27 October 2021

Genetics and morality

The attitude to casual relationships and prohibited substances is determined not only by the environment, but also by genes


Some people in our society tend to have casual sexual relations and the use of prohibited substances, but there are many who condemn such behavior. Scientists have found out that this condemnation is largely due to our genes.

Scientists interviewed thousands of twins and found that their attitude to drug use and sexual relations without obligations is at least half due to genetic factors.

For decades, as rock music became increasingly popular, public condemnation of casual sex and drug use persisted. Previous studies have shown that openness to sex without commitment is partly explained by genes. The rest is explained by the unique environment — this was shown by the study of brothers and sisters. 

The authors of the new work wanted to study how genetic factors are associated with moral views on drug use and openness to casual sexual relations. To separate heredity from environmental factors, researchers surveyed 8,118 Finnish identical and fraternal twins to find out how open they are to drug use for recreational purposes and for sex outside of a permanent relationship.

Participants answered questions that assessed their moral views on situations in which people used recreational drugs, for example, at a party or with friends. Participants were also asked questions that assessed their openness to sex without commitment. The researchers then compared pairs of twins to assess to what extent the condemnation of recreational drugs, openness to sex without commitment and the connection between them were explained by genes and a common environment — for example, growing up in the same house or community — or a unique experience and environment characteristic of only one of the twins. 

The researchers found that moral views regarding both recreational drugs and openness to sex without commitment are about 50% inherited, and the remaining 50% are explained by environmental conditions. The researchers also found a significant overlap in the genetic effects underlying both moral foundations — approximately 40% of the genes underlying the craving for sex without commitment were also at the heart of moral views on recreational drugs.

The researchers' article was published in the journal Psychological Science (Karinen et al., Sex, Drugs, and Genes: Illuminating the Moral Condemnation of Recreational Drugs – VM).

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