The Genome and The Law: Or Should Increased Genetic Knowledge Change The Law?

E. Donald Elliott, Yale Law School


The title of this symposium asks: "Does scientific knowledge change the law?" On one level, the answer is obvious: of course, science and technology are always changing the law. As a matter of positive description, law is an integral part of a culture, and as cultural knowledge and beliefs about human nature change, law inevitably changes with them. But the more interesting and important question is the normative one: how should our law change in light of increasing knowledge of the human genome? That will be a central question occupying legal thought in coming decades as progress in genetics changes not only our understanding of human nature, but also our ability to manipulate human nature. Just as legal scholars in prior decades struggled to incorporate the Freudian view of human nature into law,3 in the coming decades we will struggle to incorporate a genetic and evolutionary conception of human nature into law. Today, I do not purport to have the answers, but I can identify a few important legal questions that the genetic and evolutionary revolution in human understanding presents.