Those who have been agreeing with E.O. Wilson that social science is going to be increasingly driven by biology have just gotten a new prime exhibit. The short allele form of a specific gene, 5-HTTLPR, is known to be associated with a constellation of behaviors (in this case, risky behaviors). The researchers can select samples not on the old-fashioned basis (e.g., family income below the poverty line, high school dropout) but on a DNA analysis determining who does and doesn’t have the short allele form. And then the evaluators of a social program can see if exposure to the program can reduce the expression of the genetic risk factor.
Technically, it’s a cool study. It can also produce useful results for designing effective interventions. But you do see the handwriting on the wall, right? If you can identify the presence of the short allele form of 5-HTTLPR for the study you could do it for, well, every student coming into 7th grade. And why not, especially when the day comes (not long from now) when we don’t have just one gene that’s of interest, but half a dozen, or a dozen, or a hundred that are of interest, and DNA analyses are cheap. And if there’s a database with a few thousand of these DNA samples, why not take a look at the the frequencies of the short allele form of 5-HTTLPR in white little boys and black little boys? The male offspring of poor women and affluent women? Somebody’s bound to do it, and sometimes the frequencies are bound to be different. And then somebody will publish those results, and we will be in the midst of a revolution in the social sciences that will open up a discussion so different from the one we have now that it is impossible to envision. I’m looking forward to it (probably my own short allele form of 5-HTTLPR speaking), but a little nervously. Until now, I’ve just been able to say, “This is what will come down the pike.” With this study on the table, I have to change my tense.
UPDATE: A friend who actually knows something about genetics pointed out to me that, not to put too fine a point on it, I am clueless about the genetics of sex differences. Yes, he says, boys and girls undoubtedly have genetically different propensities for risk-taking behaviors, but it has to come from “sex-limited” genes.” Never knew that. So I have had the original post airbrushed, deleting the offending references to comparisons of boys and girls, and you should forget you ever read them.