On genetics

ETIENNE BENSON'S recent piece, "Behavioral genetics: meet molecular biology" (April Monitor), states: "Moffitt and her colleagues...have found that genes have significant effects on...antisocial behavior--but only in people who are exposed to particular environmental stressors."

This claim is surprising. Moffitt's 2002 Science (Vol. 297, No. 5582) paper in which a G X E interaction of child maltreatment and the MAOA gene was reported found statistically significant effects of maltreatment (but not MAOA) on a composite measure of antisocial behavior for both high and low MAOA activity children (p=.03 and <.0001, respectively). In other words, Moffitt found an effect of maltreatment in both groups regardless of the MAOA gene. The only difference, and the basis for the legitimate claim of a G X E interaction, was that one effect was stronger than the other.

Moffitt also conducted follow-up analyses showing nonsignificant G X E interactions for three of the four components of antisocial behavior. It was in these less powerful analyses that claims of nonsignificant effects in high MAOA activity children were made. Looking at the bar graphs presented in their paper, it is clear, as their more powerful analyses show, that maltreatment is associated with antisocial behavior regardless of MAOA. Moffitt's data support what studies have repeatedly shown: maltreatment has negative effects on all children.


Vanderbilt University

THE RECENT ARTICLE, "ARE beliefs inherited?" (April Monitor), left me baffled. To my mind, heritability refers to traits transferred genetically--eye color for example. To suggest that attitudes formed as a result of genetic traits are inherited is to make a disingenuous semantic leap that undermines the entire premise of the article. The one concrete example offered in the article involves a hypothetical girl who is gifted athletically (genetic trait) and then has positive social experiences surrounding her athletic prowess (praise, camaraderie, etc.).

As a result, she develops "positive attitudes toward sports," and the article chalks up that attitude as an inherited quality. This is bogus science. The attitude here results from social and cultural conditioning and would vary depending on social context. The article seems to confuse biological traits, which in and of themselves have no social meaning, with the cultural values and social experiences that humans create and ascribe.

It seems to me bizarre to try to link a political opinion on a topic like "open-door immigration policy" with some genetically heritable feature, yet the author introduces such studies without a hint of skepticism. Finally, the article sidesteps the obvious fact that attitudes and beliefs change through the course of an individual's life. The author suggests that young people express environment while adults express genetics and calls for more research on the so-called transition. Does anyone actually believe that this could explain why individuals' attitudes shift over time?


Brooklyn, N.Y.

Gender underrecognition

AN ARTICLE IN THE FEBRUARY Monitor, "Number of psychology PhDs declining," addressed the fact that the field continues to attract more women than men.

We can hope that this increase in the number of women will be reflected in awards women receive as well as leadership positions in cutting-edge research and innovative clinical programs.

In that same issue, there were photographs of 25 such men and only seven women.


New York, N.Y.