Does DNA determine morality?

— does deoxyribonucleic acid which contains the building blocks for our life encoded in all of those cute double helixs with chains like AGCT actually determine, even to a very minute extent, how we treat ourselves and other people?

No. Otherwise identical twins would act almost identically, even when separated (though they wouldn`t, of course get the chance to be separated, given everything they did was DNA determined).

There are innumerate environmental influences on our bodies and lives that are independent of our genes.

the fact that some mental illnesses are genetically based shows that at least some does come from dna

Morality is making decisions based on the knowledge of right and wrong. It is our consciousness which makes our moral decisions, if we choose to make a decision at all. Why would we suppose to think our genes or DNA had any effect on those decisions? If many of us pay no attention to our DNA in the areas of contraception, adoption, abortion, veganism etc. Why would one postulate that we would pay attention to it in the field of morality?

There are some people who use the whole “We were made to eat meat so we should” line of morality. But that’s still a conscious decision and not a DNA spurred one. It is indirectly caused by the fact that our genes gave us omniverous teeth but they have no direct effect on the conscious act of moral making.

Genes are like chess-programs, all the programming is done before the game (life) starts. No-one is making moves while the game is playing, it is just following out its pre-programmed code. This is what allows us to overcome the phenotopic effects of our genes. In the chess analogy, we can take the board away and replace it with a monopoly set. A mixture of environmental effects and conscious acts which go against the pre-programmed effects of genes. The beginning of the story is written, but we have the power to change the ending.

I’m interested as to what made you ask this quesiton in the first place? Have you hit upon a way in which morality could be controlled by DNA?

  • ben

— Hello. I am the author of this thread, i just wasn’t logged in. Pax Vitae and i started this discussion in another thread.
— Personally i don’t believe morality dependent upon our genes, but today i’m playing devil’s advocate. What about cases in which a congenital disease impedes normal functioning of the brain? Wouldn’t that qualify?

I’ve always been one to sit on the fence of the old nature/nurture debate, for me we have predispositions to act which are DNA based, but these can be over-ridden through nurture and in fairly exceptional cases reason. There are obvious areas where they can’t, such as the case you describe, or for example children with downs who tend to adopt a very distinct idea of right and wrong with no grey areas inbetween that most of us recognise (or is it autistic, I may have got them confused). They do not see the moral dilemma posed by a starving man stealing, he is always wrong in their eyes.

Certainly I don’t think DNA gives us even the start of a set of moral values, it give us predispositions on which we are likely to take to certain moral values enthusiastically, determines how effectivly we process difficult moral judgements etc. I think Locke pretty much trounced the entire concept of innate ideas long ago.

put, VERY well. props.

Here’s my quick hypothesis on DNA and how it works… To me DNA is the starting point for nature to construct the body and then the person. Kind of like the Minimum and Maximum ranges of a device, that device being a human experiment. Depending on how this experiment interacts with the world (the food it eats, the climate it lives in, etc) it will change its value the next time it’s rewritten. DNA is re-written by the creation of Children, keeping within similar limits of the original program, generally, and by adding, removing, or changing its value to enhance the new strain’s survival chances, based off previous experience. Meaning the life experiences of the DNA will effect the new version of DNA that it will create in a child. But to keep the system fluctuating DNA must mix with another different strain of DNA. This helps to cover most of the possible combinations of DNA values (1 life = 1 value) so if something changes there is a DNA variation in existence or is almost in existence to cope with that change. It’s like the Second law of thermodynamics, all systems increase in entropy, randomness. (

An example of this in Rabbits: In Australia there was a problem of overpopulation of Rabbits so the government ordered the destruction of millions of rabbits. To do this they created a disease that would do the job of killing the rabbits. But with in a generation or two the rabbits became immune. Their DNA found what was needed to survive so it becomes a characteristic of all the remaining rabbits. (

I think if we want to discus this further we should start a new topic on this subject under Science.

this isnt really relevent at all, but i could have SWORN i read that post from you pax like a week ago in this thread. hadcore de ja vu.

This is a common misconception of how genes/DNA are passed. I’m not sure if you are using DNA as opposed to genes for a specific reason but the way they are passed down is the same. I will use the word genes for my own comfort! Genes are categorically not altered by a person or animal’s life experience. Gene passing works like this.

Take for example, your rabbit example. Before the disease was spread amongst the rabbits, a very high number of rabbits would have had a gene setup which did not protect them against the disease. This meant that any rabbit who was not protected, died when the disease was spread. Those rabbits who, due to a slight difference in gene setup, were protected against the disease were able to survive it and pass down these protective genes to their offspring. This meant, the population of rabbits who were protected grew exponentially due to only protected rabbits being able to procreate. Obviously there was a time period where some rabbits who weren’t protected were procreating but they were weeded out by natural selection. It was not the case that some rabbits built up immunity to the disease and then passed this immunity through their genes. Genotypes affect phenotypes and not the other way round. No environmental effect can alter gene code. This is done via random mutations and is selected via survival of the fittest.

For this reason I don’t accept your argument for DNA controlling morality because that is not how DNA or genes are passed down. Genes are groups of cells, nothing more, they have no intelligence or awareness of a goal. They cannot be changed or affected by the bodies they live in accept by the process of natural selection and random mutation.


  • ben

— Kudos Ben, the book the selfish gene by Richard Dawkins basically says the same thing.

I think examples of morality are found in other creatures, some of it may not be by nurture, but i think especially in man and in other creatures morality is largely due to nurture. There are reasons why creatures would want to get along to further their survival.

I`m not sure this is strictly the case. There is growing evidence to suggest that, take X chromosome inactivation for instance, gene expression in early infants is influenced by the environment of the parents.

Marshall McD - is nature moral, or are our morals derived in part from nature?

Well I stand corrected, as for the DNA / Gene that’s how I’ve understood them but it looks like I should go read a book on the subject.

As for Morality, I do agree that it’s not 100% your Gene’s like it’s not 100% nurture. There are cases of moral people coming from immoral backgrounds. So it’s not as simple as saying that’s the place, put you guys already know that.

But I do still have a belief that morality is more akin to an instinct derived from Nature & Nurture, then something that is codified and learned like you would learn off the rules of law. I wonder if there is any particular time that morality is learned during childhood? But then again there are cases of “born again” moralists, take some of the Christian laity. But when things like this happen it’s almost like a different person, a complete change in personality. Morality is central to the decision making process inside us, it has to be a fundamental characteristic of our personality, to change our morality is to change our personality. So what am I trying to say??? Mmm… I don’t know!

While I believe moral codes are useful, I think a person has a predisposition to moral laws. Though they can learn off the code like a poem, the meaning can be missed by the person, if they are lacking in “the area” (which deals with moral choices), that is currently an enigma of the personality.

— Thanks, Pax Vitae for that post, a predisposition to morality is less fixed than morality that is determined by DNA. There might be people who are pretty moral yet never think about morality, i often wonder about that phenomena, but the majority of moral people probably have a fairly constant conscious notion of morality.
— Welcome to the forum. In reponse to your question, i don’t think you can have morality without consciousness, and the greater part of nature does not have that particular characteristic. so my answer is a qualified no, but i also think that our morals are in part derived from nature, as is our consciousness.

Doesn`t look too comfortable on that fence there, why dont you come down?:wink:

Isn`t morality a uniquely human vice, the virtues of animal existence superimposed on human life? Animals have no concept/need for good or evil. They need just live skillfully. Form that you could say morality has no place in nature, though it is born from human observation.

I`d agree morality is born out of consciousness, but genes have but a limited effect on the mind.

I thought of it more as a paradox than a fence. My point was that nature has morality to the extent that it possesses consciousness.

So you believe morality is inseperable from consciousness, you cannot have one without the other? Or just that a property of consciousness being aware of the existence of morality?

— Morality is about choices, choices imply consciousness. Consciousness, by it’s very nature, in addition to being aware of reality, is also aware of itself. It is both observer and observed.

Incidentally the misundersatanding of genes/DNA in the way you described Pax is fairly widespread. For example I had someone vehmentantly insisting to me a couple of days ago that human thumbs were going to grow in average size over the next few generations because we play computer games, which is nonsense.

But I assume that’s not an alteration of the basic underlying structure of their DNA but what it actually does, while not as revolutionary still fairly important, or I am I misunderstanding?

RE: Thumbs. You have to consider the environmental factor - playing computer games from an early age will lead to increased development in tumb muscles (and maybe bone too). Only when playing games becomes reprodutively attractive will this have the potential to produce individuals with genetically bigger thumbs.

RE: X inactivation etc. You are not changing the coding sequence, but instead affecting the genes that are expressed. Its a bit like saying (and there may be some truth to this), we have the genes to make a human tail, but never really use them.

Marshall - choices do not imply consciousness. Most of the choices we make everday are unconscious. Physiological studies even suggest that there is an unconscious priming to “conscious” decisions. Our bodies are prepared to act before we know we are going to.