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The Genetics of Violence

Oct 08, 1999 2719 Words
The Genetics of Violence

We, in the 1990's, are slowly and inevitably being faced with the sociological and biological implications of impending genetic power. This power is analytical, in such cases as the Human Genome Project, which will hopefully succeed in mapping out the genetic code for the entire human genetic composition. Moreover, this power is preventative and participatory in that it can be, and is being, used to control the behavior of humans and other animals. This new power, in the eyes of many, is as risky and potentially hazardous as atomic energy: it must be treated carefully, used under close supervision, performed under professional consent and observation, otherwise, people will begin to see this new genetic power as a dangerous drawback, rather than an advancement of human culture.

One of the most highly contested and objectionable topics of genetic power is the analysis of crime, violence, and impulsivity. Doubtless, most will agree that children are not born with a natural affinity for violence and crime; yet, new genetic studies are beginning down a long road of finding the hereditary basis for impulsivity. While these studies continue to search for the genetic source of aggression, child testing programs, drug manufacturers, civil rights activists, lawyers, and anxious citizens await the resulting testimony of the scientists. The social implications of the genetic search for aggressive tendency is seen by some as a great step forward, by others as a dangerous power with the ability to give birth to another Holocaust, and by still others as racist.

At one time, it was believed that one's character could be determined from the bumps in one's skull. Much later, in the 1960's, as science marched on in its regular pace, it was theorized that carriers of an extra Y (male) chromosome were predisposed to criminality. Today, we are faced with the power to determine and alter one's character through genetics. We must collectively decide whether the ultimate price, not of money but of natural evolution, is worth the ultimate result.

Behavioral Genetics and Aggression
One day in 1978 a woman entered the University Hospital of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, with complaints regarding the men in her family. Many of the men seemed to have some sort of mental debility, including her brothers and her son. In time, a pattern of strange behavior of the men emerged: one had raped his sister, and, upon being institutionalized, stabbed a warden in the chest with a pitchfork; another tried to run over his boss in an automobile after he had criticized the man's work; a third had a regular habit of making his sisters undress at knife point, and two more were convicted arsonists. Additionally, the known IQ's of the men were typically around 85. The history of this sort of behavior was found to be typical, as nine other males in the family, tracing back to 1870, had the same type of disorder. It became evident that there was something wrong in the lineage of the family. Hans Brunner, a geneticist at the University Hospital, has been studying the family since 1988.

It was discovered that the men had a defect on the X chromosome that helps regulate aggressive behavior. Brunner was cued to the fact that the defect was on the X chromosome because the trait was passed on from mother to son, and none of the women, with two X chromosomes, were afflicted. The gene normally codes for the production of the enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), which breaks down three important neurotransmitters that trigger or inhibit the transmission of nerve impulses. One of these neurotransmitters is norepinephrine, which raises blood pressure and increases alertness as part of the body's "fight or flight" mechanism. Brunner believes that the lack of this neurotransmitter could cause an excess of chemical messages to the brain, in times of stress, causing the victim's fury. The men's urine found extremely low levels of the breakdown products of the three neurotransmitters, which are the breakdown products after MAOA has done its work.

Another of the chemicals is serotonin, which inhibits the effects of spontaneous neuronal firing, and consequently exerts a calming effect. The lack of this inhibitor is held responsible for the "Jekyll and Hyde" personalities of the afflicted men, and may be responsible for their low IQ's.

Over the course of four years, Brunner was the first to ever link and pinpoint a single gene to aggression. Also, he analyzed the X chromosomes of 28 members of the family, compiling sufficient evidence to prove his discovery. However, Brunner never studied the influence of a shared environment on the men.

Many other factors of genetic and biochemical signals have been shown to greatly influence behavior. In humans, impulsive aggression has been linked to low concentrations of a chemical known as 5-HIAA in the cerebrospinal fluid. Scientists have found a human gene which lies on chromosome 6 that creates a 25 percent higher susceptibility to schizophrenia. Also, MAOA has been found responsible for REM sleep deprivation in rats, which increases the incidence of fighting among the animals. Testosterone levels in repeated sex offenders is, almost without exception, extremely high. The National Research Council (NRC) reports that female mice and rhesus monkeys which have been injected with testosterone, in utero or at birth, repeatedly show more aggression at adulthood than others of their kind. Girls exposed to androgenic steroids in utero have an increased tendency to be more aggressive than their piers, where boys injected with anti-androgenic drugs were not as aggressive as their peers. The neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid has been shown not only to inhibit aggression, but may stimulate the brain as well. This may be the reason that the IQ's of the afflicted Dutch men were so low. In any case, all of these chemicals, in a natural setting, are ultimately determined by the genetic composition of the individual, and ample evidence exists that instances of aggressive behavior and crime are closely related to genetics.

However, the relation between the environment, genetics, and aggression has not yet been combined. Psychology and behavioral genetics, unfortunately, are not combined as they sensibly should be. We know that Brunner never studied the effects of the environment on the Dutch men; yet, experimentation with animals has shown that, for example, aggressively bred mice can act non- aggressively if placed in the right social environment. Therefore, the name of "behavioral genetics" is finally beginning to live up to the literal meaning of its name through the study of social and environmental influences.

Parental Aggression and Genetics
While there is very little known about the combined effects of genetics and the environment, there is much to be said about the social tendency toward violence with regard to the genetics of offspring. For example, parents are 60 to 70 times more likely to kill their children under the age of two if they are not their genetic children. Fewer children are murdered by their stepparents as the age of the children increases, but, nonetheless, a much higher number of stepchildren are killed than genetic children. Moreover, male animals in the wild, such as mice and monkeys, often kill the offspring of their mate if the offspring is the product of another liaison. In humans, tribal men in Venezuela and Paraguay simply refuse to feed the children of their wives if the children are from another union, or simply demand that the children be put to death.

Few conclusions can be derived from these tendencies. Certainly, in humans, the tendency to murder stepchildren can not be determined as purely genetic. One could say that the cause is primarily social, as the stepchildren are from broken families where there is likely more tension and parental hostility towards children. Neither can animals' desire to kill the offspring of their mate that are not their genetic children be explained. Whether the desire to kill non-biological offspring is based on biology, sociology, or simple emotion, this example displays the difficulty of pinning any sort of aggressive or criminal behavior to a gene. It is also an example of the difficulty of using social and genetic evidence, together, to track the source of any animal behavior.

Society and Genetics
In the ten leading causes of death, violence kills more children than disease. In 1988, 8150 US children between the ages if one and fourteen; 840 of the deaths were clearly determined to be homicide; 237 were suicide. Homicide is the fourth leading cause of death for children between one and nine years old, and in the fifteen to twenty-four age group, it is the second leading cause of death. Obviously, crime and violence do a considerable amount of damage to many American lives. Consequently, limited amounts of genetic and other biological research is being performed in order to find a genetic link, if any, to aggression resulting in violence and crime. In 1989, $20 million in funds were dedicated to violence research; 5% of those funds were allocated to the biology of violence. There is so much conflict over the use of funds dealing with the genetics of violence that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds no specific studies that attempt to link genes and violence.

In August of 1992, the NIH allocated $78,000 to fund a controversial conference in an effort to assess the social implications of the Human Genome Project. The support was immediately withdrawn after black political leaders and psychologists charged the conference's agenda as being racist. The main opposition to the conference was formed by the Black Caucus, who argued that the roots of crime are based on social causes, such as poverty, racism, and unemployment, and these call on social solutions, not biological ones.

Finally, in September of 1995, some 70 biologists, criminologists, historians, and philosophers gathered at a remote conference center in the Chesapeake Bay region. It was an NIH-sponsored conference that had been carefully planned for over three years, made possible with a $133,000 from the NIH. Some of the scientists contended that if genes mold physiology, then they must mold psychology, and thus, antisocial behavior including violent crime must have a genetic component. Others at the conference pressed that evidence for genetic linkage to crime is circumstantial and a "racist pseudoscience".

Behind the tensions that seemed to dominate the conference was the horrors of past eugenics: the early twentieth-century campaign in the United States, and later in Germany, to purify the human gene pool by sterilizing the "feeble-minded." The leaders of the eugenics movement in the United States, although they acted out of sincere desire to build a better society, could do little when their ideas took root in Nazi Germany in the 1930's and soon became the Holocaust; this is where much genetic tension and fear stem from. One of the researchers, David Wasserman, a soft-spoken legal scholar, was shouting at the top of his lungs that, "There are a hell of a lot of people attending this conference who think the dangers of genetic research are as great in the long term as the dangers of atomic energy!" Many critics argued that the genetic studies are worse than inconclusive; they are racist and dangerous as they generally fail to recognize social issues. William Schneider, an Indiana University historian, in a formal protest statement, wrote, "Scientists as well as historians and sociologists must not allow themselves to be used to provide academic responsibility for racist pseudoscience."

Flag-waving demonstrators, including self described communists, members of the Progressive Labor Party, and representatives of Support Coalition International (an alliance of psychiatric survivors endorsing a program against psychiatric medication) stormed the auditorium and seized the microphones. A student from Rutgers University proclaimed that, "You might think that you have the right to do the research that you are doing, but the bottom line is that it will be used to subjugate people." It took two hours to clear out the protesters and another eight hours to bring the proceedings to a close. A few researchers admitted that they needed an eye-opener to see the social implications of behavioral genetics dealing with violence and crime, realizing that "Only historians have never had their results misused."

Other federal research agencies have proposed a variety of monetary packages to promote this research, and it is estimated that these funded projects will cost the taxpayers as much as $50 million. However, this is not the main concern of the opponents to this research. It is assumed that very little is, at present, known about the human mind and its tendencies. Many believe that there is an over-reliance on drugs therapy in psychiatry, and that genetic violence research is cloaking the real problem. For example, overwhelming numbers of black children with problems with violence and aggressiveness are sent to psychiatrists where they are prescribed to pacifying drugs such as Ritalin of Prozac. Many black leaders felt that it is impossible to believe that the genetic studies are not attempting to find a link between violence and race. The conference, while ultimately displaying the public's fear of genetic assessment and engineering, made little headway in determining the course of the future of genetic research with regard to crime. It was, however, a critical step in beginning to assess the risks and concerns, along with the positive aspects, of behavioral genetics.

Genetic research and engineering, like any other new technology, has to be carefully put to use, and in the right hands. It seems impossible to dismiss any genetic research dealing with violence simply because it is has the possibility to become dangerous and fall into the wrong hands. Like nuclear research, genetics can be used for many positive deeds and the advancement of man. While I think that genetic research dealing with violence and genetics could have many positive aspects, it seems necessary to perform genetic research on all varieties of people: criminals, white-collar businessmen, the white-house staff and used car salesmen. Criminals cannot be singled out as the group that needs "healing"; genetic research can ultimately benefit all people, therefore, it must be performed on a variety of people. I, like many others, with the widespread use of psychotherapeutic drugs, such as Prozac and Ritalin, fear and foresee a day when designer drugs are used by all in order to help them deal with society. This is, personally, the most frightening possibility resulting from behavioral genetic research.

A time will never come when all are avid proponents of genetic engineering for the betterment of society. People need to decide for themselves whether research should continue, and to what degree. In the end, it will be the common people who will decide the course of genetic research, not the scientists. And, in the event of genetic developments, it should not only be the personal decision of the individual as to how they will personally use the new development, but the individual's responsibility to design a solid opinion of their moral, ethical, and biological feelings regarding the employment of behavioral genetics in the future.


Brunner, H. G., et al., Abnormal Behavior Associated with a Point Mutation in the Structural Gene for Monoamine Oxidase A, Science, Vol. 161, 22 October 1993.

Goldberg, Jeff, The Bad Seed: Amid Controversy, Scientists Hunt for the "Aggression" Gene, Omni, Vol.17, Iss. 5, February 1995.

Hilts, Philip J., Evolutionists Take the Long View on Sex and Violence, Science, Vol 261, 20 August 1993.

Holden, Constance, NIH Kills Genes and Crime Grant, Science, Vol 260, Iss. 5108, 30 April, 1993.

McBeath, Michael K., Genetic Hint to Schizophrenia, Nature, Vol 340, No. 6321, May 13, 1995.

Oberbye, Dennis, Born to Raise Hell, Time, Vol. 143, Iss. 8, 21 February, 1994.

Palca, Joseph, NIH Wrestles with Furor over Conference, Science, Vol. 257, Iss. 5071, 7 August, 1992.

Richardson, Sara, Violence in the Blood, Discover, Vol. 355, No. 4553, October 1993.

Roush, Wade, Conflict Marks Crime Conference, Science, Vol. 269, Iss. 5232, 29 September, 1995

Stone, Richard, HHS ‘Violence and Initiative' Caught in a Crossfire, Science, Vol. 258, Iss. 5080, 9 October, 1992.

Stephens, Jane Ellen, The Biology of Violence, Bioscience, Vol. 44, Iss. 5, May 1994.

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