How Genetics Helps Us Understand Human Behavior

How Genetics Helps Us Understand Human Behavior
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  • 0:04 Beyond the Hype
  • 1:00 Why Genetics?
  • 2:10 Dispelling thr Myths
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson demonstrates how physical anthropologists use genetics to better understand the human experience. You'll learn how they combine their knowledge of both biology and the social sciences together to contribute to their field.

Beyond the Hype

Jordan is so tired of news stories that claim to have found the gene that causes a particular condition. The aggression gene! The heart disease gene! The musical talent gene!

Jordan is a physical anthropologist. Her work aims to shed light on the connection between genetics and the human experience. But the news headlines can make it sound like you are either doomed or very lucky depending on which genes you get from the mix. Jordan knows that we are not simply a product of specific genes that turn qualities and characteristics on and off. Our behavior is much more complicated than that. So, set aside the hype and spend some time learning the ways that physical anthropologists use genetic evidence. Those like Jordan dig deeper into this topic in order to understand evolution and the complexity of human behavior.

Why Genetics?

Genetics is the study of heredity and variation in living organisms. In other words, the field looks at how biological traits are passed along from one generation to the next. So, what use is this type of study to a physical anthropologist, like Jordan, who is interested in human beings and culture? Physical anthropologists study genetics to learn how human beings evolved from previous forms of life. They look closely at evolution, the change in populations over time through inherited genetic characteristics. For instance, Jordan might study the genetic process that helped human beings develop their problem-solving skills.

Genetics also helps Jordan understand what we have in common and what is different from other species. For example, if she studies how other primates experience grief, she may notice patterns that can help deepen her understanding of our own species. Jordan will spend time learning the genetic processes involved in evolution. As a result, she may be able to spot trends in demographic groups that might be explained by genetics, such as the incidence of certain diseases that have developed through the course of evolution.

Dispelling the Myths

Yet the newspaper headlines don't begin to cover what Jordan learns in her research. She knows that certain qualities in human beings are coded in our DNA, but not in the simple way the headlines suggest. First of all, characteristics result from the combination of multiple genes. So, when Jordan is investigating trends in disease, she knows that it's not one specific gene alone that influences an outcome, like heart disease.

Secondly, our bodies and minds interact with the environment around us and change as a result. We are affected by both our environment and our genes. That's why it would be impossible for Jordan to know for sure exactly how a human being will turn out, and whether they will actually have a certain disease. She must look for a combination of genes and environmental factors that may all contribute to the development of the illness.

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