Tag Archives: psychopathy

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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Soulless Machine Gods

I do not claim that the Big Bads in charge of Wall Street and their psychotic, narcissistic, solipsism are entirely to blame for all of this. Corporations, as Cenk Uygur put it, are profit-creating robots. They were constructed of the same bent morality and depraved decadence of an insulated minority of powerful elites, but how could they be expected to do anything else, gone unchecked and unregulated? Fault might be better placed with our public officials and policy-makers… but if we’re extending the graces of ambivalence and blissful ignorance to cash-hungry machines, should we not do the same for the lying legislators, brutal police forces, lawyers, judges, bill collectors and heck, just about every one of us that let it get to this point because we sold out the American dream for false promises of greed?

It has been shown that those in the top 1% do not even know they are in the top 1%. And gaffes like Mitt Romney‘s numerous attempts at populism backfiring and revealing his alienating elitism serve to illustrate what little his perception of reality has to do with the ‘average American.’ However, who’s to say that any of us would be any different, given the chance? How the money is obtained seems of little matter; examples can be found in both the nouveau riche and old money of the corrupting, power-mongering miser or the socially-aware, generous philanthropist. Religious leaders with piles of cash turn out on both sides of the spectrum as well, brainwashing new cult members or funding community service organizations.

There are many philosophies of mind, but we are still at the forefront of scientific research into the most important organ of our functioning body, from which our identity and sense of being, our very abilities of self-awareness and understanding arise. It’s possible that we all have the capacity for evil, or that at the edges of a psychopathic diagnosis, we’re all capable of some form of psychopathic behavior or thought! The startling results from such famous and controversial psychological studies as Stanley Milgram’s authority experiment or Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment may support this idea. This is perhaps similar to theories that we’re all a little dyslexic or attention deficit, we all may be somewhere on a scale of autism, that we all have an inherent amount of racism and sexism, we have all have a dose of psychosis, about half of all our time is spent daydreaming, all brains have different levels of focus, consciousness and multi-tasking, we all find coping mechanisms and adapt to sleep routines that work for us, we all react differently to psychedelics within a certain range, and we all may naturally hallucinate.

Our brains are all the same, and our brains are all different.

Evolution produces a range of functionality in organisms at any randomly given time in their history… our genetic variance may provide examples of many different levels of psychopathy. The same temptation to steal a pittance at your place of business (relative to the hefty sums they take in overall) is the same corrupted thinking that allows executives to routinely embezzle ridiculous sums (relative to the corporation’s ludicrous profits overall). If we strip a thing of all identity, any personal connection, we lose our innate and rational empathy which might otherwise prevent us from acts of malice.

Furthermore, if it’s true that most of the world is related to Ghengis Kahn, Alexander the Great and Charlemagne (psychotic conquerers all), then the genes are most likely inalterably embedded in all of us. Psychopaths, it has been shown, are more prolific maters. Most of us alive today are the descendants of those nefarious winners, not the losers.

It seems obvious to our understanding in this era that old modalities of ‘inherent good’ or ‘original sin’ are fallacious presumptions not rooted in biology. We’ve known for some time that we’re all a little angelic and a little devilish, to varying degree. True psychopaths, however, have a particular knack and tenacity for weaseling their way to the top. At a rate of four times the general population, in fact.

Scott.net interviewed Dr. Lobaczewski about psychopathy and political ponerology (the study of evil), posted by Harrison Koehli at the Ponerology blog:

This field of study is difficult, and relatively new. What was once in the realm of theology is now being understood in the terms of brain activity and genetics. Perhaps a deeper understanding will lead to the elimination of serial murderers, corrupt executives, and man’s predilection towards war and rape.

So lately I find myself wondering what will happen in the future when we have more reliable technology and methodology for identifying the psychopaths (or levels of psychopathy) among us. Do we root them out, treat them as pariahs, lock them up, force them into rehabilitation, or continue to vote them into office, hire them as CEOs, and revere them as gods?