The Genetic Killer

This article originally appeared on Disinfo.com

Another proposed “solution” to the mass shootings in America is sure to upset many camps; privacy advocates, mental health care advocates, and even those calling for the heads of the murderers. Soon we will have the results of genetic analysis of Adam Lanza, which may be used by scientists to model genetic predispositions of violence, or by defense attorneys in their pleas. This controversial science is being criticized from all sides, condemned as “misguided and could lead to dangerous stigmatization.”

via Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks:

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.”

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.

While I have mulled the utility of psychopathy testing before (mostly to weed out serial killers and white-collar criminals), I certainly don’t want to demonize mental illness. I also don’t want to see this turned into a genetic witchhunt, with public registries that would affect hiring, insurance rates, or result in other forms of discrimination or revocation of rights. Not only is it unknown for sure if Adam Lanza (or even James Holmes, for that matter) suffered from mental illness or disorder, but depending on the definitions, as many as 1-in-4 Americans might fall into this camp. This framing also narrowly and unfairly decides what is “normative,” always a dangerous proposition for society.

This sort of ‘registration’ might end up much worse for our liberty and democracy than any gun registration, by orders of magnitude. Especially if, as indicated by our elected leaders and the NRA, we are more concerned with tracking and banning these individuals than providing resources and help.

It sets a scary precedent, but it is also the observable evidence-based realm of science. Should we even go there? What do you think?

Read the artice in Nature, and follow Mind Hacks for more in-depth analysis of complex psychological and neurological issues.

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