Promoting a Genetic Basis for Crime

Posted by Pete Shanks on June 23rd, 2011

DNA as handcuffs

The National Institute of Justice held its annual conference this week, and to herald it the New York Times published an article titled "Genetic Basis for Crime: A New Look." The link to the conference itself was somewhat flimsy, highlighting the phrase "new genetic markers" from the description of one panel discussion about forensic databases and software (pdf linked here), but the article's topic was clear:

A small cadre of experts is exploring how genes might heighten the risk of committing a crime and whether such a trait can be inherited.

That a few scientists are promoting this is certainly the case. And another cadre of experts is outraged about it. Ken Weiss, Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology and Genetics at Penn State University, fulminated in his blog:

Eugenics is back...and YOU are paying for it!
It didn't take a genius to predict that the fervid ideology driven by genomic technology would lead to a revival of the geneticizing of every human trait, and once behavior was allowed back into the tent that we'd see eugenics not far behind. And a story in the NYTimes suggests that criminality is already back in apparent good graces.

Dan Agin, Associate Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago, was blunter, at a well-known website my union prefers I not link to, calling it "another example of crap journalism by people who ought to know better."

We should note that in the middle of the piece was a paragraph briefly paraphrasing and lightly quoting Troy Duster: "Every era believes that the technology and the methodology have improved, but the science itself is problematic." The quote is accurate but very incomplete; when I checked with him, he told me that it's all that's left of a 90-minute conversation. Duster's 2005 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association (pdf) remains extremely relevant, on the challenges presented by reductionist science, and the funding it tends to attract. But the Times article buries, and barely recognizes, his critique.

Much more space was given to Steven Pinker, the controversial author of The Blank Slate who has another book on the way, and to the up-and-coming Kevin Beaver. Beaver was the source of the "gangsta gene" we noted in 2009. His samples are small and his statistics seem to be dubious, but he does have a nose for the news hook.

The Times is not alone. The Chronicle of Higher Education on June 12 ran a profile of another scientist the Times story featured, Adrian Raine. It was titled "Criminal Minds," but the page descriptor was: "Can This Man Predict Whether Your Child Will Become a Criminal?" And the pull quote, attributed to Raine, is so classic some have suggested it is satirical:

"Are you going to have blood on your hands in the future because you've blocked an approach that could lead to lives being saved?"

Raine is the author of many other papers, including "From Genes to Brain to Antisocial Behavior" (2008; abstract here). That one is notable because, in addition to the process described in the title, it strongly emphasizes the importance of the environment, both in affecting gene expression and in providing triggers or moderating influences. But somehow that didn't make the lead. Would it be too cynical to suggest that studies of genetic influences are easier to fund than research that might promote the alleviation of adverse social conditions?

Meanwhile, the Atlantic, in its July/August issue, has a long article called "The Brain on Trial." This is more about sentencing and the appropriate treatment of those suffering from identifiable conditions, such as tumors, that can result in criminal behavior. It discusses genes, but in relation to the environment, and with an appropriate mention of the Y chromosome (which is associated with "98.1 percent of death-row inmates"). But still it serves to promote public discussion of links between biology and crime.

Another scholar heavily quoted by the Times, Terrie Moffitt, was featured on NPR in February, when she published a study showing "that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes." Moffitt became well-known for papers such as "Role of Genotype in the Cycle of Violence in Maltreated Children" (Science, 2002, abstract), but she does emphasize interactions with the environment. So do most of the people quoted in the Times article. Indeed, Agin is not far off in saying that it could have been titled "Causes of Crime: Importance of Social Context Reaffirmed." So why wasn't it?

For completely mysterious reasons, the Times editors placed the article in the Arts section. Perhaps they thought it was science fiction.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in DNA Forensics, Media Coverage, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Sequencing & Genomics


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