Are We Slaves To Our Genes?


RRP £22.99


Denis Alexander


There is a common misconception that our genomes – all unique, except for those in identical twins – have the upper hand in controlling our destiny. The latest genetic discoveries, however, do not support that view. Although genetic variation does influence differences in various human behaviours to a greater or lesser degree, most of the time this does not undermine our genuine free will. Genetic determinism comes into play only in various medical conditions, notably some psychiatric syndromes. Denis Alexander here demonstrates that we are not slaves to our genes. He shows how a predisposition to behave in certain ways is influenced at a molecular level by particular genes. Yet a far greater influence on our behaviours is our world-views that lie beyond science – and that have an impact on how we think the latest genetic discoveries should, or should not, be applied. Written in an engaging style, Alexander’s book offers tools for understanding and assessing the latest genetic discoveries critically.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Date: 01 October 2020
ISBN: 9781108566520


‘Denis Alexander has a rare skill. A first-rate scientist, working on fascinating problems of both intellectual and moral importance, he is able to speak to the general public in ways that are clear, without the slightest hint of condescension. At the cutting-edge of the science of genetics, Alexander takes us through the implications for nearly everything, from putting on weight to church attendance!  Read and learn from his book. Wonder at this incredible world in which we live and which we are now starting to understand.’

Prof. Michael Ruse, Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University

‘Here is a feast overflowing with an abundance and nourishment from genes, genomes, and genetics – passions about DNA as a blueprint for life, the Nature versus Nurture debate updated by how everything interacts with everything all the time, and genes in the context of mental health, education, intelligence, body shape, and religious and political allegiances. But there are thornier issues; sexual orientation, free will and genetic techniques aimed at human enhancement with aspirations that reflect a slavery to the god-like powers of genetics outreaching modern science. A splendidly accessible read, if at times daunting in its implications.’

Sir Brian Heap CBE FRS, former Master, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge

‘Genetics is generally considered the most significant field in contemporary science for addressing, not only the most important questions in medical science bearing on the treatment of disease, but also our attempts, more widely, to understand human behaviour. It is no surprise, therefore, that it should also pose profound questions for how we understand human identity and agency. This superb book is, quite simply, the most scientifically informed and deep-thinking discussion of the key questions posed by genetics on the market. It is also lucid and accessible. Not only is this an invaluable resource for students and academics, it is essential reading for all those who have found themselves wondering, ‘Did my genes make me do it?’, ‘How far is my personality, the challenges I face and my orientation to others determined by my genes?’ and ‘What does all this mean for who I am?’   It is unusual for a book on science to be quite such an absorbing and informative read and I could not recommend it more highly!’

Prof. Alan Torrance, Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology, St. Andrews University

‘This book is lucid and erudite, humorous and illuminating, sensitive to history and brilliantly up-to-date. It is also timely – on hand at the right moment to include seriously impressive results from genome-wide association studies (GWAS) that stress how myriad genes each make tiny contributions to forming us as persons. Searches for single gene-behaviour links have been abandoned. Genes, environments and minds interact inseparably to influence the course of our lives. Dr Alexander really helps us to understand more about ourselves, to celebrate our genetics and to wonder at the sheer richness of being a multi-faceted human.’

Graeme Finlay, The University of Aukland

‘A fascinating tour of behavioural genetics by a leading figure in the field, culminating in an impressive case for the existence of free will. Along the way, we are treated to highly accessible, illuminating discussions of such topics as mental health, intelligence, personality and personality disorders, religiosity, political commitments, and sexual orientation.’

Prof. Alfred Mele, William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University

‘Here is a finely balanced, well-researched, insightful discussion of one of the most complex and delicate topics of our day. Dr. Alexander distills current research in behavioral genetics into just what we need in order to understand and interpret our genetic heritage in the context of a plastic, innovative, responsive organism developing in a rich and changing environment. This holistic view ought long ago to have replaced the wrongheaded ‘nature vs. nurture’ paradigm in the public mindset. This book orients us aright, equips us to understand (and critique!) the science media, and allays any fears that our DNA threatens precious human thought and decision.’

Prof. David Lahti, Department of Biology, Queens College, City University of New York

‘This lucid book, written by a molecular biologist who also defends the existence of free will, challenges some widely held misconceptions about the influence of genes on human behaviour. The author insightfully criticizes unduly reductionistic and deterministic uses of genetics in the explanation of human behaviour and argues that stark nature-nurture and genes-environment dichotomies are explanatorily unhelpful. The book is a thought-provoking rejoinder to the kind of crude genetic determinism that is still widespread in popular discourse about genetics.’

Prof. Christian List, Professor of Philosophy and Political Science, London School of Economics, and author of ‘Why Free Will is Real’ (Harvard University Press, 2019)

‘We hear constantly about genes and their importance in making us who we are, in body and mind. But between our genes and ourselves stretch chains of cause and effect whose intertwining, with each other and our many environments, can be extraordinarily complex. In this wonderful book, Denis Alexander explains lucidly and engagingly how this complexity comes about and why, once we understand it, we see why claims for the determinative power of genes should be handled with extreme caution.’

Prof. Gregory Radick, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Leeds

‘How our genomes contribute to who we are is at the heart of 21st century biology. Denis Alexander helps us to think well about the extent to which our genes define us by making a complicated topic accessible and personal. He avoids the unfortunate sort of genetic reductionism so popular today. ‘Are We Slaves to Our Genes?’ will be helpful to anyone who wants to be a thoughtful citizen in this new era of human genetics.’

Prof. Jeff Hardin, Raymond E. Keller Professor and Chair, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Wisconsin-Madison