The Genetics Of Violence Essay Research Paper

The Genetics Of Violence Essay, Research Paper The Genetics of Violence Introduction We, in the 1990?s, are slowly and inevitably being faced with the sociological and biological implications of impending genetic power. This power

The Genetics Of Violence Essay, Research Paper

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


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


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


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


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