As you learned in a previous lesson, there are two important aspects of biology and genetics:
Heredity, which is also referred to as inheritance, is the transmission of physical and psychological characteristics from a parent to an offspring.
DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, is the mechanism that allows for that information to be passed on from parent to offspring.
Now that we've reviewed those aspects, we can take a look at some of the other factors that influence heredity and DNA.
The DNA inside of every person is organized into x-shaped structures called chromosomes.
Each cell has 46 of these chromosomes, which are bundles of DNA that organize all of a person's genetic information. Out of the 46 chromosomes, half, or 23, come from one parent, and half of them come from the other.
These chromosomes are a bit like big tangles of DNA, and the DNA themselves are long strands. Thus, it can be difficult to understand exactly what's occurring.
To make this easier, DNA are grouped into useful units called genes. A gene is a specific area on the DNA that carries certain hereditary information.
Genes code for specific processes or characteristics within the human body, such as eye color. Because each person has two of each of these genes, it's hard to tell which of them is going to be expressed. Therefore, genes are further labeled as being either dominant or recessive.
A dominant gene is a gene that will express itself each time it is present. While it can at times be considered the more powerful of the two types of genes, that's not necessarily the case.
A recessive gene is a gene that will only be expressed when it's paired with another recessive gene. In other words, it will be expressed when it doesn't have a dominant gene paired with it.
This is a little bit tricky to understand, so a lot of geneticists use a system called a Punnett square. A Punnett Square organizes the information to show when certain characteristics are going to be expressed, and when they are not.
EXAMPLESay the chart below represents two parents and four children, and both parents have brown eyes. More specifically, they each have a dominant gene for brown eyes, which is the big X, and a recessive gene for blue eyes, which is the small x. Any time there's a large X, then the offspring will have brown eyes.
While this type of chart can be a helpful way to make sense of all of this genetic information, the way that our genes work is generally not as simple as the Punnett square makes it look.
Most characteristics in genetics are polygenetic, meaning that there are lots of genes working together to express that characteristic.
It's important to remember that genes express not only physical characteristics like eye color, but psychological characteristics as well. Thus, genetics can help us understand why certain psychological occurrences--or even psychological mental disorders--occur.
EXAMPLESome mental disorders, like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and autism, have a strong genetic basis. This means that it's much more likely for people to inherit those diseases from their parents. If a person's parent has schizophrenia, that person is 80% more likely to have schizophrenia than somebody whose parent doesn't have it.
An understanding of genetics helps psychologists to understand how some of these psychological characteristics get passed on. In fact, in 2003, the Human Genome Project was able to sequence all of the three billion different DNA and gene types that exist within the human body.
Now that we understand what the code looks like, we're a lot closer to understanding the biologic basis for the characteristics, behaviors, and mental states that exist within human beings.
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Erick Taggart.