Genetics and Behavior

Chromosomes and Genes

Chromosomes contain genetic material that can determine a person’s characteristics.

Learning Objectives

Explain the role chromosomes play in carrying genetic information

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Chromosomes are structures in the nucleus of a cell containing DNA coiled around histone proteins.
  • All animals have some number of chromosomes, which transmit genetic material. Human beings have 46 chromosomes (23 pairs).
  • Humans have two types of chromosomes: autosomes and sex chromosomes.
  • Chromosomal abnormalities can result in genetic conditions such as Down syndrome.

Key Terms

  • chromosome: A structure in the cell nucleus that contains DNA, histone protein, and other structural proteins.
  • gene: A unit of heredity; a segment of DNA or RNA transmitted from one generation to the next, carrying genetic information such as the sequence of amino acids for a protein.
  • autosome: Any chromosome that is not a sex chromosome.

Chromosomes are structures in the nucleus of a cell containing DNA, histone protein, and other structural proteins. Chromosomes also contain genes, most of which are made up of DNA and RNA.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, determines whether our eyes are blue or brown, how tall we will be, and even our preference for certain types of behavior. Known as our “genetic code,” it is shaped like a double helix, made of sequences of nucleic acids attached to a sugar phosphate backbone. Genes are subsections of DNA molecules linked together that create a particular characteristic.

Each chromosome is made up of a single DNA molecule coiled around histone proteins. Research dating back to the 1800s shows that every living creature has a specific set of chromosomes in the nucleus of each of its cells.


Human chromosome structure: Chromosomes are made up of a variety of gene sequences. By studying chromosomes and genes, scientists are able to determine the genetic basis for many diseases.

Human chromosomes are divided into two types—autosomes and sex chromosomes. Some genetic traits are linked to a person’s sex and therefore passed on by the sex chromosomes. The autosomes contain the remainder of a person’s genetic information. All human beings have 23 pairs of chromosomes by which genetic material is developed and characteristically demonstrated; 22 of these are autosomes, while the remaining pair (either XX, female, or XY, male) represents a person’s sex chromosomes. These 23 pairs of chromosomes work together to create the person we ultimately become.

Chromosomal abnormalities can occur during fetal development if something goes wrong during the replication of the cells. Common abnormalities include Down syndrome (caused by an extra chromosome #21), Klinefelter syndrome (caused by an extra X chromosome), and Turner syndrome (caused by a missing X chromosome). Genetic counseling is available for families in order to determine if any abnormalities exist that may be passed along to offspring. Many chromosomal abnormalities are of psychological importance, with substantial impacts on mental processes; for example, Down syndrome can cause mild to moderate intellectual disabilities.

As science advances, the ability to manipulate chromosomes is becoming more realized. Cloning is an example of taking chromosomal and genetic material and creating a new animal, and was first successfully achieved in the famous example of Dolly the sheep. There is much controversy surrounding the manipulation of chromosomes in human beings, with many people believing it to be unethical.


Dolly the sheep: The first successfully cloned animal. Chromosomal and genetic manipulation are controversial topics.

Gene-Environment Correlations: Nature or Nurture?

Genetic expression can be influenced by various social factors, as well as environmental factors, from light and temperature to exposure to chemicals.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the relationship between genes and environment

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Today it is generally accepted that nature and nurture work in tandem to create the people we ultimately become.
  • Adoption and twin studies show that both nature and nurture are factors in human development.
  • The environment in which a person is raised can trigger expressions of behavior for which that person is genetically predisposed; genetically identical people raised in different environments may exhibit different behavior.
  • Three types of gene -environment correlations (rGE) exist: passive (ambiguous correlation), evocative (one factor invokes a response in the other), and active (one factor influences a preference for another).

Key Terms

  • gene-environment correlation: A relationship in which exposure to environmental conditions correlates with an individual’s genotype.
  • phenotype: The observable expression of a gene.

Our genetic destiny is not necessarily written in stone; it can be influenced by several factors, such as social factors, as well as environmental influences among which we live, including anything from light and temperature to exposure to chemicals. The environment in which a person is raised can trigger the expression of behavior for which a person is genetically predisposed, while the same person raised in a different environment may exhibit different behavior.

Long-standing debates have taken place over the idea of which factor is more important, genes or environment. Is a person destined to have a particular outcome in life because of his or her genetic makeup, or can the environment (and the people in it) work to change what might be considered “bad” genes? Today, it is generally agreed upon that neither genes nor environment work alone; rather, the two work in tandem to create the people we ultimately become.

Environmental elements like light and temperature have been shown to induce certain changes in genetic expression; additionally, exposure to drugs and chemicals can significantly affect how genes are expressed. People often inherit sensitivity to the effects of various environmental risk factors, and different individuals may be differently affected by exposure to the same environment in medically significant ways. For example, sunlight exposure has a much stronger influence on skin cancer risk in fair-skinned humans than in individuals with an inherited tendency for darker skin. The color of a person’s skin is largely genetic, but the influence of the environment will affect these genes in different ways.

Gene-environment correlations, known as rGE, can be explained in 3 particular ways—passive, evocative, or active.

Passive Gene-Environment Correlations

In passive gene-environment correlation, an association exists between a person’s genetic makeup and the environment in which he or she is raised. In other words, the person’s environment, particularly in the case of children, is largely determined by the parent’s genetic characteristics. Parents create a home environment that is influenced by their own heritable characteristics. When the children’s own genotype influences their behavior or cognitive outcomes, the result can be a misleading relationship between environment and outcome. For example, an intelligent parent is likely to create a home environment rich in educational materials and experience. Since intelligence is moderately heritable, it can be argued that intelligence in the child is inherited rather than a factor of the home environment created by the parents. It is relatively unclear whether the genetic or environmental factors had more to do with the child’s development.

Evocative Gene-Environment Correlations

Evocative gene-environment correlation happens when an individual’s (heritable) behavior evokes an environmental response. For example, the association between marital conflict and depression may reflect the tensions that arise when engaging with a depressed spouse rather than a causal effect of marital conflict on risk for depression.

Active Gene-Environment Correlations

In active gene-environment correlation, the person’s genetic makeup may lead them to select particular environments. For example, a shy person is likely to choose quiet activities and less boisterous environments than an extroverted individual. He or she may be more likely to spend time at the library than at a dance club.

Adoption and Twin Studies in the Nature vs. Nurture Debate

Adoption and twin studies can help make sense of the influence of genes and the environment. Studies of adult twins are used to investigate which traits are heritable. Identical twins share the same genotype, meaning their genetic makeup is the same. Twins raised apart tend to be similar in intelligence and, in some cases, life events and circumstance, when studied years later, even when raised separately.

However, researchers have discovered that the phenotype (or the observable expression of a gene) of identical twins grows apart as they age. In adoption studies, identical twins raised by different families can give insight into the nature-versus-nurture debate. Since the child is being raised by parents who are genetically different from his or her biological parents, the influence of the environment shows in how similar the child is to his or her adoptive parents or siblings. Adoption studies make a strong case for the influence of environment, whereas twin studies make a strong case for genetic influence.

The Influence of Genes on Behavior

Genetic makeup has a large role in determining human behavior.

Learning Objectives

Characterize the field of behavioral genetics

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Classical, or Mendelian, genetics examines how genes are passed from one generation to the next.
  • Behavioral genetics examines the role of genetic and environmental influences on animal (including human) behavior.
  • There are many ways to manipulate genetic makeup, such as cross-breeding to achieve certain characteristics.
  • It is difficult to ascertain whether genetics (“nature”) or the environment (“nurture”) has a stronger influence on behavior. It is generally believed that human behavior is determined by complex interactions of both nature and nurture.

Key Terms

  • behavioral genetics: The field of study that examines the role of genetics in animal (including human) behavior; often involves the nature-versus-nurture debate.
  • ethology: The scientific study of human and animal behavior.
  • genetics: The branch of biology that deals with the transmission and variation of inherited characteristics, particularly chromosomes and DNA.

The influence of genes on behavior has been well established in the scientific community. To a large extent, who we are and how we behave is a result of our genetic makeup. While genes do not determine behavior, they play a huge role in what we do and why we do it.

Behavioral Genetics

Behavioral genetics studies heritability of behavioral traits, and it overlaps with genetics, psychology, and ethology (the scientific study of human and animal behavior). Genetics plays a large role in when and how learning, growing, and development occurs. For example, although environment has an effect on the walking behavior of infants and toddlers, children are unable to walk at all before an age that is predetermined by their genome. However, while the genetic makeup of a child determines the age range for when he or she will begin walking, environmental influences determine how early or late within that range the event will actually occur.


Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics: Mendel’s work with pea plants demonstrated that certain traits follow particular patterns.

Classical Genetics

Classical, or Mendelian, genetics examines how genes are passed from one generation to the next, as well as how the presence or absence of a gene can be determined via sexual reproduction. Gregor Mendel is known as the father of the field of genetics, and his work with plant hybridization (specifically pea plants) demonstrated that certain traits follow particular patterns. This is referred to as the law of Mendelian inheritance.

Genes can be manipulated by selective breeding, which can have an enormous impact on behavior. For example, some dogs are bred specifically to be obedient, like golden retrievers; others are bred to be protective, like German shepards. In another example, Seymour Benzer discovered he could breed certain fruit flies with others to create distinct behavioral characteristics and change their circadian rhythms.

The Influence of Behavior on Genes

Behavior can influence genetic expression in humans and animals by activating or deactivating genes.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the ways in which behavior can influence genes

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Drug use, environmental exposure, and eating habits have all been linked to changes in gene expression. While some such influences are harmless or even beneficial, others can be extremely detrimental. Researchers hope to identify these behaviors and their effects.
  • EEG and PET scans show psychologists how certain behaviors trigger reactions in the brain, which can lead to the discovery of certain determinant genes, such as those that influence addictive behaviors.
  • Exposure of a fetus to alcohol and drugs can lead to a host of developmental problems after birth, the most serious of which is fetal alcohol syndrome.

Key Terms

  • gene: A unit of heredity; a segment of DNA or RNA that is transmitted from one generation to the next and that carries genetic information such as the sequence of amino acids for a protein.
  • fetal alcohol syndrome: Any of a spectrum of birth defects resulting from excessive alcohol consumption by the mother during pregnancy.

Behavior can have an impact on genetic makeup, even as early as the prenatal period. It is important to understand the implications of behavior on genetic makeup in order to reduce negative environmental and behavioral influences on genes.

EEG and PET scans have the ability to show psychologists how certain behaviors trigger reactions in the brain. This has led to the discovery of specific genes, such as those that influence addictive behaviors. A variety of behaviors have been shown to influence gene expression, including—but not limited to—drug use, exposure to the elements, and dietary habits.

Drugs and Alcohol

Prenatal exposure to certain substances, particularly drugs and alcohol, has detrimental effects on a growing fetus. The most serious consequences of prenatal drug or alcohol exposure involve newborn addiction and fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Fetal alcohol syndrome affects both physical and mental development, damaging neurons within the brain and often leading to cognitive impairment and below-average weight. Exposure to drugs and alcohol can also influence the genes of children and adults. Addiction is thought to have a genetic component, which may or may not be caused by a genetic mutation resulting from drug or alcohol use.


Temperature exposure can affect gene expression. For example, in Himalayan rabbits, the genetic expressions of fur, skin, and eyes are regulated by temperature. In the warm areas of the rabbits’ bodies, the fur lacks pigment due to gene inactivity and turns white. On the extremities of the rabbits’ bodies (nose, ears and feet) the gene is activated and therefore pigmented (usually black).


Himalayan rabbit: Exposure to cold temperatures activates pigment-producing genes in the rabbit’s extremities.


Light exposure also influences genetic expression. Thomas Hunt Morgan performed an experiment in which he exposed some caterpillars to light and kept others in darkness. Those exposed to certain light frequencies had corresponding wing colors when they became butterflies (for example, red produced vibrant wing color, whereas blue led to pale wings). Darkness resulted in the palest wing color, leading him to conclude that light exposure influenced the genes of the butterflies. In this manner a caterpillar’s behavior can directly affect gene expression; a caterpillar that actively seeks out light will appear different as a butterfly than one that avoids it.


Lack of proper nutrition in early childhood is yet another factor that can lead to the alteration of genetic makeup. Human children who lack proper nutrition in the first three years of life tend to have more genetic problems later in life, such as health issues and problems with school performance.