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'Baby' or 'Bathwater'?

John Horgan, who blogs at Scientific American's Cross-check, has been receiving some attention from other bloggers due to his views on the links between genes and behavior. His critic accuse him of "throwing the baby of modern behavioral genetics — which seeks to link complex behavioral traits to specific genes — out with the bathwater of media hype." In a recent column, Horgan examines the reported association between the so-called "warrior gene," MAOA-L, and aggressive behavior. Blogger Ed Yong responded to the column, saying that just because people sensationalize the link between this gene and aggressive behavior, doesn't mean the link doesn't exist. "Children who carry MAOA-L AND come from abusive homes have a higher risk of aggressive behavior; that's not true if they come from more stable backgrounds. Likewise, the hot sauce experiment found that people with MAOA-L are more likely to mete out punishment when they are provoked — another case of nature via nurture. It's sad that the fascinating area of gene-environment interactions isn't discussed at all," Yong says in response to Horgan's original post. However, Horgan says, the link isn't "credible" because studies have found a "minute different, at best," between people who carry the MAOA-L variant and the more common MAOA gene, which is not linked to aggression. There is a pattern in the type of reporting that gets done on studies linking genes and behavior, in that a sensational claim makes headlines, but then any counter-evidence that's produced gets pushed aside and ignored, he adds. "When it comes to behavioral genetics," Horgan says, "so far there is no baby; there's only bathwater."

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