Genetics and the Social Science Explanation of Individual Outcomes

Jeremy Freese, Northwestern University

Accumulating evidence from behavioral genetics indicates that the vast majority of individual-level outcomes of abiding sociological interest are genetically influenced to a substantial degree. This ubiquitous influence raises the question of the place of genetics in social science explanations of these outcomes. Genomic causation is described from a counterfactualist perspective, which makes its complexity plain and highlights the distinction between identifying causes and substantiating explanations. For explanation, genomic causation of outcomes must be understood as strictly mediated by the body. One implication is that the challenge of behavioral genetics for sociology is much more a challenge from psychology than biology, and a main role for genetics in explanation is as a placeholder for ignorance of more proximate influences of psychological and other embodied variation. Social scientists should not take this challenge from psychology as suggesting any fundamental explanatory place for either it or genetics, but the contingent importance of genetic and psychological characteristics is itself available for sociological investigation.

Presented in Session 48: Genetic Influences on Health and Mortality