Tag Archives: neurology

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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How would you like to start a religion?

In Alain de Botton’s recent book; Religion for Atheists, the School of Life philosopher argues the benefits of religious thinking. He points out that the shared values in humanist philosophy and religion are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, the structures and traditions of each may be useful in creating a society that we can all agree is good and moral, regardless of their personal God (or lack of one).

Big Think – Alain de Botton “Religion for Atheists”

Those with brilliant acumen for realizing the essential effects of religious and spiritual thinking, as well as skeptical and critical thinking, should use every tool to navigate an otherwise trapped society ruled by charlatan plutarchs and snake-oil salesmen.

Tim Mawson has argued that atheists need to pray in an open-ended fashion, at the very least as a personal experiment to falsify the possibility of one’s own spiritual pantheon. Or is this a dubious step down the path to belief, activating and placating the God delusion parts of the brain? Or can a sufficiently intelligent brain maintain the divisions between outwardly-seeming contradictory systems of thought? Though Richard Dawkins would ask ‘what’s the point?’, many others ask ‘what’s the harm?’

Or as Kadam Morten (teacher in the New Kadampa tradition of Buddhism) explains, the neuro and cognitive sciences have shown an increasing benefit to the sustained practice of meditation, which can permanently change the structure of the brain and improve attentional capacity. Buddhists belief in the interdependence and interconnectedness of all things – a kind of unified theory of everything, and that all of reality is a distortion, which is echoed in the disconnect we know exists between physical reality, our sense organs, and the brain that illusorily compartmentalizes our experiences. Morten reminds us that the human capacity for love, compassion, peace, apology, happiness and joy all live in the brain, and can be understood through the lens of both spirituality or scientific discovery.

Since we all seem to be wired for belief, whatever the survival mechanism that brought us to this point, these instincts have clearly had a massive impact on religion, art, society, ethics and emotion. And while the corroborative neural pathways in humans and other animals can tell us a lot about brain evolution, the more subjective questions of emotion may always be beyond our grasp. How could we ever fully understand what emotion an animal is feeling, or even apply the human words we’ve developed with our own electrochemical impulses? But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be more informed, more literate, in our empathic roles as researchers and investigators and thinkers.

Some of these questions are (as yet) unfalsifiable, which makes them useless to science, but not necessarily to our growth and adaptability as humans. Provided there is no conflict with the current model of scientific knowledge, the Canon, then perhaps the ever-evolving systems of religious and spiritual thinking in our history can also build into a productive model of social utility.

But reconciling the physical world of hard science and metaphysical speculation is nothing new, and the brain is certainly capable of maintaining multiple worldviews.

When Einstein referred to his God, he was referring to Spinoza’s God. Indeed, when Richard Dawkins denies God, he refers implicitly to the God of traditional theology, and not Spinoza’s being of infinite attributes… or being itself. In so doing, the Big Bang can be the creation myth, empirical discovery becomes our theology, the laws of physics our forms of magick, and the Heat Death of the Universe becomes analogous to the Eschaton.

The Philosopher’s Zone – Beth Lord “Spinoza’s God”

This is not to say that science is based on belief, that creationism is in any way equitable to evolution, that quantum physics can by extrapolated on the macro-scale to justify mystical flim-flam, or that energized memory crystals can infuse the power of intention to transform reality into the magical alternate version you desire. Some things are simply false notions.

Atheists are still the most hated and distrusted group in America, despite being on average just as moral and law-abiding as any random religious adherent (and certainly more than some I could mention). Reason and philosophy have different aims from religion, the extent to which these various factors rule our lives and interact and cooperate with each other partly determining the kind of person we will be.

Theists do battle with atheists, atheists fight right back, many religions disenfranchise or discriminate against others, while some atheists belittle agnostics and others whose beliefs and opinions differ from their own.

The false dichotomy has it that people on the right behave and believe irrationally, and that those on the left are amoral heathens. But what if all parties involved transcended their petty differences to find those sticking similarities? How could we organize our communities, nations, and minds in such ways as to accept the verifiable truths found in science, and the infinitely complex beings we believe keep us thinking, going, doing, feeling, and helping?

Lest we forget that our great American experiment was started by a group of deists, who believed in a necessary first cause but were otherwise largely agnostic regarding the idea of an interventionist Creator. They believed that intellectual pursuit, discourse, and hard work were what built a nation, not an affinity to ghosts and clouds. True, while many of the groups that came to America to escape religious persecution and indoctrination were more puritanical, many others rightly splintered from them. Splitters.

Even Scientology, which is only fifty-eight years old and is largely regarded as a cult of science-fiction quackery, has spawned a reform movement of former members now disillusioned by the Church, but still firm believers in the metaphysical benefits they receive through their form of worship:

Marty was given intensive auditing, carried out lengthy meditation exercises, and at one point during a “communication drill” in which he had to silently stare into a counsellor’s eyes for an hour, underwent what he calls an “out-of-body” experience. “I literally exteriorised from my body,” he says. “It was incredible. It changed everything.”

The tools of science reveal that meditation alters brain-wave states, ritual belief and thinking change the dosage of electro-chemical impulses, and fasting raises the user’s perceptional awareness and focus. All this without the drama of a a bullying god, danger of fraud such as dying in a sweat lodge under some nincompoop new age guru, myopic prejudice rendered by dogmatic interpretations, or tithing your savings to a theocorporate entity.

Perhaps a truly superintelligent being (AI, extraterrestrial, extradimensional, god-like, or ourselves in the near future) would need to explore an infinitely rich tapestry of realities involving scientific discovery, spiritual self-reflection, psychoanalysis and even experimental psychedelic use.

“It has to do with your own intelligence. Truly stupid people aren’t interested in psychedelics because they can’t figure out what the point of it is. It feeds off intelligence. It’s a consciousness-expanding drug. If you don’t have any consciousness you can’t expand it.”

-Terence McKenna

And while an extreme intelligence would be largely unpredictable, given that its parameters for growth and survival would be very different than our mortal comprehension, it is useful to note that no strategy or resource would go ignored or unconsidered. It should go without saying, but often goes unnoticed, that a diverse set experiences, techniques and modalities for thinking will yield a more well-rounded, intellectual individual with wider options and resources for problem solving and deep reflection. We may even reach a point in our development towards super-intelligence that allows us to induce analytical or spiritual thinking, psychedelic or profound experiences all at will, depending on what suits our present needs.

Science is still the greatest tool we have for discovering the truth about the physical world, and neuroscience may bring us answers in the coming centuries concerning our elusive and dated conceptions of consciousness and self.

But epistemology and metaphysics aside, the most pressing and useful marriage of these techniques and schools of thought could further the higher order ethics usually found in humanist philosophies, and in the desire utilitarianism of Alonzo Fyfe, as “the idea that morality involves using praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.” This empirical system defines ‘general good‘, which can be either true or false, and the more specific ‘moral good‘:

“A good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. A bad desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires.”

It uses relational values in such a way to determine a moral realism and not a moral relativism, in the same way that, say, distance can be both relative and definitely quantifiable at the same time. This would seem to result in a society that pursues civil libertarian values that do not adversely affect the lives of others, while rejecting both the individual subjectivism of psychotics and narcissists, and any desires based on fictional precepts such as neo-conservatism or fundamentalist dogma. In other words, such a system of ethics avoids the dangers of both populist and oligarchical power-mongering based on false notions. It, like other rational forms of philosophy and political science, would allow religious followers to worship as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. This would seem simple and American enough, and perhaps such a reasonable approach may one day replace the heated rhetoric and violent passion of theocratic conflict.

Conversations From the Pale Blue Dot – Alonzo Fyfe “Desire Utilitarianism”

In the realm of the secular sciences, peace is already being wedged into the Middle East, with cooperative endeavors such as SESAME, or Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications, which has been bringing together physicists from Israel and Egypt and Jordan, and perhaps eventually Iran.

Culture codes, languages and biases cannot be changed overnight. But perhaps the ongoing reformation (of art, science, philosophy, and religion) can utilize these ideas to bridge the gaps in these disparate fields. As we can see, they all have vital importance to operating minds, and we need only to overcome the contrived conflicts that have arisen through ignorance, but that may otherwise doom us with their obstinacy.