Chapter 8: Genetics and Epigenetics in Psychology

8.2: Fundamental Genetics and Genetic Variation

Genetic variation, the genetic difference between individuals, contributes to a species’ adaptation to its environment (Spielman et al., 2020). In humans, genetic variation begins with an egg, about 100 million sperm, and fertilization. Roughly once per month, active ovaries release an egg from follicles. During the egg’s journey from the ovary through the fallopian tubes to the uterus, a sperm may fertilize the egg.

The egg and the sperm each contain 23 chromosomes. Chromosomes are long strings of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DNA is a helix-shaped molecule made up of nucleotide base pairs. In each chromosome, sequences of DNA make up genes that control or partially control a number of visible characteristics, known as traits, such as eye color, hair color, and so on. A single gene may have multiple possible variations or alleles. An allele is a specific version of a gene. So, a given gene may code for the trait of hair color, and the different alleles of that gene affect which hair color an individual has.

When a sperm and egg fuse, each of their 23 chromosomes combine to create a zygote with 46 chromosomes (23 pairs). Therefore, each parent contributes half the genetic information carried by the offspring; the resulting physical characteristics of the offspring (called the phenotype) are determined by the interaction of genetic material supplied by the sperm and egg (called the genotype). A person’s genotype is the genetic makeup of that individual. Phenotype, on the other hand, refers to the individual’s inherited physical characteristics, which are a combination of genetic and environmental influences (Figure 3).


Photos show Genotype vs Phenotype
Figure 3. (a) Genotype refers to the genetic makeup of an individual based on the inherited genetic material (DNA). (b) Phenotype describes an individual’s observable characteristics, such as hair color, skin color, height, and build. (credit a: modification of work by Caroline Davis; credit b: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

The vast majority of traits are controlled by multiple genes, but some traits are controlled by one gene. A characteristic like cleft chin, for example, is influenced by a single gene from each parent. In this example, we will call the gene for cleft chin “B” and the gene for smooth chin “b.” Cleft chin is a dominant trait, which means that having the dominant allele either from one parent (Bb) or both parents (BB) will always result in the phenotype associated with the dominant allele. When someone has two copies of the same allele, they are said to be homozygous for that allele. When someone has a combination of alleles for a given gene, they are said to be heterozygous. For example, smooth chin is a recessive trait, which means that an individual will only display the smooth chin phenotype if they are homozygous for that recessive allele (bb).

Imagine that a person with a cleft chin mates with a person with a smooth chin. What type of chin will their offspring have? The answer to that depends on which alleles each parent carries. If the parent with a cleft is homozygous for cleft chin (BB), their offspring will always have cleft chin (because the offspring will get the dominant allele (B) from the cleft chin parent). It gets a little more complicated, however, if the parent with a cleft is heterozygous for this gene (Bb). Since the other person has a smooth chin—therefore homozygous for the recessive allele (bb)—we can expect the offspring to have a 50% chance of having a cleft chin (Bb) and a 50% chance of having a smooth chin (bb) (Figure 4).


Images of a Punnett square versus cleft chin
Figure 4. (a) A Punnett square is a tool used to predict how genes will interact in the production of offspring. The capital B represents the dominant allele, and the lowercase b represents the recessive allele. In the example of the cleft chin, where B is the cleft chin (dominant allele), wherever a pair contains the dominant allele, B, you can expect a cleft chin phenotype. You can expect a smooth chin phenotype only when there are two copies of the recessive allele, bb. (b) A cleft chin, shown here, is an inherited trait.

In sickle cell anemia, heterozygous carriers (like Luwi from the example) can develop blood resistance to malaria infection while those who are homozygous (like Sena) have a potentially lethal blood disorder. Sickle-cell anemia is just one of many genetic disorders caused by the pairing of two recessive genes. For example, phenylketonuria (PKU) is a condition in which individuals lack an enzyme that normally converts harmful amino acids into harmless byproducts. If someone with this condition goes untreated, they will experience significant deficits in cognitive function, seizures, and an increased risk of various psychiatric disorders. Because PKU is a recessive trait, each parent must have at least one copy of the recessive allele in order to produce a child with the condition.

So far, we have discussed traits that involve just one gene, but few human characteristics are controlled by a single gene. Most traits are polygenic: influenced by more than one gene. Examples of polygenic traits include height, skin color, weight, intelligence, schizophrenia, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Where do harmful genes that contribute to diseases like PKU come from? Gene mutations provide one source of harmful genes. A mutation is a sudden, permanent change in a gene. While many mutations can be harmful or lethal, once in a while, a mutation benefits an individual by giving that person an advantage over those who do not have the mutation. Recall that the theory of evolution asserts that individuals best adapted to their particular environments are more likely to reproduce and pass on their genes to future generations. In order for this process to occur, there must be competition—more technically, there must be variability in genes (and resultant traits) that allow for variation in adaptability to the environment. If a population consisted of identical individuals, then any dramatic changes in the environment would affect everyone in the same way, and there would be no variation in selection. In contrast, diversity in genes and associated traits allows some individuals to perform slightly better than others when faced with environmental change. This creates a distinct advantage for individuals best suited for their environments in terms of successful reproduction and genetic transmission.


Human Diversity

This chapter focuses on biology. Other areas of psychology, such as social psychology, study issues of race, prejudice, and discrimination. When we focus strictly on biology, race becomes a weak construct. After the human genome was completely sequenced at the turn of the 21st century, many scientists began to argue that race was not a useful variable in genetic research and that its continued use represents a potential source of confusion and harm. The racial categories that some believed to be helpful in studying genetic diversity in humans are largely irrelevant. A person’s skin tone, eye color, and hair texture are functions of their genetic makeup, but there is actually more genetic variation within a given racial category than there is between racial categories. In some cases, focus on race has led to difficulties with misdiagnoses and/or underdiagnoses of diseases ranging from sickle cell anemia to cystic fibrosis. Some argue that we need to distinguish between ancestry and race and then focus on ancestry. This approach would facilitate a greater understanding of human genetic diversity (Yudell et al., 2016).

Text Attributions

This section contains material adapted from:

Spielman, R. M., Jenkins, W. J., & Lovett, M. D. (2020). 3.1 Human Genetics. In Psychology 2e. OpenStax. Access for free at License: CC BY 4.0 DEED.



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