Monday, January 02, 2012

Our genes and our behavior, a paradigm shift in our understanding

I thought it would be interesting to pass on two recent items I've come across. The first is the paper by Schultz et al. (also, see commentary by Wade.) that challenges some of the leading theories of social behavior (that stress environment, larger groups sizes forcing larger more intelligent brains, stepwise progression to complexity,etc.) to argue that genetic determinants force primate species, including ours, into whatever social structures they inherit.

Compare this with the proposed article from Behavioral and Brain Sciences "Behavior genetics and post genomics", by Charney (PDF download here), which points to the much more tortuous road from genotype to phenotype. Here is his abstract:
The science of genetics is undergoing a paradigm shift. Recent discoveries, including the activity of retrotransposons, the extent of copy number variations, somatic and chromosomal mosaicism, and the nature of the epigenome as a regulator of DNA expressivity, are challenging a series of dogmas concerning the nature of the genome and the relationship between genotype and phenotype. DNA, once held to be the unchanging template of heredity, now appears subject to a good deal of environmental change; considered to be identical in all cells and tissues of the body, there is growing evidence that somatic mosaicism is the normal human condition; and treated as the sole biological agent of heritability, we now know that the epigenome, which regulates gene expressivity, can be inherited via the germline. These developments are particularly significant for behavior genetics for at least three reasons: First, these phenomena appear to be particularly prevalent in the human brain, and likely are involved in much of human behavior; second, they have important implications for the validity of heritability and gene association studies, the methodologies that largely define the discipline of behavior genetics; and third, they appear to play a critical role in development during the perinatal period, and in enabling phenotypic plasticity in offspring in particular. I examine one of the central claims to emerge from the use of heritability studies in the behavioral sciences, the principle of "minimal shared maternal effects," in light of the growing awareness that the maternal perinatal environment is a critical venue for the exercise of adaptive phenotypic plasticity. This consideration has important implications for both developmental and evolutionary biology.

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