Oedipus guides an exploration of genes and justice

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Like many Greek tragedies, the ideas of fate, free-will and chance are central themes to 'Oedipus Rex' – the ancient play which follows the King of Thebes as he discovers he has unwittingly killed his father and married his mother.

Fatos Selita, Professor Yulia Kovas and the cover of 'Oedipus Rex in the Genomic Era: Human Behaviour, Law and Society' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021)

But 2,500 years after Sophocles wrote his masterpiece, knowing as much as we do about the human genome, how can we understand these ideas? What does fate or chance mean, now so much is known about how the past, present and future is carried in human DNA? 

In an intriguing new book, Goldsmiths academics Yulia Kovas, Professor of Genetics and Psychology, and Fatos Selita, an English barrister and New York State attorney, explore existential, social, ethical, and legal concerns and dilemmas introduced by the Genomic Era.

'Oedipus Rex in the Genomic Era: Human Behaviour, Law and Society' was published by Palgrave Macmillan on 31 October 2021. 

We asked the authors how Sophocles’ 'Oedipus Rex' can be examined and understood anew through the prism of contemporary knowledge on genetics, and what we can still learn from Sophocles today. 

Sarah Cox: It is a really novel idea to bring classical literature, genetics and law together – how did this book and your co-authorship come together? 

Yulia Kovas: I first came across the play 'Oedipus Rex' when I studied the classics as part of my first degree in Literature. The play is so powerful and touches on so many human themes that once it enters the mind it stays there forever one way or another.  

Fatos Selita: The play is incredibly relevant to decision making in the justice system today; and particularly helpful to shedding light upon the forever-lasting conflicting beliefs on free will, punishment and praise.  

Between us we have an extremely eclectic set of degrees: Literature and Linguistics; Psychology; Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry; Behavioural Genetics; and Law. The idea for the book grew out of many years of teaching and discussing these themes with our students and colleagues. We teach interdisciplinary courses in Behavioural Genetics and Psychology; Genetics and Law; Decision Making; Psychology and Law, and we believe that true understanding of complex phenomena requires interdisciplinary examination.

We live in the Genomic Era, when knowledge about genetics is rapidly expanding and we are beginning to understand human behaviour in new ways. Applications of genetic knowledge in everyday life are growing, making acquisition of genetic knowledge the new literacy challenge for people. 

SC: What is the ‘Genomic Era’?

YK: Many genetic discoveries were made in the 20th century. In the 21st century, with the sequencing (reading) of our DNA code, we entered the Genomic Era when genetic technologies are rapidly developing and every day brings new knowledge about DNA and its role in human behaviour. It is predicted, that people living today will also experience a post-Genomic Era, where genetic knowledge will be widely applied in many areas of life, from medicine to life style planning. 

SC: How would you describe 'Oedipus Rex' to those who have not read or seen it performed, and what purpose do you understand Sophocles to have written it for? 

YK: 'Oedipus Rex' is a murder mystery; a play about rise and fall; about human will; about dangers of knowing the future; about systematic and stochastic processes that drive our behaviour. The play is just as striking and relevant today as in the 5th century BCE when thousands of spectators watched it during the theatre festival in an amphitheatre. 

SC: In Chapter 2 of 'Oedipus Rex in the Genomic Era' you explore behavioural genetics, illustrating genetic concepts with characters and events in 'Oedipus Rex'. What are some of the latest findings in behavioural genetics and the interplay of nature and nurture discussed here?

YK: The chapter examines adoption; blood relations and lineage; and similarities and differences of family members. Specifically, we focus on gene-environment interplay, including how chance interacts with genes to shape our life trajectories. We also explore a new field - epigenetics that provides explanations of exactly how early experiences can affect later life.

SC: You then explore the key pillars of a justice system – free will, control over behaviour and decision making - and how a new understanding of human behaviour can improve justice. What are some of the confusions and delusions about free will that people still hold today, as discussed in this chapter? 

FS: Sophocles uses an ingenious trick: the same crime is unwittingly judged differently by the same judge throughout the play. We examine how, 25 centuries later, we still have the same decision-making glitches, the same confusions over control, free will and deserving.  We also examine how these glitches and confusions continue to impede the justice process.

Behaviour is a product of multiple gene-environment processes, yet, when judging others, we act as if will were free of these processes. On the other hand, when judging our own actions, or those of people we sympathise or connect with, we apply different beliefs – for example, that we fell victim of circumstances. In this book, we discuss these confusions and delusions, as well as related confusions around the concepts of determinism, predetermination, fate and self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophecies. We also explore the will of the Self - how it is unique to each person and uniquely evolving. 

SC: Why is an understanding of behavioural genetics important or relevant for humanities or social science scholars? 

YK: Today, not considering genetics when thinking about human behaviour and the mind can be likened to trying to understand the universe by only studying what we can see in the sky with the naked eye; or to staying thirsty when the pool of freshest water is right in front of us. 

Human mind and behaviour are driven by a complex system of interacting elements. DNA is a major part of this system, with different genetic stories unravelling moment by moment in different cells of our body.  If we ignore these stories, we will be less knowledgeable and, in Sophocles’ words, we will continue to ‘err like fools’.