Genetics and Evolution

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Genetics of Criminal and Antisocial BehaviourReview - Genetics of Criminal and Antisocial Behaviour
by Gregory Bock and Jamie Goode(Editors)
John Wiley & Son, 1996
Review by James Luberda
Feb 28th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 9)

Perhaps as long as we have been aware of the link between genes and such manifestly biological traits such as eye color, people have wondered whether specific psychological traits or social behaviors might bear a similarly genetic character. Indeed, some have hoped that if genes really do determine whether or not someone will commit crimes, be adulterous or violent, we might be able to eliminate these aspects of human behavior altogether. Some thirty-odd years ago, a Ciba Foundation Symposium volume with the sweeping title Man and His Future appeared, providing a forum for the musings of some well-known scientists upon the rapidly accumulating developments in genetic science. Many of the contributors, among them the notable eugenics-promoter Sir Julian Huxley, argued that it was incumbent upon the developing science of genetics to find ways of improving the genetic stock of the human race. Though sentiments like these were vigorously opposed by some of the other participants, one of the larger issues that came out of the debate was that then-current scientific knowledge was inadequate to the task of deciding even which factors one might be able to select for, regardless of whether or not active intervention in the process were ethical or even desirable.

Flash forward thirty years, and in place of Man and His Future, we have the sober Genetics of Criminal and Antisocial Behavior, based upon a Ciba Foundation Symposium of the same name held in 1995. This volume, like the others in the Ciba Foundation series, is composed of the papers that were presented at the symposium and transcripts of the discussions that followed them. Like the earlier volume, this one also offers a sense of the implications of current research in the genetic basis of human behavior, as well as the attitudes of the scientists who are doing it. However, we find no counterpart to Huxley here, and this is a testament to the increasing maturity of the science. Rather, the papers and discussion presented in Genetics are cautionary, thoughtful, and, in a word, responsible. Indeed, perhaps the most valuable feature of the Ciba series, retained in the present volume, is the inclusion of the discussion transcripts, for it is in these that an outsider is given an opportunity to see the give-and-take of critical dialogue take place. And from this dialogue, it is very evident that the heavy genetic determinism that prompted people like Huxley to push eugenics as a solution to the world's ills no longer seems plausible, as it did just a few decades back.

Evidence of changed attitudes among working scientists concerning a genetic role in psychological and social traits appears throughout the volume. Various contributors acknowledge throughout that "criminality" and "antisocial" behavior are very difficult to characterize with any precision, and are categories that are socially constructed, admitting of differences across times and cultures. Further, the question of genetic influence on criminal and antisocial behavior is framed in terms of how genetic influences may predispose a person to certain behaviors, with environment (both social as well as chemical, with the latter ranging from the womb to contents of the air we breathe) always entering in as a mediating factor. The work being reported upon includes the now-common twin and adoption studies, as well as comparative studies using other animals as models.

While many of the fourteen papers included in this volume are rather technical research reports, the discussions are fairly accessible, and some papers, such as Jonathan Glover's "The Implications for Responsibility of Possible Genetic Factors in the Explanation of Violence," merit wider reading than this volume is likely to get. Glover begins with a dismissal of genetic factors as heavily determining behavior, but suggests that even allowing for the effects of environment does not get us out of the larger deterministic quandary. If we come to accept the real consequences of saying that an individual's behavior is largely or completely shaped by genetic and environmental influences, we will need what he calls a "revised view of blame," one that might be characterized as a kind of "aesthetic appraisal of a person's character" rather than an attribution of causality. Indeed, Glover points up the real ethical and philosophical challenge that we will face with increasing frequency over the next hundred years.

Also of interest to a broader audience is Deborah Denno's piece on the legal implications of the crime and genetics research; in her paper she briefly reviews two of the more well-known (and generally unsuccessful) attempts to utilize genetic research in criminal defense, including the now defunct link between the XYY chromosome syndrome and aggressive behavior, with an eye towards future uses of crime-genetics research. Her paper suggests that as concerns the legal system, the general reception of genetic research in court is likely to be vague and inconsistent, and, when it is used, such research will be used to argue for mitigating factors, not a wholesale defense. With free will being the bedrock upon which the legal system is built, it is not surprising that genetic research, at least for now, is received as Denno describes it.

In the end, the picture presented by Genetics is a nuanced one, suggesting none of the oversimplification or ignorance that marked earlier, more enthusiastic hypotheses as to the role of genes in determining behavior. Yes, genes are likely to play some role in all of the most fundamental features of human biology, including the biology of the brain/mind. However, this role is by no means absolutely deterministic, especially in light of our growing awareness of the complexity of interactions between the developing organism and its material and social environments. This shift in orientation over the last thirty years is promising, and suggests real progress. Unfortunately, many of the recent books to come out of the popular press as a result of the Human Genome Project seem to be written with the science of Man and his Future in mind, rather than that reported in Genetics. Though most make at least a nod to environment, titles such as Matt Ridley's Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (1999) and William Wright's odious Born That Way: Genes, Behavior, Personality (1998) are likely to lead their readers into dangerously reductive understandings of the role of genes in human behavior. Although not published for a popular audience, those who are interested in seeing the actual research into genetics and behavior, and the conversations of those who are performing it, would do well to look into Genetics of Criminal and Antisocial Behavior.

James Luberda is in the PhD program in English at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. His research concerns the intersection of cognitive science, literary studies, and composition.


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