinsic sorrow of life and observe his teachings Ė for instance, if we practice the virtues of sympathy, compassion, joy, and equanimity Ė we will experience happiness.

Happiness: The Genetic Approach

Behavioral genetics also says something about happiness.

For each of us, our happiness fluctuates within a small range called a Ďset-pointí that our genes largely determine. So concludes Hamer in his review of studies on the role of genes in happiness or misery.

ĎSo many people plan their lives for a distant goal,í says David Lykken. ĎThey believe that if they become C.E.O. or win a gold medal, their lives will rise out of humdrum ordinariness. This isnít so. Thereís a rush of glory and then it fadesí (Gose 1996: A9). The sting of tragedy disperses equally as fast. Christopher Reeve, Lykken adds, probably now feels just as happy as he did before his mishap. Job loss or lottery winning influence happiness only over the short term. People may feel an initial euphoria when good fortune visits them, or a sadness when tragedy strikes unexpectedly, but in time they usually revert to how they felt and saw life before fate popped in. ĎThe ďslings and arrows of outrageous fortuneĒ clearly influence mood,í says Greg Carey, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Colorado, Ďbut long-term equilibration to lifeís ups and downs is partly a function of the slings and arrows of genetic fortuneí (Holden 1996: 1593-1594).

Identical twins (those with the same genetic makeup) attain the same level of happiness 44 percent of the time, according to research by Lykken and Auke Tellegen of the University of Minnesota. Fraternal twins, in comparison Ė those who share genes as do ordinary siblings Ė reach the same level only 8 percent of the time. Hamer leads us through several calculations and says: ĎThese data show that the broad heritability of well-being is 40 to 50%í (Hamer 1996: 125). The studies Hamer reviews assess the happiness of twins over five to ten years, and show the slight impact (2%) of sex, age, race, and marital status.

Other studies show that a personís level of happiness remains stable over many years. Inherited genes account for the majority of this level, though diseases like depression can override the set-point for well-being over the long term.

ĎHow you feel right now is about equally genetic and circumstantial,í concludes Hamer, Ďbut how you will feel on average over the next ten years is fully 80% because of your genesí (Hamer 1996: 125).

Hamer continues by directing our attention to two of the more than 300 known neurotransmitters, dopamine Ė the brainís chemical for pleasure Ė and serotonin, the neurochemical with whose reduced activity misery appears. Neurotransmitters pass information from the synapse or junction between a nerve cell and another nerve cell or a muscle. The nerve cellís bulbous end releases them from storage when an electrical impulse moving along the nerve reaches it. Then they cross the junction to dock at the other nerve cellís receptor Ė like spacecraft docking at a space station Ė and either prompt or inhibit the impulses along the second cell. The first nerve cell reabsorbs excess neurotransmitters, but not necessarily all of them. Those that remain free-floating, according to biology, help create our happy or miserable states of being.

Genes carry the instructions for the construction of neurotransmitters, their receptor and reabsorption portals. They also impart information on such things as their storage and release rates. Hence, genes can influence the prevalence, scarcity, and activity of serotonin and dopamine, and, in turn, whatever behaviors and feelings these neurotransmitters induce. Researchers have found, for instance, that people who differ in the gene that produces part of the D4 dopamine receptor Ė the part that controls the amount of dopamine binding there Ė differ in a parallel way in their moods. Psychologist Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin comments: this is Ďthe first time thereís been a specific connection between a molecular genetic finding and peopleís levels of happinessí (Goleman 1996: B9).

Some scientists think they have located the part of the brain that registers happiness and where the set-point mechanism works. Other developments in neuroscience may shed further light on the biology of happiness.

Reactions to the Genetic Approach

On the surface, a clash looms between religious and scientific accounts of the nature of human happiness. Scientists define happiness as physical well-being, while theologians define it as spiritual or intellectual satisfaction. Religious thinkers seek to understand happiness in the future as well as the present, while scientists concentrate firmly on the here and now.

Spiritual thinkers fear the clash. Is religion doomed in the face of science? Must theologians give up the ghost? They react by bashing science: behavioral genetics completely misses the sacred, spiritual nature of human happiness. It concentrates on mere mechanics. It is the new reductionism.

The media exacerbate this unhelpful conception of behavioral genetics. For example, journalist Sharon Begley emphasizes that several claims for the genetic roots of various behaviors run into trouble because follow-up studies fail to replicate the original research. She points out that one recent claim Ė the connection between a condition of the gene D4DR and an adventurous, excitable personality Ė fails to find support. But she does not mention other claims. Researchers have linked a specific gene to an aspect of thought, for instance: the deletion of the chromosome 7 gene, called LIM-Kinase 1, which disrupts a personís ability to visualize and mentally manipulate parts of objects. On the other hand, the failure of researchers to replicate a study does sound against it. And we should approach with caution those studies for which follow-ups have yet to appear. But it is incorrect that genetic-basis research carries a poor track record and merits scepticism.

Begley also refers to an often-raised suspicion of twin studies, which some of the happiness research draws on. Identical twins frequently dress alike and create a private world for just the two of them. People treat them alike too. Fraternal twins, on the other hand, typically behave no more alike than other siblings. Identicals thus share more influences from their environment, according to biologist Marcus Feldman from Stanford University, which in turn means their happiness levels would show a greater similarity. This criticism of the genetic explanation overlooks a technique employed in twin studies, however, including the one on happiness. Researchers not only look at identical twins reared together, but also at those separated at birth and reared apart. The environments of the subjects in these split-twin studies would differ. The results of such investigations, at least in those concerning well-being, reinforce those conducted with non-split identical twins. Both study designs suggest the influence of genes.

Most of the other objections Begley reports are either incorrect, or trivial. For instance:

         The claim that one gene generates a trait. (Researchers now stress that traits arise from configurations of many genes.)

††† Fraud in one instance (which does not mean they all are fraudulent).

††† Behavioral geneticists do their statistics incorrectly. (They should do them correctly, of course, if their colleagues are to consider their work valid.)

Grant Steen, a medical researcher at the Saint Jude Childrenís Research Hospital in Memphis, reports several sceptical reactions to split-twin studies. They too are trivial. For instance, Steen feels suspicious of statistics derived from one sample of the population (say from white male twins) being applied to another (say female non-twins or black males). Again, a comparison of results from different population groupings deflates this objection.

Other critics say that behavioral geneticists like Hamer try to reduce the holistic human experience of happiness to nothing but the actions of genes, electrical activity, and chemicals. Walter Freeman, for example, says, ĎJoy comes with activities that we share with people we have learned to trust, and that enable us to share meaning across the existential barrier that separates each of us from all others. So happiness is not made by a chemicalí (Freeman 1997: 70). Writes Mark Epstein: ĎTrue happiness is the ability to receive pleasure without grasping and displeasure without condemning, confident in the knowledge that pain and disappointment can be toleratedí (Epstein 1995: 42). ĎItís worse to wake up in the morning without having a larger purpose in life,í says developmental psychologist Carol Ryff of the University of Wisconsin, Ďthan to wake up unhappy. Just feeling good is a poor measure of the quality of a personís lifeí (Goleman 1996: B9).

Conclusion: The Non-Reductionism of Behavioral Genetics

More and more work is emerging to support the genetic program Ė before too long, research may well unravel the complex of genes that produce happiness. Since few doubt that happiness at least builds upon a biochemical base, theology must include this fact in its world view.

But spiritual thinkers Ė and their media supporters Ė need not fear the ousting of theology. They need not brand behavioral genetics the new reductionism. After all, plenty of room exists for spiritual, as well as scientific, approaches to happiness. Remember that Hamerís work suggests genes provide only a percentage of input into behavior. If 80 percent of happiness is, in the long term, due to genes, what about the other 20 percent? And we still move up and down the 80 percent range of our personal set points. ĎThough genes may determine our average set point for happiness, they donít specify where we are within our individual range at any particular point in timeí (Hamer 1996: 126). Our minds, our moods, and our environments can all play a role. As Hamer says, ĎTemperament is what you are born with. Character is what youíve learnedí (Nature vs. Nurture 1998: 10). We arrive in this world with our genes in tact, but we make of them what we will. As our genes represent a point in the process of evolution, so we carry on that process ourselves by living and learning in the world, together with our genes.

Process thought Ďemphasizes the processive or evolutionary nature of [human beings] and the worldí (Cross and Livingstone 1997: 1331). It Ďconceives the world to be a social organism, an independent and interrelated whole, growing towards its satisfaction through a network of mutual influences among which are the persuasive aims of Godí (McGrath 1993: 472). It characterizes reality with the concepts Ďbecoming, change and eventí (McGrath 1993: 472).

We can take this picture of mutual interaction as a model for the process of human knowledge. As our genes, our minds, and our wills act in concord, so should science and religion. By quitting the hostilities and working together, science and religion can produce a better, more complete understanding of us and our world. In the words of this conferenceís theme, such co-operation must Ďcontribute to the common good.í


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