Understanding the Brain

Behavioural genetics

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Behavioural genetics is the field of study that examines the role of genetics in animal (including human) behaviour. Often associated with the "nature versus nurture" debate, behavioural genetics is highly interdisciplinary, involving contributions from biology, genetics, ethology, psychology, and statistics. Behavioural geneticists study the inheritance of behavioural traits. In humans, this information is often gathered through the use of the twin study or adoption study. In animal studies, breeding, transgenesis, and gene knockout techniques are common; psychiatric genetics is a closely related field.


Sir Francis Galton, a nineteenth-century intellectual, is recognized as one of the first behavioural geneticists. Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, studied the heritability of human ability, focusing on mental characteristics as well as eminence among close relatives in the English upper-class. In 1869, Galton published his results in Hereditary Genius.[1] In his work, Galton "introduced multivariate analysis and paved the way towards modern Bayesian statistics" that are used throughout the sciences—launching what has been dubbed the "Statistical Enlightenment".[2]

Behaviour genetics, per-se, gained recognition as a research discipline with the publication in 1960 of the textbook Behavior Genetics by J.L. Fuller and W.R. Thompson.[3]

Underscoring the role of evolution in behavioural genetics, Theodosius Dobzhansky was elected the first president of the Behavior Genetics Association in 1972; the BGA bestows the Dobzhansky Award on researchers for their outstanding contributions to the field. In the early 1970s, Lee Ehrman, a doctoral student of Dobzhansky, wrote seminal papers describing the relationship between genotype frequency and mating success in Drosophila,[4][5][6] lending impetus to the pursuit of genetic studies of behaviour in other animals.


The primary methods of modern human behavioural genetics are twin and adoption studies. These techniques have been expanded upon in recent decades to include multivariate genetic analysis, extremes analysis, and more recently genomic techniques.

Notable behavioural geneticists

Notable behavioural geneticists include Dorret Boomsma, John DeFries, Lindon Eaves, David Fulker, John Hewitt, Kenneth Kendler, John Loehlin, Nick Martin, Gerald McClearn, Robert Plomin, Theodore Reich, who was a pioneer in psychiatric genetics, Hans van Abeelen, Avshalom Caspi, and Steven G. Vandenberg, the founding editor of the journal Behavior Genetics.


Behavioural geneticists are active in a variety of scientific disciplines including biology, medicine, pharmacology, psychiatry, and psychology; thus, behavioural-genetic research is published in a variety of scientific journals, including Nature and Science. Journals that specifically publish research in behavioural genetics include Behavior Genetics, Molecular Psychiatry, Psychiatric Genetics, Twin Research and Human Genetics, Genes, Brain and Behavior, and the Journal of Neurogenetics.

See also


  1. Hereditary Genius
  2. Darwin, Galton and the Statistical Enlightenment
  3. Fuller, J.L., & Thompson, W.R. (1960). Behavior Genetics. New York: Wiley.
  4. Ehrman, L. (1966). Mating success and genotype frequency in Drosophila. Animal Behaviour, 14, 332-339.
  5. Ehrman, L. (1970a). Simulation of the mating advantage of rare Drosophila males. Science, 167, 905-906.
  6. Ehrman, L. (1970b). The mating advantage of rare males in Drosophila. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 65, 345-348.