Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Genes, Violence, and Testing

The abstract of an article in Molecular Psychiatry entitled Genetic background of extreme violent behavior reads as follows:

In developed countries, the majority of all violent crime is committed by a small group of antisocial recidivistic offenders, but no genes have been shown to contribute to recidivistic violent offending or severe violent behavior, such as homicide. Our results, from two independent cohorts of Finnish prisoners, revealed that a monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) low-activity genotype (contributing to low dopamine turnover rate) as well as the CDH13 gene (coding for neuronal membrane adhesion protein) are associated with extremely violent behavior (at least 10 committed homicides, attempted homicides or batteries). No substantial signal was observed for either MAOA or CDH13 among non-violent offenders, indicating that findings were specific for violent offending, and not largely attributable to substance abuse or antisocial personality disorder. These results indicate both low monoamine metabolism and neuronal membrane dysfunction as plausible factors in the etiology of extreme criminal violent behavior, and imply that at least about 5–10% of all severe violent crime in Finland is attributable to the aforementioned MAOA and CDH13 genotypes.

Now, we are in the early phases of something that will be one day be termed a genetic revolution. Whatever is known about genetic influences on crime (or anything else, for that matter) pales in comparison to what will be known in a couple of decades. We may not be far from the point where a journal article tells us about eighteen, twenty or fifty three genotypes that explain 85% or 90% or 99.9% of all severe violent crime in Finland. So it pays to think about the big questions early.

And this abstract raises one big question: what if we have the tools to detect those most likely to commit the worst of the worst violent crimes? Biology is not destiny, and some percentage of people who have a tendency toward violence (a big percentage? a small percentage?) may have the fortitude or wherewithal not to follow through. Or to avoid getting caught, which legally amounts to the same thing, though not for the victim(s). That makes widespread testing for these traits problematic, particularly if it were mandatory.

On the other hand, if the genetic link with violence turns out to be sufficiently strong, one can imagine situations arising where people formed associations whose membership is based on disclosure of results of tests for specific genetic traits. I’m guessing parents of young children would join en masse. Exactly what those voluntary associations might look like, and whether they could actually exclude those who “failed” or “tested positive” for the wrong thing might be something future courts will be considering. As long as nobody was being coerced, such situations might be deemed legal. All sorts of things seem to be legal depending on the context. For instance, age discrimination is illegal when it comes to jobs, but seems to be perfectly acceptable when it comes to determining who can live in a retirement community.

One additional tidbit of information worth considering. Despite a number of silly articles in the early oughts that violated all semblance of common sense, not to mention some insane drivel coming out of a few corners of academia today, increased levels of testosterone are associated with aggressive behavior. Testosterone, of course, happens to be the primary male sex hormone, and that’s a big part of the reason that in just about every human society, at just about every point in time, males have been the perpetrators of the overwhelming majority of the violence. (It goes for other primates too.)

Anyway, what can, what should, and what will be done may be three separate questions in a few decades. That’s all too far out for me to have a good idea of the shape of what is to come, but it will tremendously affect society and how we live.  What are your thoughts?

Tags: , , Comments (35) | |

What do we owe Raf & Laura Brannigan?

Self Control is one of the defining music hits of the 1980s. It was first released in 1984 by Italian singer-songwriter Raf (his first single). It was also released almost contemporaneously by Laura Brannigan.

The song includes these lyrics:

You take my self you take my self control
I I live among the creatures of the night
I haven’t got the will to try and fight

The first line of the quote I provided is wrong. Not in the sense that those words aren’t lyrics for the song, but in the sense that a person’s self-control does not get taken by someone else. I’ve stumbled on a number of papers published recently that noted something along these lines:

While the link between low self-control and several behavioral and social problems is widely supported, debate remains regarding the stability of and the genetic and environmental sources of variation in self-control. Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class 1998–1999 restricted data set, a sample of 360 twins was compared to a sample of 423 non-twins in order to examine the stability in self-control. The twin sample was also used to examine the genetic and environmental sources of stability in self-control. Findings indicated two stable classes for both the twin and singleton samples, and substantial stability in average self-control from kindergarten through fifth grade in both samples. The ACE decomposition model indicated strong genetic contributions to self-control (76%) with the remaining variation attributed to non-shared environment. Overall, the data suggest that self-control is identifiable early in life, stable across childhood, increasingly influenced by genes, and thus, is a critical focus for early intervention.

And it turns out that other papers show that self control really matters:

Policy-makers are considering large-scale programs aimed at self-control to improve citizens’ health and wealth and reduce crime. Experimental and economic studies suggest such programs could reap benefits. Yet, is self-control important for the health, wealth, and public safety of the population? Following a cohort of 1,000 children from birth to the age of 32 y, we show that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes, following a gradient of self-control. Effects of children’s self-control could be disentangled from their intelligence and social class as well as from mistakes they made as adolescents. In another cohort of 500 sibling-pairs, the sibling with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background. Interventions addressing self-control might reduce a panoply of societal costs, save taxpayers money, and promote prosperity.

Its been pointed out before that some aspect of criminality is also genetic. And criminal tendencies are also tied to behaviors that can increase the likelihood someone is poor.

All of which leads to some ethical dilemmas. I think most people are comfortable with the idea that society works better if there is a safety net that helps people who through no fault of their own are down on their luck. The “through no fault of their own” argument applies very easily to a hard working conscientious guy whose job got outsourced to China. Does it apply as smoothly to someone who accepts his natural tendency to avoid labor altogether? What about the 17 year old whose lack of self-control caused him to fail several grades and landed him in juvie for assault? Do you want him in the same classroom with your eighth grader?

But those are the stuff of late night college BS sessions. Try this out if you want a thorny problem… We all know there is a genetic component to homosexuality. What we don’t all know is that there is also a genetic component to homophobia. The study of genes is in its early stages and it is naive to think there aren’t many other examples of “trait X is heritable” and “dislike of trait X is heritable.” Can we all just get along if our genes can’t all get along?

The universe does not have a sense of humor.

Tags: , , Comments (18) | |