The search for a genetic killer

Photo by Flickr user Null Value. Click for source.The medical examiner for the Sandy Hook shooting has requested a genetic analysis of killer Adam Lanza. Following this, a powerful editorial in the science magazine Nature has condemned the move suggesting it is “misguided and could lead to dangerous stigmatization.”

But the request to analyse the DNA of Lanza is just the latest in a long line of attempts to account for the behaviour of individual killers in terms of genetics.

Perhaps the first attempt was for a case that bears more than a surface resemblance to the Sandy Hook shooting. In 1998, a 15-year-old high school student called Kip Kinkel killed both of his parents before driving to school and shooting 24 students, one of whom died.

In his trial a child psychiatrist argued that Kinkel had “genetic loading” that made him susceptible to mental illness and violence.

His appeal also relied upon this angle. His lawyer argued that “owing to a genetic predisposition, and therefore through no conscious fault of his own, the defendant suffers a mental illness resulting in committing his crimes.”

Perhaps for the first in decades, an appeal to genetics was used in an attempt to explain the killer’s behaviour.

The genetic arguments became more sophisticated with the trial of serial killer Cary Stayner where a psychiatrist and geneticist presented a genealogy of the his family showing how mental illness and violence ‘ran through the family’.

By the time of the trial of murderer Stephen Mobley, the defence based part of their case on molecular genetics – suggesting that Mobley had a version of the MAOA gene that made him susceptible to violence.

It’s worth noting that none of these appeals to genetics have been successful in the courtroom but it’s interesting that in light of the tragic events in Sandy Hook there has been, yet again, a look towards genetics to try and make sense of the killer – this time presumably based on the yet more advanced technology of whole DNA sequencing.

On this occasion, however, the reasons seems less related to issues of legal responsibility and more for scientific motivations, supposedly to better understand the ‘DNA of a killer’.

As the Nature editorial makes clear, this is foolish:

There is no one-to-one relationship between genetics and mental health or between mental health and violence. Something as simple as a DNA sequence cannot explain anything as complex as behaviour.

However, it shows an interesting shift away from the courtroom genetics of past incidents to a ‘public health’ approach, where, as sociologist Nikolas Rose has noted, the justification is given…

…not in the language of law and rights, but in terms of the priority of protecting “normal people” against risks that threaten their security and contentment. Biological factors are merely one set of factors among others predisposing individuals to antisocial conduct, and “therapeutic interven­tions” are proposed for the good of both the individual and society.

There is a valuable science of understanding how genetics influences violent behaviour but analysis of individual killers will tell us very little about their motivations.

It does, however, reflect a desire to find something different in people who commit appalling crimes. Something that is comprehensible but distinct, alien but identifiable.

This may give us comfort, but it does little to provide answers. In the midst of tragedy, however, the two can easily be confused.

Link to Nature editorial.

13 thoughts on “The search for a genetic killer”

  1. Well it brings up an interesting question, can you retrospectively analyze a dead person? Most people just want to think they’re “above” violent rage as though there is no such thing as degrees in brain variation.

    Handguns and especially military grade weapons in the hands of citizens are far more likely to blow away innocent people than criminals. Just get them out of here.

  2. This has become one of my main topics of focus in the last few years. And my conclusion is that, as you said, this needs to be viewed as a public health issue.

    And it is telling how few public health officials ever focus on conditions like Cluster B personality disorders which, according to the DSM itself, something like 5 or 6% of people have. You’d think, given the way those with such disorders can influence those around them detrimentally, especially if they get in positions of power, that it would be a public health focus when 1 in 20 people has one. But oddly (and maybe even suspiciously) that focus never seems to come.

    I never see public service announcements, for instance, about these conditions. I see them for depression and bipolar disorder all the time. But never for Cluster B personality disorders or psychopathy. I find this negligent.

  3. I hate to bring as mundane issue as race to this scientific discussion but it seems that behavioral analysis genetic or otherwise, occurs only when the mass murderer is Caucasian. If they belong to other ethnicities then they are just psychopathic mass murderers, no doubt because their cultural environment is toxic, end of story. But middle class white kid and we need to analyze DNA, the phenomenon of bullying, impact of family history etc etc etc. I also agree with Amelie, the general public does not need military grade weapons for self defense. A shotgun or a revolver is enough.

  4. I am surprised that a journal as prestigous as Nature would make a statement as foolish as ” Something as simple as a DNA sequence cannot explain anything as complex as behaviour”.
    DNA sequences are anything but simple. Sure they look that way, put one of four molecules here and you get this put it there and you get that. But as we are still learning the sequencing carries an extraordinarily high level of complexity. What we thought of as junk genes 5 years ago we now know are an important part of the DNA strand. It will not be long before all kinds of human behaviour will be known to have a genetic predisposition.

  5. No judge in his or her right mind will ever accept genes as causes for any criminal action because that decision would make jurisdiction devoid of substance e.g it would give lawyers the boot!

  6. I certainly do not wish to burst any bubbles here, but what exactly are we looking for in the DNA? Take any child/person (of any race) and expose them to violent movies/violent video games, give them everything they want (except your time and attention), teach them (by example) that everything else (money,cars,sex,etc) is more important to you than they are and stir that up.

    Guess what, you get a little psycho who does not care about anyone else (including you)

    The solution? medicate them, thats right lets give them phycotrophic drugs and see what happens.

    The little psycho stops taking the meds one day and sneaks into your house and takes your LEGALLY purchased firearm and shoot you with it, then the little psycho starts to think about all the “other” people that have wronged him and he goes on a spree.

    There are a lot of factors at work here, there is no “one thing” that could have stopped this tragedy and I do not see that the DNA had anything to do with it.

    So please educate me

    1. Duane,on the surface level what you say makes some sense. You will also get no argument from many psychologists that experience plays a role in developement. What you outline though is a bit mild for creating a full blown psychopath. Usually they have been severely beaten on a regular basis by their caretakers. Often they have been repeatedly raped, this is particularly traumatizing for the boys. The reason that a genetic element is being looked for is that not everyone that experiences the same treatment reacts the same. It is theorized that there is some predetermining factor at work there.

  7. The question to me is- where does this end? Guys are more genetically prone to violence than women so should they not be punished when committing violent crimes? In Norway last year they had enough of the mental excuses- When psychologists deemed the massmurderer who killed 70 children insane the public wanted the decision reversed and have him sentenced like a normal man- a new mental profile was ordered and lo and behold- the man was suddenly sane. The underlying reason for this line of events, I believe, is that what is important is not whether someone acts freely or not- its easy to make the argument that free will doesn`t even exist (you can make the argument that it does too)- the important thing is whether it makes society function well to call someone insane or not and punish them accordingly. In the famous Stanford prison experiment most normal people are shown to be capable of murder, but just as interestingly to me, noone wants to put the participants in jail- not because they did not behave just as bad as many real murderers, since they thought they where killing someone, but because society would not work well if we send everyone to jail- we draw a line based on what makes society work well or not- not just based on genetics and acts of freedom although that is also of SOME interest when judging a case of murder.

    1. Henrik, you make some good points in the view of punishment. But what about prevention? If there is a possibility of a genetic link don’t you think that it would be worthwhile to find this out? In understanding the underlying causes there is better hope of preventing these events before they happen.

  8. So, you’re not responsible for what you do, it’s your genes that made you do it? Bit of a bummer for free will, innit?

    Before you know it, we’re back to eugenics. Which is neither good nor bad, just very, very tricky. Where to draw the line, who gets to decide, by what right?

    And let’s be clear, our advancing knowledge already has insurers salivating about the mere thought; getting sidelined by commercial agents in society based on your genes is a watered down version of same. This makes the full monty a necessary and useful extreme case to discuss.

    Note that our aversion to eugenics comes from people who put a very strong arbitrary ideological impetus on their decisions then ran with it. If we are to try again, how do we ensure it doesn’t go awry again, and anyway, what is right in the first place? And how do we make sure our moral high ground isn’t the same as sheer arrogance?

    Yet as much as we wanted to put it all behind us then, it has happened again even in the most enlightened states afterward, and in fact is still happening including on the basis of mere dislike some state has for some groups on its soil, quietly helping them perish.

    The easy answer is to choose to leave the issue well alone and let the village idiot live. But even trying to use it as a defense argument might well backfire, and then where will we end up? The worst thing is that we may end up having to tackle this anyway.

  9. Hey Neurotic ape, thank you for your reply. I agree it is relevant to look into possible genetic reasons why some people commit horrible crimes. It`s a huge challenge though as the article above also imply. People who suffer from manic-depression don´t have many children but depression is a world wide epidemic suggesting it isn`t a genetic problem but a cultural one (or maybe it`s something in our food). I think the same goes for violence. Therefore we need to look at the problems from a sociological perspective too and geneticists sometimes overlook that, I find. If genes can predict behaviour, however, scientists just have to predict behaviour and if their predictions are right we should take into consideration whether we should use these tools to prevent crime, or if there are other considerations that weigh heavier. We might be able to say that someone has a 25 percent change of becoming a criminal, but we can say that about some ethnic groups in some countris already now based on statistics, but it would be racist to assume that an individual within the group is prone to crime. In the same way geneism (racism on the basis of genes) might prevent us from using our findings in the interest of fighting crime, because the protection of the individual from geneism is more important.

    1. Hi Henrik, At this stage of the game it is still too early to predict results. There are definitely many factors which go into creating an individuals makeup and subsequent actions. What I am advocating is collecting as much data as possible. I think that it would be foolhardy to not look at genetic factors. Until we have adequate data we do not know what if any actions to take. When dealing with homicidal psycopaths I sincerely doubt that there is one single determing factor, it is more likely a combination of many factors. There is already a wealth of information which points to an individualls history as being part of the cause. At the moment there is not enough information to predict if someone will become a mass murderer. But there is much information that allows us to say that particular individuals are highly unlikely to become mass murderers. It seems to me that it is a matter of collecting more data and refining our processes of analyzing said data. Who knows, perhaps the future will allow us to actually remove particular genes before they express themselves.
      There is another line of thought that may say that mass murderers play an important function within our society. At face level this seems a bit hard to take. But when you take the complexity of human society and start to unravel its intricacies this may very well be the case. Ancient Eastern philosophy says that you need bad to truly understand good. Science is merely trying to quantify what many cultures already know on an anecdotal level.

      1. I like your variety of views on the subject as is expressed in the last part of your reply, but also your generel optimism regarding the possibilities of crime prevention as expressed in the first part. Lets hope we can do more in the future with the help of science and other means.

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