Tangled webs: Tracing the connections between genes and cognition
Fisher, S. E.
Tangled webs: Tracing the connections between genes and cognition. Cognition, 101
, 270-297. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2006.04.004.
The rise of molecular genetics is having a pervasive influence in a wide variety of fields, including research into neurodevelopmental disorders like dyslexia, speech and language impairments, and autism. There are many studies underway which are attempting to determine the roles of genetic factors in the aetiology of these disorders. Beyond the obvious implications for diagnosis, treatment and understanding, success in these efforts promises to shed light on the links between genes and aspects of cognition and behaviour. However, the deceptive simplicity of finding correlations between genetic and phenotypic variation has led to a common misconception that there exist straightforward linear relationships between specific genes and particular behavioural and/or cognitive outputs. The problem is exacerbated by the adoption of an abstract view of the nature of the gene, without consideration of molecular, developmental or ontogenetic frameworks. To illustrate the limitations of this perspective, I select two cases from recent research into the genetic underpinnings of neurodevelopmental disorders. First, I discuss the proposal that dyslexia can be dissected into distinct components specified by different genes. Second, I review the story of the FOXP2 gene and its role in human speech and language. In both cases, adoption of an abstract concept of the gene can lead to erroneous conclusions, which are incompatible with current knowledge of molecular and developmental systems. Genes do not specify behaviours or cognitive processes; they make regulatory factors, signalling molecules, receptors, enzymes, and so on, that interact in highly complex networks, modulated by environmental influences, in order to build and maintain the brain. I propose that it is necessary for us to fully embrace the complexity of biological systems, if we are ever to untangle the webs that link genes to cognition.