We’re going to have some very difficult questions to answer in the next decade. Advances in genetics are revealing more and more concrete examples of how our behavior, both as individuals and a society, is affected by our genes. Unfortunately, the current sociopolitical climate doesn’t offer a lot of hope for our chances of giving the questions an objective evaluation.
Consider all the recent hype over the monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA), which journalist Ann Gibbons dubbed “the Warrior Gene.” Located on the X chromosome, the gene was discovered in an attempt to identify the underpinnings of antisocial and violent behavior in a group of related Dutch men. Subsequent research has solidified the link between MAOA and various dysfunctional behaviors. In a Florida State study, MAOA-L was linked to both increased gang participation in teens and increased likelihood to use a weapon in gang-related violence. Numerous other studies have found similar correlations.
But there are several problems with this research that are already becoming evident, and this writer is admittedly at a loss to come up with any easy solutions. The media often portray things in a misleading or downright wrong light. There are no genes that effectively “pull strings” and lead directly to abnormal or dysfunctional behavior, but it seems like every other headline is touting a “violence gene” or “rape gene” or “alcoholic gene.”
The so-called “warrior gene” is actually just a molecular garbage collector. It encodes a protein that breaks down some of the brain’s signalling molecules when they have outlived their usefulness – including serotonin, noradrenalin and dopamine. If it slacks on the job, the build-up of these neurotransmitters leads to abnormal moods and behaviour.
The chemical effect of gene expression on the brain is a remarkably complex phenomenon, and direct lines of causation are precious few and far between. Most genes have multiple functions, and are in turn influenced in myriad subtle ways by the expression of thousands more genes.
- Genes are not direct lines of causation. The media is fond of latching on to genetic discoveries and making a big deal out of things like the “alcoholism gene” or the “rape gene.” But behavior is not as simple as a gene pulling a string on a puppet and causing a specific action. Instead, environment and genes are inseparable sides of one coin. For example, in nearly all of the research on MAOA, there has been an environmental contingency. Almost a third of Caucasians carry the MAOA variant implicated in the teen gang research, but very few of them join gangs or commit violent crimes with weapons. Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt of Duke University discovered that MAOA-L‘s connection to violence was also strongly correlated to childhood abuse. In other words, IF a person is abused as a child AND has the gene, they are more likely to be violent than children who are abused and do not have the gene. No abuse, no correlation.
- The Good With the Bad. In 2005, it was discovered that dopamine agonists, used to treat Parkinson’s Disease, have the curious effect of creating pathological gambling addiction in a startlingly high percentage of patients. Here, the line between cause and effect becomes even blurrier. Dopamine is clearly linked to pleasure, and it’s well known that pathological gamblers get “high” on the “reward center” of their brains when gambling. Dopamine agonists are drugs which restore or improve the brain chemical signaling system dependent on dopamine. But what of the gene(s) which predispose people to developing Parkinson’s disease? Are those genes responsible for causing the “gambling effect” when dopamine agonists are introduced as an environmental stimulus? What if a person without Parkinson’s took the same drug? This is a very simple example, but it illustrates that genetic effects in and of themselves are not always “good” or “bad.” Being treated for Parkinson’s is “good,” but pathological gambling is “bad.” How can we possibly weigh all of the implications of a particular genetic predisposition?
These two examples illustrate how complicated and frankly wrong-headed is the common layman’s understanding of how genetics and behavior are connected. Sadly, politicians, lobbyists, and lawyers are usually not scientists, and are not required to demonstrate a reasonable scientific understanding of the relationship before they are allowed to pass judgment or laws.
In 2009, an Albanian Muslim named Abdelmalek Bayout was convicted of murdering Walter Perez. Bayout had become enraged when Perez taunted him for wearing eye makeup. After being sentenced, Bayout appealed and received a lighter sentence when the defense presented evidence that he was genetically predisposed to violence — by none other than the MAOA gene.
Critics raised a valid point: If Bayout is genetically predisposed to killing people over insults, shouldn’t he be locked up for longer? After all, what could be more concrete evidence that he will be a repeat offender than his defective genes? But then, if we begin doling out lighter or harsher sentences based on genetics, are we prepared for the consequences? If legal loopholes are incomprehensible now, how much worse would it be when both the prosecution and defense have thousands of potential “behavior” genes to present as evidence — to jurors who likely have no idea how genetics and behavior work?
From where I sit, there’s yet another factor to consider. Bayout is a member of a religio-cultural environment that encourages and promotes violence as retaliation for insult. (They’re the folks who think cartoonists Matt Stone and Trey Parker should be killed for portraying Mohammed on South Park.) More importantly, we should note that the prevalent style of parenting in this culture is correctly likened to brainwashing and indoctrination. If we were to conduct a thorough study of extremist Muslims, would we find a correlation between childhood Islamic indoctrination, MAOA, and the propensity for violent retaliation to insult?
I have no idea, but if there is a correlation between childhood abuse, genes, and adult criminal behavior, it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that there might also be a correlation between childhood indoctrination (which has been likened to child abuse by more than one pundit), genes, and adult criminal behavior.
This, of course, raises a lot of political ire, and well it ought. Scientists are not in the business of making laws, but their discoveries are important pieces of information that ought to be considered when forming social and legal policy. What if scientists discovered a concrete link between fundamentalist Christian indoctrination and adult criminal dysfunction?* Is it the “American Way” to continue to allow religious parental freedom even when it’s been proven to lead to social costs, or is it better to effectively outlaw some methods of childrearing for the “good of the many”?
Currently, child abuse is outlawed in the U.S. While the boundaries of abuse are sometimes necessarily vague, the governing principle seems relatively intact. In general, it is understood that “harm or threatened harm to a child’s health or welfare that occurs through nonaccidental physical or mental injury… or maltreatment by a parent” is abuse. But what if our understanding of genetics demands a re-evaluation of our concept of “harm”? If it could be shown that a particular gene plus indoctrination into a particular mindset (religious or otherwise) resulted in a high probability of criminal adult behavior, could we begin to think of harm as “contributing to the significant increase in a child’s probability of committing crimes as an adult”? All of the laws against child abuse now focus on current suffering, but what impact will genetics have on our understanding of the long term consequences of child abuse?
So what happens if scientific advances demand a re-thinking of “harm” as it applies to a parenting practice and the presence of “violence genes”? It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a religious practice, but what if it was? Would religious and emotional objections trump science, as they recently did in Nebraska? Ironically, legitimate objections to outlawing religious abuse could come from both sides of the political fence. Liberals would be right in claiming that some societal ills are a fair price to pay for individual liberty. Conservatives would be right in claiming that restricting a parent’s childrearing rights is equivalent to banning a religion — which is unconstitutional.
Then there’s the purely philosophical argument that preventing an action based on its prevention of future crime is downright Orwellian. The “thought police” are only a couple of baby steps removed from the “genetic potential police.”
Still, there are real ethical considerations when it becomes obvious that environmental factors under our conscious control are intrinsically linked to our genetic predispositions, and that certain individuals really are more susceptible to specific stimuli. Granted, it’s wrong to say that a certain gene “causes” a specific behavior. But by the same token, it’s wrong to discount genetics entirely and thus ignore the profound potential for improving individual and societal life through an understanding of environmental influence on genes.
Perhaps there will never be a political scenario in which liberty can be maintained while preventing crimes linked to genes. If that is true, then the moral impetus falls even more squarely on individuals. And if individuals are the ones who will affect positive change, then it’s imperative that enough individuals are educated as good critical thinkers with a sound understanding of basic evolution. To say that this is a political minefield is akin to describing AIDS as a “minor medical inconvenience.” But ignorance has never been a cure for political complexity. And it’s frankly unconscionable for learned freethinkers to bury their heads in the sand while science is misunderstood and misrepresented in such an important discussion.
* It might well be argued that research has shown no appreciable correlation between devoted Christian upbringing and adult dysfunction. While this is true, I must point out that I have been unable to locate any research that specifically isolated extremist fundamentalist upbringing in such atmospheres as extremely restrictive home-school environments. It is also worth pointing out that religious devotion is different in kind from the degree of delusional ideation and indoctrination. One can be a fervently devoted Episcopalian and believe firmly in evolution and science in general.