Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: Genetics education, genetic determinism, and the trickle-down effect

Written By Johanna Ahola-Launonen

University of Helsinki

In bioethical discussion, it is often debated whether or not some studies espouse genetic determinism. A recent study by Tuomas Aivelo and Anna Uitto[1] give important insight to the matter. They studied main genetics education textbooks used in Finnish upper secondary school curricula and compared the results to other similar studies from e.g. Swedish and English textbooks. The authors found that gene models used in the textbooks are based on old “Mendelian law”-based gene models not compatible with current knowledge on gene-gene-environment-interaction. The authors also identified several types of genetic determinism, that is, weak determinism and strong determinism, which both were present in the textbooks. The somewhat intuitive remark is that genetic education has to have a strong trickle-down effect on how people understand genes, and that we should be careful not to maintain these flawed conceptions. Furthermore, it would be useful to separate the discussion on genetic determinism into the terms “weak” and “strong”, of which the strong version is undoubtedly rarer while the weak is more prevalent.

As Aivelo and Uitto state, the genetic determinism dispute, that is, how much genes actually determine us, shows how important genetics is for the understanding of  what being human means and how many connections it has to social and cultural issues. It is usual that teachers or scientists deny that they would espouse genetic determinism. However, in many countries the studies reveal that the textbooks or the teacher’s attitudes reveal strong genetic determinism.

Aivelo and Uitto separate strong and weak determinism.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.