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Egenis · Research

The philosophy of behavioural genomics – Analysis of criteria for the conceptual mapping of research in the genomics of human behaviour

Richard Holdsworth

Start date


Affiliated staff

Supervisors: John Dupré, Barry Barnes


Tel: 01392 269140 Fax: 01392 264676

Email: r.j.holdsworth@exeter.ac.uk Building: Byrne House Room Number: FF10

Funded by

Self-funded with assistance from the Professional Training Unit of the European Parliament. (The views expressed in the work are not an official expression of the position of the European Parliament).


This is a philosophical enquiry into scientific research that studies the causes of behaviour, principally human, using the findings, techniques or tools of genomic science.


The objectives, concepts and methods of eight selected disciplines are analysed: biomolecular archaeology, evolutionary biomechanics, molecular neurobiology, Down syndrome research, human behavioural ecology, behavioural genetics, human evolutionary genetics and human developmental genetics.


Nine semi-structured interviews were conducted with leading researchers in the target disciplines. The results are analysed in terms of a set of fourteen criteria, chosen to illustrate diversity in the conceptual approaches of the researchers concerned. The results are plotted in a Criterion Matrix. In parallel, sources in the literature as well as the interviews were used to generate a Genomic Workbench Analysis Model, identifying the different regions of the human and other genomes used by different disciplines in their research. The process of enquiry is presented as a conceptual mapping of the putative field of behavioural genomics.


The two principal tools of the method – the Criterion Matrix and the Genomic Workbench Analysis Model – convey a picture of rich and complex diversity among the target disciplines. It is concluded that this diversity is inconsistent with a two-clusters model such as might have been suggested in the past by a polarisation of the nature-nurture debate along a single axis. Other conclusions of the conceptual mapping study are presented. A suggestion is made for the future development of a field of behavioural environomics.

Policy implications

This is believed to be the first attempt at a conceptual mapping of scientific research disciplines in behavioural genomics. Its conclusions are intended to help elucidate a number of issues that arise when this area of research is discussed.


Holdsworth, Richard: Review of Joseph, Jay: The Gene Illusion: Genetic Research in Psychiatry and Psychology Under The Microscope; Paperback 348 pages; PCCS Books Ltd., Ross-on-Wye, January 2003, ISBN: 1898059470, in: Human Nature Review 2003 Volume 3: 416-421 (20 September).


‘Behavioural genomics: the case for a multidisciplinary interpretation’, presentation to the CSG-EGN Amsterdam Conference, ‘Genomics and society: Setting the agenda’, Amsterdam, 17 April 2008.

‘Different disciplines, different perspectives on the pertinence of genomics to ways of studying human behaviour: lessons of interviews with researchers’, presentation to the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology conference, University of Exeter, 27 July 2007.

'The disciplinary division of labour in behavioural genomics', presentation to the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology conference, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, 16 July 2005.