Are We More Than Our Genes?

Some call it Marvel’s biggest “bomb.” The writing and production value were so bad and the viewership was so low that the series was canceled after only 8 episodes.1 It wasn’t Netflix’s Iron Fist (just kidding). It was ABC’s Inhumans (which disappointed me, like it did for nearly everyone else). 

The lack of imagination and poor character development for Inhumans were unfortunate. Hands down, the Inhumans are one of the most interesting collections of Marvel characters. A reclusive superhuman race of beings, the Inhumans had their beginnings when the alien race called the Kree performed genetic experiments on primitive humans 50,000 years ago. Today, the descendants of these genetically modified humans call themselves the Inhumans. They live within a complex social hierarchy that centers around the ritualistic exposure to the mist derived from terrigen crystals. This mist serves as a mutagen that unlocks the genetic potential of each Inhuman, transforming them into beings with unique superhuman powers. Through this process, each Inhuman becomes who they were truly destined to be.

The Inhumans are just one of many examples of popular culture reflecting the seemingly scientific idea of genetic determinism—the notion that our genes dictate who we are and who we’ll ultimately become. This perspective pervades our culture and challenges our cherished notions of who we are as human beings. But is it true?

Genetic Determinism
The widespread influence of this view of human nature is understandable. Advances in genetics leave many people with the mistaken notion that our genes determine our biological and psychological traits. And errors in our genes will inescapably destine us to experience specific diseases. As David S. Moore, developmental psychologist and author of the book The Dependent Gene, writes, “These . . . advances have been presented to the public in a way that has perpetuated the mistaken idea that some of our traits are caused exclusively (or primarily) by our genes.”2

Most people are aware that virtually all our physical features, such as eye color, hair color, height, etc., have a genetic basis. But now, geneticists have presented data that suggests our personalities and character—qualities that define who we are as a person—are also influenced by our genes. For example, in 2020 an international research team reported the results of a genome-wide association study on 2,149 healthy Finns that was designed to tease out the complex genotype-phenotype relationships that determine human character. They learned that “self-regulatory personality traits are strongly influenced by organized interactions among more than 700 genes despite variable cultures and environments” and that these gene sets modulate specific molecular processes in the brain “for intentional goal-setting, self-reflection, empathy, and episodic learning and memory.”3

Geneticists are also developing an understanding of the genetic basis for many diseases and possible ways to manage and treat them. But the advances also leave many people with the impression that errors in our genes seal our fate. This point is powerfully illustrated by findings regarding BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Mutations in these two genes, which encode tumor suppressor proteins, increase the risk fivefold that women will develop breast cancer and ten- to thirtyfold that they will develop ovarian cancer. Even though only 5 to 10% of breast cancers stem from mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, mutations to these genes have oversized consequences. Women with mutations in either of these two genes have up to a 65% chance of developing breast cancer and a 45% chance of developing ovarian cancer by age 70. Because of the influence of genetic determinism, women who discover that they have mutations in their BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes often assume they’ll inevitably develop breast cancer and consequently elect to have preventative mastectomies in response. In fact, this procedure is often recommended by physicians for women with mutations in the BRCA genes.4

Beyond diseases like cancer, geneticists have also discovered that mutations in our genes make significant contributions to a growing list of neurological disorders such as attention‐deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anorexia nervosa, anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, obsessive‐compulsive disorder, post‐traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and Tourette’s syndrome.5

In addition, geneticists have learned that genes influence criminal behavior. One of the most well-known examples of this link is the discovery of an association between a version of the MAOA gene (a gene that encodes the enzyme monoamine oxidase A) and impulsive aggression, arson, and sexual assault. Monoamine oxidase A regulates the metabolism of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine and, consequently, influences brain function. Versions of the MAOA gene that encodes what biochemists call low activity monoamine oxidase A correlate with a propensity to commit violent criminal acts.6

It’s no wonder many people subscribe to some form of genetic determinism. Science appears to affirm it.

So, are we merely the product of our genes? 

Biological Determinism
Even though acceptance of genetic determinism is widespread among the scientifically uninitiated, acceptance is rare among life scientists. They understand that environmental factors and “random” processes that occur during embryonic and fetal growth and development (developmental noise) also contribute to biological and psychological traits in humans. As David Moore writes, “All traits—from ‘biological’ traits like hair color and height to complex ‘psychological’ traits like intelligence—are caused by dependent interactions of genes and environments.”7

In other words, we are more than our genes. The environment and our growth and development in the womb also shape who we are. For example, geneticists have discovered that even though an association exists between the low activity version of the MAOA gene and criminal aggression, they’ve also uncovered interactions between genes and the environment. People with low activity and high activity versions of the MAOA gene show low aggression when unprovoked. It was only under conditions of high provocation that people with the low activity level MAOA gene displayed criminally aggressive behavior. In a similar vein, geneticists have also learned that maltreatment as a youth coupled with the low activity version of the MAOA gene leads to criminal behavior.8

While these types of insights undermine genetic determinism, they do seemingly support the idea of biological determinism. This view holds that each human being is nothing more than the cumulative interplay of our genes and the environment. Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky puts it this way in his book Determined

You observe a behavior and can answer why it occurred . . . because of the action of neurons in . . . your brain in the preceding second. And in the seconds to minutes before, those neurons were activated by a thought, a memory, an emotion, or sensory stimuli. And in the hours to days before that behavior occurred, the hormones in your circulation shaped those thoughts, memories, and emotions, altered how sensitive your brain was to particular environmental stimuli. And in the preceding months to years, experience and environment changed how those neurons function, causing some to sprout new connections and become more excitable, causing the opposite in others. 

And from there, we hurtle back decades in identifying antecedent causes. . . . During adolescence a key brain region was still being constructed, shaped by socialization and acculturation. Further back, there’s childhood experience shaping the construction of your brain, with the same then applying to your fetal environment. Moving further back, we have to factor in the genes you inherited and their effects on behavior. . . . Everything in your childhood, starting with how you were mothered within minutes of birth, was influenced by culture, which means centuries of ecological factors that influenced what kind of culture your ancestors invented, and by the evolutionary pressures that molded the species you belong to. Why did that behavior occur? Because of the biological and environmental interactions all the way down.9

So, while we may be more than our genes, according to those who hold to biological determinism, our biology and psychology—our identity and character—are no more than the dictates of the collective activity of our genes shaped by a lifetime of interactions with environmental influences. 

In fact, scientists like Sapolsky argue for such extreme forms of biological determinism that they deny our free will. They maintain that our sense of free will is merely an illusion. Accordingly, we are ultimately controlled by subconscious activities in our brain that are influenced by deterministic forces beyond our control. We think we’re making choices when in fact we’re not.

So, are we merely the cumulative effects of the environment operating on our genes?

Is Free Will an Illusion?
For many scientists, the evidence for biological determinism (which includes the notion that free will is illusory) appears to be strong. If they’re right, then this view challenges long-held and cherished notions about our identity and nature as human beings. 

So, are we truly free agents? 

Biological determinism also raises questions about human culpability. The good things we do and the bad acts we commit are outside of our control. We shouldn’t be applauded for the good we do or punished for the bad we perpetrate. Every thought we think, every act we commit is determined by our biology and history. Finally, this perspective also challenges the Judeo-Christian view of human beings made in God’s image with the free-will capacity to accept him and worship him or to reject him. 

Yet, some scientists accept biological determinism while embracing the reality of our free will. One of them is life scientist Kevin Mitchell. According to Mitchell, it’s our capacity for metacognition that evinces our capacity for free will. In his book Free Agents, Mitchell writes, “Humans possess a highly developed set of neural resources devoted precisely to metacognition, introspection, imagination, and conscious cognitive control of our behavior. We think about our thoughts. We reason about our reasons. In fact, much of our waking mental lives is taken up with such introspection, and when we’re not thinking about our own thoughts and reasons, we are often thinking about those of other people.”10

Scientific discussions about determinism and free will take place within a materialistic framework, in which the brain is the mind, and the mind is the brain. Even from this vantage point, free will can exist. Neuroscientist William Klemm has hypothesized that free will arises from neural networks in the brain that surveil other neural networks, yielding conscious awareness of self that has the capacity to exert executive control.11 It’s important to note that Klemm’s explanation is a hypothesis that awaits testing.

While this view is not universally held, a significant number of life scientists (including me) hold to limited biological determinism. We recognize that our histories and the ongoing interplay of our genes and the environment, along with the process of our growth and development in the womb, play a role in shaping who we are as human beings. But, because we possess free will (and free won’t), we can rise above the deterministic forces that shape who we are and make free-will decisions. Yes, our choices are constrained by our biology and circumstances, but within those constraints we are free to choose what we will or won’t do.

Based on the available scientific evidence, it’s reasonable to conclude that we are more than our genes, and more than the cumulative interactions of our genes and the environment. We’re free-will beings with the capacity to captain our own ship.

A Christian Perspective of Biological Determinism and Free Will
Is it possible to develop a biblically based creation model that balances biological determinism and free will? One that respects the scientific insights and affirms the biblical teaching on human nature and identity as image bearers?

I think so. As a Christian (who rejects materialism) I maintain that a distinction exists between the brain and the mind, with the mind being an immaterial part of our nature. As image bearers, we also possess a spirit. (Perhaps we could think of the combination of our mind and spirit as our soul.) According to neuroscientist Matthew Stanford, an interplay exists between our brain, mind, and spirit.12 In Stanford’s model, our brain structures and physiology influence our thinking and our thinking can impact our brain biology. Our spirit can influence our mind and our mind can influence our spirit. 

Before our minds are transformed by God, our sin nature influences our thinking and, in turn, our brain biology. At our conversion—and through the process of sanctification—our spirit is renewed (Romans 12:2). We are new creatures. Our renewed spirit influences our mind and, consequently, our brain differently than when we’re in a state of sin. And as we strive to renew our mind, no longer conforming to the world, our mind’s influence transforms our spirit and through this interplay of brain, mind, and spirit we become more like Christ. 

In this model, our free will arises out of our immaterial nature—but it can be influenced by our genes and our history. It’s also influenced by our spirit, whether we’re in a state of sin or born again. In other words, there exists a spiritual dimension to determinism. For believers, the action of the Holy Spirit constrains our free will and, in doing so, influences our thinking and, ultimately, our brain biology. Yet, we’re still free to choose, despite these influences.

One final point. No human being is a ghost in the machine. Though we have both material and immaterial natures, they aren’t separate and distinct but integrated. Consequently, it isn’t unreasonable to expect the existence of brain structures and physiological processes that support and work with our immaterial nature—our mind and spirit. Thus, I’m not surprised that neuroscientists speculate about neural networks that surveil other neural networks to give us a sense of self. If this turns out to be the case, it doesn’t mean that our mind is our brain. Instead, it could be understood as a brain operation that supports the operation of our mind and its interplay with our spirit, which is the ultimate source of our free will.

Our identity isn’t bound to our genes or our history. We aren’t slaves to our biology. We’re free-will beings who can choose what we do and who we want to become, just as Scripture teaches and science affirms.


Is There a Biological Basis for Belief?” by Fazale Rana (article)

Is There a Biological Basis for Belief? A Follow-Up” by Fazale Rana (article)

Epigenetics—Sins of the Father” by Fazale Rana (article)

“‘Sins of the Father’ Revisited” by Fazale Rana (article)

Magnets and Morality” by Fazale Rana (article)

Does Human Morality Arise from Brain Chemistry?” by Fazale Rana (article)

Does Oxytocin Cause Spiritual Experiences?” by Fazale Rana (article)

Love Is in the Air and It Smells Like Intelligent Design” by Fazale Rana (article)


  1. Adrienne Tyler, “Marvel’s Historic TV Bomb Is So Bad It’s Still Hurting the MCU 6 Years Later,” ScreenRant, October 13, 2023. 
  2. David S. Moore, The Dependent GeneThe Fallacy of “Nature” Vs. “Nurture” (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001), 4.
  3. Igor Zwir et al., “Uncovering the Complex Genetics of Human Character,” Molecular Psychiatry 25 (October 2020): 2295–2312, doi:10.1038/s41380-018-0263-6.
  4. Gianluca Franceschini et al., “Bilateral Prophylactic Mastectomy in BRCA Mutation Carriers: What Surgeons Need to Know,” Annali Italiani di Chirurgia 90 (2019): 1–2, PMID:30872561.
  5. Ole A. Andreassen et al., “New Insights from the Last Decade of Research in Psychiatric Genetics: Discoveries, Challenges, and Clinical Implications,” World Psychiatry 22, no. 1 (February 2023): 4–24, doi:10.1002/wps.21034.
  6. S. Sohrabi, “The Criminal Gene: The Link between MAOA and Aggression (REVIEW),” BMC Proceedings 9, Supplement 1 (January 14, 2015): A49, doi:10.1186/1753-6561-9-S1-A49.
  7. Moore, The Dependent Gene, 4. 
  8. Sohrabi, “The Criminal Gene.” 
  9. Robert Sapolsky, Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will (New York: Penguin Press, 2023), 3–4.
  10. Kevin J. Mitchell, Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2023), 266.
  11. W. R. Klemm, Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2016), 4.
  12. Matthew S. Stanford, The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope, and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2010), 15–26.