Genes, Gestation, and Life Experiences
A Critical Comparison of Concepts and Methods Used in Analyses of Biosocial Development

Project Summary:

Everyone "knows" that genes and environment interact, but, in this "Age of DNA," genetics is often seen as the way to expose the important or root causes of behavior and disease or as the best route to effective therapeutic technologies. Several scientific currents, however, are bringing back into the picture environmental contributions in the development of behavioral and medical conditions over any individual's lifetime. This trend provides a wealth of potential issues and case material for science and technology studies (STS).
The particular project proposed here centers on a comparison of the questions, concepts, and methods of three fields: Research on gestational programming, which has identified associations between nutrition during critical periods in utero and diseases of late life, including heart disease, diabetes, and death by suicide; Life events and difficulties research, which has exposed relationships between severe events and difficulties over a person's life course and the onset of mental or physical illness; and Reciprocal causation models of IQ development in which there is a matching of traits and the changing environments in which traits develop so as to allow both high heritability and large gains from one generation to the next.
These fields have been selected so as to expose the complexities of analyzing environmental contributions in development-in different ways the fields complicate the persistent contrasts: inborn and unchangeable versus environmental and changeable; and biological versus social. The project aims to show how the fields challenge both sides in longstanding debates about biological determinism and can also take discussion beyond the general dictates of developmental systems theory. The impact of the study will derive from two kinds of publications:
1) Web-based teaching material and articles for a range of audiences in the tradition of critical commentary by scientists and some STS scholars on genetics and biological determinism, which will seek to stimulate deeper discussions about environmental contributions in development. These publications will also draw the attention of STS scholars to the area of environment and development in the Age of DNA; and
2) Publications specifically for STS audiences illustrating the approach of entering the arena of possible STS questions in this general area through study of the concepts and methods used for analyzing developmental processes.
Funding is requested to support research over three semesters and two summers. The first phase of the study focuses on the central researchers in the three fields-Barker (Gestational Programming), Brown and Harris (Life Events and Difficulties), and Flynn (Reciprocal Causation). Review and analysis of published literature will be supplemented by interviews with these researchers on key points in their conceptual-methodological development. The second phase of the study further elucidates the complexities of the environmental contributions in development through interviews with behavioral geneticists, scientific commentators on biological determinism, and other researchers concerning their views on the three fields and the reception of these fields in the United States.

NSF Grant SES-0327696 to Peter Taylor, 2003-5