The Human Genome: Are We Free or Determined? The tremendous achievements of the human genome project have revolutionized our concepts of human life and provided the "instruction book" containing the entire DNA sequences in which are encoded the genes controlling all aspects of development, structure and functioning of the components of the human body. As such, cell function is genetically determined. There is increasing evidence that complex traits including those relating to mental function and adaptive behaviour also have genetic determinants. These are likely to be genes of small effect that interact with one another and with environmental factors. Mental function and adaptive behaviour are higher functions of the human brain that depend on complex interactions of individual neurons. While the underlying framework of the nervous system is genetically determined, it is structured so as to provide interaction between the body and its environment, allowing a great variety of possible responses to external situations and therefore behavioural freedom. Most behaviour patterns are learned during development and conditioned by environmental factors, which also influence the level of mental functioning. Gene interactions sometimes impose limitations in mental function, which may constitute mental disorders. It has been argued that homosexuality, alcoholism, drug addiction, criminality etc are the effects of genes. However, specific genes for such conditions have not been identified and there are strong modifiable environmental influences. Genetic determination does not absolve individuals from their moral responsibilities and free will.

The constantly increasing knowledge of the human genome and dramatic advances in biotechnology are expected to create new dimensions in medical treatment and preventive health. Knowledge of individual genomes is expected to increase individual freedom by providing opportunities for taking remedial actions if some genes happen to convey predisposition to certain diseases. However freedom may be severely restricted by patenting of genetic sequences and by use of genetic information for restricting insurance policies or employment opportunities.

Professor Alfred Cuschieri, Professor of Anatomy and Genetics at the University of Malta and Consultant Geneticist in the Department of Health, will address these issues at the next meeting of the Philosophy Society which is being held on Thursday May 3rd at the Erin Serracino Inglott Hall on Campus at 7.00p.m. Professor Alex Felice will respond.

Pizza and wine will be served at the Farmhouse after the discussion. The general public is cordially invited to attend.

25 April 2001