Various Thoughts On
Genes vs. Free-agency

Nature vs. Nurture

Thoughts from various authors
within a Church & Science e-mail list

There may be a great deal of our behavior that's programmed by DNA, but we have the power to override the programming. If we didn't, we could not survive in conditions unanticipated by our genes, and we'd be creatures of instinct rather than of thought.

Our thoughts can't be illusions granted us by our genes; they arise, flow, and change more quickly than the decoding of DNA would ever allow, and the infinite variability of our lives is more than DNA could ever code.

DNA might have given Bach his creative abilities, but it couldn't write his preludes and fugues for him. I think that it's in unexpected and unexpectable acts of creativity that we demonstrate most clearly our agency.

My height, appearance, abilities, sexuality, personality, and even religiosity may be strongly or entirely determined by my genes. What I do with them isn't determined by my genes. I can decide I don't like my personality and make changes in it. I can decide to ignore my abilities and let them atrophy. I can force my appetites into a narrow range, or I can deny them altogether. I can direct my religiosity at the god of my choosing, through the devotions of my choosing.

My poor genes are reduced to passengers on an automated ship that they programmed, hurtling through a space they can't understand at speeds they can't imagine, forced to rely on the ship to get them where they want to go and unable to interfere once the journey begins. They may occasionally try to go into manual override, but then the asteroids come shooting by so thick and so fast that they lose their nerve, cover their eyes, and hope they survive to tell their kids about it.

Genes traveling in slower, more settled vessels can afford to keep their hands on the tiller, guiding their little boats about the pond without requiring the boats to think at all. But we are space-ships, not sail boats, and our course is uncharted. Biological destiny may determine our space-worthiness and influence our course, but that's as far as it can go.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
Home / For Latter-day Saints