BORN THAT WAY by William Wright


Genes, Behavior, Personality
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An enthusiastic, informative account of the young field of behavioral genetics that could use less of the reporter and more of the subject. Wright (The Von Bulow Affair, 1983; Lillian Hellman, 1986; etc.) acknowledges himself a nonscientist who “roots” for the growing view that human behavior is heavily influenced by genes, as against the traditional social science perspective that environment alone is responsible. Though this admission of journalistic bias is refreshing, Wright overdoes it: His repeated attacks on “genophobes” begin to sound bullying. To dismiss psychoanalysis by speaking of a “Freudian-analytic Anschluss” is not only overstated but unkind, given that Freud was a refugee from the actual Anschluss. Wright is better at expounding the thinking of behavioral geneticists, particularly their complex view of the interaction of environment and heredity, though his account of their research is lopsided. Most of the book’s first third is devoted to an engrossing, detailed account of Thomas Bouchard’s studies of reared-apart twins. The middle third too hurriedly covers other top researchers’such as Dean Hamer, whose recent Living with Our Genes (p. 171) is less contentious and better at detailing specific gene-behavior links. The last third gives a polemical account of the historical shift from eugenics to environmentalism to behavioral genetics. Wright’s criticisms of intellectually dishonest “antigene screeds” are well taken, but the constant jabbing takes up space that could have been filled with more data. In a concluding chapter on the implications of gene-behavior links, he unconvincingly theorizes that knowledge of these links can make people more tolerant. Maybe, but also more patronizing: In a discussion of abortion, Wright characterizes the pro-choice position as rational and high-minded, the pro-life position as a benighted one driven by genes. The book leaves one wishing to hear less from polemicists rooting for or against genes and more from scientists striving to find out exactly what genes do. (Author tour)

Pub Date: June 16th, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-43028-8
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1998