Our Genes, Our Choices - 1st Edition - ISBN: 9780123969521, 9780123972019

Our Genes, Our Choices

1st Edition

How Genotype and Gene Interactions Affect Behavior

Authors: David Goldman
eBook ISBN: 9780123972019
Paperback ISBN: 9780123969521
Imprint: Academic Press
Published Date: 1st May 2012
Page Count: 272
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Our Genes, Our Choices: How Genotype and Gene Interactions Affect Behavior — First Prize winner of the 2013 BMA Medical Book Award for Basic and Clinical Sciences — explains how the complexity of human behavior, including concepts of free will, derives from a relatively small number of genes, which direct neurodevelopmental sequence. Are people free to make choices, or do genes determine behavior? Paradoxically, the answer to both questions is "yes," because of neurogenetic individuality, a new theory with profound implications.

Author David Goldman uses judicial, political, medical, and ethical examples to illustrate that this lifelong process is guided by individual genotype, molecular and physiologic principles, as well as by randomness and environmental exposures, a combination of factors that we choose and do not choose.

Written in an authoritative yet accessible style, the book includes practical descriptions of the function of DNA, discusses the scientific and historical bases of genethics, and introduces topics of epigenetics and the predictive power of behavioral genetics.

Key Features

  • First Prize winner of the 2013 BMA Medical Book Award for Basic and Clinical Sciences
  • Poses and resolves challenges to moral responsibility raised by modern genetics and neuroscience
  • Analyzes the neurogenetic origins of human behavior and free will
  • Written by one of the world's most influential neurogeneticists, founder of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics at the National Institutes of Health


Students and researchers involved in human genetics, medical genetics, behavioral genetics and neurogenetics.

Table of Contents

A Note on Gene and Protein Symbols



About the Author

Chapter 1. The Neurogenetic Origins of Behavior

Chapter 2. The Jinn in the Genome

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Some Famous Geneticists, and Why they are Famous

The Jinn of Knowledge and the Jinn of Technology

Revolutions in Culture and Evolution of Genes

Genes, Brain and Individuality

The Neurogenetics of Determinism and Freedom

Chapter 3. 2B or Not 2B?

A Common Gene Knockout Causing Severe Impulsivity

Validating a Human Impulsivity Gene in a Mouse Model

Chapter 4. Stephen Mobley and His X-Chromosome

The Kallikak Effect

Mobley Demands a Genetic Test

Combining Gene and Hormone to Predict Impulsivity

Carrying Kohl to Italy

The State of DNA in Prediction of Violence

Chapter 5. Dial Multifactorial for Murder

A Murder in the Lab

Missing Puzzle Pieces, an Obstacle to Behavioral Reductionism

Why are Some Societies More Violent than Others?

Guns or People?

Can Gun Control Civilize People, and If So, What Does That Mean?

Violent Youth

Chapter 6. Distorted Capacity I

The Inheritance of Impulsivity, and What It Means

Impulsivity Differs from Person to Person and From Species to Species: The Gorilla and the King

Zero-Trial Learning

Impulsivity and Aggression in Context

Measuring Impulsivity and Aggression by Life History

Measuring Impulsivity and Aggression by Experiment

Integrating Experimental and Life History Measures of Impulsivity with Genes and Neural Circuits

Animal Models of Impulsivity and Aggression

Chapter 7. Distorted Capacity II

Impulsivity, Aggression and Neuropsychiatric Disease

Diseases with Disordered Impulse

Disorders of Impulse Control

Chapter 8. Inheritance of Behavior and Genes “For” Behavior

The Debate on the Heritability of Behavior

Genome Determines Reaction Range

Reaction Range: Theory and Reality

Twin Studies: The Controversy and the Method

The Debate on Genes “For” Behavior

People Are Not Monkeys

The Politics of Behavioral Genetics

Questioning the Phenotype: Is Psychiatric Diagnosis Valid?

Chapter 9. The Scientific and Historic Bases of Genethics

Standards of Science and Standards of Evidence

Genethics of Research: Trust, but Verify

Why It Is a Chore to Get a Human Study Approved: A Brief Lesson in Expedience

Are Genetic Studies Harmful?

Genes, Jobs and Groups: Individual and Class Impact

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act

Genethics of Gene Therapy

Group Consent or Individual Consent?

Autonomy: Pretense and Realism

Chapter 10. The World is Double Helical

Recipes for DNA Analysis

What Is Polymorphism?

Protein Polymorphism

DNA Polymorphism

Measured Ancestry

Chapter 11. The Stochastic Brain


Cell Assembly

The Protein Interactome: Six Degrees of Molecular Separation


Snowflakes and Neurons

Brain Genes: Cascade Effects, Chaotic Effects and Great Attractors

Brain Assembly

Use It or Lose It

The Fractal Nature of Individual Neurons

Higher Order Brain Structure and Randomness

The Stochastic Basis of Behavioral Intelligence: Guided Randomness

Rules that Guide the Chaos of Brain Development and Evolution

Genetic Individuality, Chaos and Sense of Self

Chapter 12. Reintroducing Genes and Behavior

Behavioral Prediction, a Science Imperfect

Commercialization of Genetic Behavioral Prediction

The Future of Genetic Behavioral Prediction

A Gene Causing Anemia

A Gene Causing Self-Mutilation

A Gene Causing Mental Retardation

What is a Genetic Test?

Chapter 13. Warriors and Worriers

A Common Gene “For” Cognitive Function

Executive Cognitive Function

Cognitive Flexibility


Warriors and Worriers

Chapter 14. How Many Genes Does it Take to Make a Behavior?

Epistatic and Polygenic Models of Behavior: On Epistasis

Bayesian Reasoning: How to Use Prior Probability

Behavior and the Single Gene

Chapter 15. The Genesis and Genetics of Sexual Behavior

Biological Determinants of Sexual Behavior

We Are Love Machines

Sneaker Males and Other Alternative Reproductive Strategies

Slaves to Sex: The Difficulty of Turning Off the Sex Drive

A Better Sex Life: How People Modulate and Harness Their Sex Drives

Forbidden Pleasures: Why Are Some People Turned On by Shoes?

Sex and Psychosis

Homosexuality and the “Gay Gene”

Elliot Gershon and the In-Depth Family Paradigm

Discovery of the “Gay Gene”

Inheritance of Homosexuality

How Prevalent is Homosexuality?

“Father Knows Best”, but He Didn’t Tell You

The Future of the Genetics of Sexuality: A Bright and Shining Path

Chapter 16. Gene By Environment Interaction

Nature, In Extremis

Nurture, In Extremis

Asking the Right Question about Nature/Nurture

Gene-Guided Intervention

What is a Gene By Environment Interaction?

Genes that Modulate Stress Resilience

Imaging Genetics: A Window into the Brain

Intermediate Phenotypes and Endophenotypes

Imaging Genetics and Stress Resiliency

Gene By Environment: Back to Complex Clinical Outcomes

Genocide and Resiliency in Rwanda

Animal Models of Gene By Stress Interaction

Love, in Monkeys?

Chapter 17. The Epigenetic Revolution

An Imprint of Experience in the DNA

Types of Epigenetic Imprint

Wiping the Epigenetic Slate (Nearly) Clean …

… But Not Quite Clean

Evolutionary Sculpting of CpG Islands

How to Measure Epigenetic Variation

First Look at the “Depth” of the Human Genome

Chapter 18. DNA on Trial

Is Everyone as Free to Choose?

Impulsivity and Impulsive Choice

A Rare Gene for Impulsivity

The Legal Crucible for Genotypic Prediction

New Revolutions in Genotypic Prediction

Ideology and the Genetics of Behavioral Prediction

Chapter 19. Parents and Children

A Brief Manual of Parenting

Free Will: The Conundrum of Behavioral Causality

Exorcising the Specter of Genetic Behavioral Determinism

A Little Personality Goes a Long Way

Different Niches for Different Folks

Chapter 20. Summing Up Genetic Predictors of Behavior

Suggested Reading

List of Figures




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About the Author

David Goldman

David Goldman

David Goldman Dr. Goldman received his B.S. from Yale University in 1974. He received his M.D. degree in 1978 and completed residency training in psychiatry in 1979, both at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Dr. Goldman joined the NIAAA in 1979 and has been chief of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics since 1991. Throughout his career, Dr. Goldman has focused on the identification of genetic factors responsible for inherited differences in behavior. His laboratory is currently exploring the genetics of alcoholism, substance abuse, and related health problems.

Affiliations and Expertise

Laboratory of Neurogenetics, NIAAA, Rockville MD


BMA Medical Book Award 2013: Basic and Clinical Sciences - First Prize, British Medical Association


"Our genes, our choices’ is thought provoking and well argued…With its witty writing style, many personal accounts and analogies to books and movies, ‘Our genes, our choices’ is far from being a textbook and should be of interest to a wide range of readers." --Human Genetics online, October 2012

"...the complexity of human behavior and a person's ability to choose is explained as deriving from a relatively small number of genes which direct neurodevelopmental sequence. The author uses judicial, political, medical, and ethical examples to illustrate that this lifelong process is guided by individual genotype, molecular and physiologic principles, as well as by randomness and environmental exposures we choose and do not choose." --Doody.com, April 2013

"In a bold, new integrative treatment of the confusing facts and fictions about human behavior and genetic determinism, David Goldman has provided a user-friendly death to determinism and a rebirth of genetic probabilism. He uses his breadth and depth of neuroscience experience to optimize the necessary reductionism for understanding violence, impulsivity, depression, anxiety, and personality variations while explaining the newest technologies of the researcher with access to the laboratories of the National Institute of Health and his colleagues. He bravely confronts the numerous ethical dilemmas that arise when dealing with new knowledge about our genetic makeup and their implications for good and evil. Drawing on his personal exposure to mental disease in his own family, his sensitive and energized writing reminds me of Sylvia Nasar’s explication of "A Beautiful Mind", now giving us a beautiful genome from a self-described "behavioral genomicist." We are treated to an insider’s knowledge about the work and hoopla about a gay gene and what may be a better conceptualization closer to the facts. Freed from the constraints of journal writing with its 3 to 6 page shackles, Goldman tackles the utility of race as a construct without racism, communist ideology in science, insurance discrimination against the mentally ill, free will, and even pedophilia. His work provides essential reading across the humanities, social and medical sciences, and the courtroom. As fascinating as any whodunit, he tries to account for the origins of our behavioral outcomes, for good or for evil or for mental anguish –was it genes, was it environment or culture, or bad luck, or a conspiracy among some subset of culprits? I won’t give it away –read the book." --Irving I. Gottesman Ph.D., Hon.FRCPsych, Bernstein Professor in Adult Psychiatry & Senior Fellow, Department of Psychology University of Minnesota & Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology Emeritus, University of Virginia

"Our Genes, Our Choices grows out of a National Public Radio series led by its author. It makes a compelling case for the relevance of genetics to many vexing social problems that we face today, including murder and addiction. This intriguing book reflects the unique vision of David Goldman, M.D., Director of the Neurogenetics Laboratory of the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. As is evident in the book, Dr. Goldman brings a keen intellect, critical thinking, entertaining sense of humor, and a remarkable breadth of culturalreferents. This book brings ones into the real world challenges of molecular genetics, the technologies, the administrative and ethical challenges, and the startling and rapid progress. It highlight real opportunities to shed light on a wide range of maladaptive behaviors, but it also highlights the many technical and conceptual challenges that currently limit the impact of the advances in psychiatric genetics that have been made to this point. Following the path laid out in this book, one wrestles with many fundamental questions of life. For example, if so much of our behavior is an expression of genetic predispositions expressed as we react to environmental stimuli, how can we really be said to have free will? If we do not have free will, how can we be culpable for our behavior? Does being predisposed to murder absolve one from criminal responsibility or point toward longer prison sentences due to increased risk for repeating this behavior? Goldman provides guidance that is both wise, cautious, and entertaining in wrestling with these and other thorny issues. Our Genes, Our Choices is an engaging and important book as we seek to understand the broad implications of recent advances in genetics for society. --John H. Krystal, M.D., Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Professor of Translational Research, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine

"Goldman’s is pure gold in this endearing and informative blend of personal insights and polished professionalism that reflects on the basic nature of human genetics and individuality. Goldman literally lives and breaths his research. His passion for the topic comes through with good humor while providing a didactic romp through the complexities of both our genetics and our brains. Entertaining and informative for the expert and hobbiest alike, this is a must read for those who enjoy contemplating unanswerable questions such as what makes the human brain so unique and how behavior and cognition are controlled, or not as the case may be. At a time when anti-intellectualism is at its height, Goldman demonstrates a clear command of his material nicely interwoven with every man stories and clever literary references. There is truly something for everyone here. Makes the case that understanding ourselves is our greatest hope of surviving ourselves, (i.e. we cannot evolve fast enough to meet the rate of exponential challenge growth) Despite it being self-evidently obvious to most of us, Goldman is willing to articulate that testosterone is actualy a contributing factor to behavioral expression, particularly those that involve aberrant impulsivity such as aggression, murder, suicide. But he also does not loose sight of the importance of context, environment, experience, culture, pointing out that the predictive value of each is slight, but nonetheless there is genuine predictive value. If we have a modest predictor of cancer risk its on the front page of the New York Times, but people are much more squeamish about predictors of human behavior and Goldman helps reduce the aversion with his balanced, nuanced and yet accessible presentation. He further exploits his refined analyses to reexamine the panorama of mental health disorders and weave into their description and interpretation a discussion of how impulse control and disorders thereof are a common component of multiple diseases. This serves two purposes, it reminds us that there is a thin line between normal and so-called aberrant thinking and behavior, and that many mental health disorders have common underlying phenotypes or are in fact many diseases with one name. Additional gems include Goldmans discussion of his own experiences in the legal system and why the issue of genetic control of behavior (read criminality) is a real and tangible one that can change the course of lives today, as opposed to some imagined science fiction future. He reminds us of eugenics and the harm done in the past, but alerts us to the current risks, and benefits, including genetic studies and what they do and do not buy us. A valuable review of the current technology used to study your genes and use them for good or evil, assures the reader is fully informed and no portion of the science is left under the mantle of "magic" or too complicated for the simple lay person to understand. He leaves no subject untouched, tackling gun control, shoe fetishes and sex addiction alike, even epigenetics, the newest of the new in the study of genetic control of behavior are subjects for which Goldman is well versed and nicely capable of conveying to the reader. --Margaret McCarthy Ph.D., Professor, Departments of Physiology, Psychiatry and Program in Neuroscience, University of Maryland School of Medicine

Ratings and Reviews