Tag Archives: killing

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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Absurdist Noir

Long ago, on the hallowed archives of xanga, I named and detailed a style and mindset called absurdist noir. What is it? Just the mixture of dark expressionistic themes of fatalistic eventuality and a whitefish sandwich with capers? Perhaps our existential loneliness in the vast aether of temporospatial emptiness that resembles the little boil on my toe that keeps coming back? Is it something grander, something inconsequential, something deep-seated and primordial like the heebie-jeebies, or Abe Vigoda?

What is absurdist noir?

It’s that sick twisted ending, leaving the audience to snicker and the protagonist to agonize and eventually cackle with mad laughter at the cold cruelty of chance and fate. It’s the irrational fear of things we cannot control, like quarks, or spacetime, or the fate of the cosmos. It’s madness.

It’s why good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.

It’s Schadenfreude, that part of every human that revels in someone else being hurt. It’s the Mel Brooks quote, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” It’s the opposite of the old George Washington quote, “be not glad at the misfortune of another, though he may be your enemy.”

It’s the essence of the dead baby or aristocrats joke, the juxtaposition of deeply horrific imagery and the absurd candor in telling it. The part of your own nature that surprises you and makes it funny. It’s a morbid black sense of humor but a whole lot more.

It’s politics. It’s conspiracy theory. It’s warfare. It’s history. It’s squick (which is most of the internet, anyway).

Firesign Theatre, a highly absurd (bordering on Dada) comedy troupe, crafted hapless characters in situations where they are persecuted, shuffled along, accused and at the mercy of unknowable authoritarian forces both Orwellian and Kafkan. From the ripped-straight-from-the-healines story of the natives in “Temporarily Humboldt County” to the more pointed Trial of P. in “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him“. Clem in “We’re All Bozos on This Bus” is one of the first computer hackers in popular culture, crashing the president (Nixon) of an electronic bureaucratic autocratic government of the future using a nonsensical string of unrelated words.

It’s a bad mushroom or acid trip that you remember fondly anyway.

It’s why, according to psychological research byproduct and books like Impro, the first things that come to mind in improvisational art or stream of consciousness are death, religion (esp. Jesus), and non-sequiturs (everything else). The same themes crop up in the ravings of the mad.

A ton of Warren Zevon makes me think of absurdist noir.

And a hell of a lot of Breaking Bad, for that matter.

A lot of noir is naturally absurd, like the end of Chinatown. A lot of absurdism is naturally noir, like the visceral gut feeling you get from Dali paintings; the unsettling or even disturbing mixture of sorrowful empathy and sniggering superiority when seeing a crying clown.

It’s our primeval and irrational fear of the darkness itself, and the instinctual pull toward it. It’s whenever somebody depicts that in their modalities of expression.

It’s a bunch of guys in clown masks robbing a race track.