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.