For decades, scientists catalogued human traits and processes – asking which seem to be governed by genetics and in which are influenced by parenting, policies and programs.
Assessing “nature vs. nurture” has preoccupied researchers for more than a century, producing many findings. For example, scientists have found that schizophrenia is approximately 80 percent heritable and obesity is 50 percent heritable.
Recent advances in analyzing human DNA have produced many unexpected findings – specifically, that we should think of nature and nurture not as an either/or proposition, but instead as both/and.
They’ve found that medical treatments may work better for some people’s genetics, such as with precision medicine, and that some environments may work better for those with particular DNA sequences.
My research seeks to advance understanding of how genes and our environments relate as part of the emerging field of social genomics.
For example, my work has shown that tobacco taxes appear to be more effective in some people with specific types of “nicotinic receptor” genes. This matters both for helping people to quit but also in considering whether it is fair to tax people with predispositions to addiction.
Ongoing work is trying to understand the types of environments, such as schools, where genetic advantages in schooling are suppressed or enhanced. This matters because we want to have more successful students but we also want fairness in outcomes.
UW-Madison will hire a cluster of three faculty members in social genomics next year, positioning us as a leader in unraveling the interplay between genes and environments and also considering the policy, legal and ethical dimensions of this new understanding.