The Genetics Of Violence Essay

This essay has a total of 2558 words and 12 pages.

The Genetics Of Violence

The Genetics of Violence


Introduction
We, in the 1990's, are slowly and inevitably being faced with the
sociological and biological implications of impending genetic power. This power
is analytical, in such cases as the Human Genome Project, which will hopefully
succeed in mapping out the genetic code for the entire human genetic composition.
Moreover, this power is preventative and participatory in that it can be, and is
being, used to control the behavior of humans and other animals. This new power,
in the eyes of many, is as risky and potentially hazardous as atomic energy: it
must be treated carefully, used under close supervision, performed under
professional consent and observation, otherwise, people will begin to see this
new genetic power as a dangerous drawback, rather than an advancement of human
culture.
One of the most highly contested and objectionable topics of genetic
power is the analysis of crime, violence, and impulsivity. Doubtless, most will
agree that children are not born with a natural affinity for violence and crime;
yet, new genetic studies are beginning down a long road of finding the
hereditary basis for impulsivity. While these studies continue to search for the
genetic source of aggression, child testing programs, drug manufacturers, civil
rights activists, lawyers, and anxious citizens await the resulting testimony of
the scientists. The social implications of the genetic search for aggressive
tendency is seen by some as a great step forward, by others as a dangerous power
with the ability to give birth to another Holocaust, and by still others as
racist.
At one time, it was believed that one's character could be determined
from the bumps in one's skull. Much later, in the 1960's, as science marched on
in its regular pace, it was theorized that carriers of an extra Y (male)
chromosome were predisposed to criminality. Today, we are faced with the power
to determine and alter one's character through genetics. We must collectively
decide whether the ultimate price, not of money but of natural evolution, is
worth the ultimate result.

Behavioral Genetics and Aggression
One day in 1978 a woman entered the University Hospital of Nijmegen, the
Netherlands, with complaints regarding the men in her family. Many of the men
seemed to have some sort of mental debility, including her brothers and her son.
In time, a pattern of strange behavior of the men emerged: one had raped his
sister, and, upon being institutionalized, stabbed a warden in the chest with a
pitchfork; another tried to run over his boss in an automobile after he had
criticized the man's work; a third had a regular habit of making his sisters
undress at knife point, and two more were convicted arsonists. Additionally, the
known IQ's of the men were typically around 85. The history of this sort of
behavior was found to be typical, as nine other males in the family, tracing
back to 1870, had the same type of disorder. It became evident that there was
something wrong in the lineage of the family. Hans Brunner, a geneticist at the
University Hospital, has been studying the family since 1988.
It was discovered that the men had a defect on the X chromosome that
helps regulate aggressive behavior. Brunner was cued to the fact that the defect
was on the X chromosome because the trait was passed on from mother to son, and
none of the women, with two X chromosomes, were afflicted. The gene normally
codes for the production of the enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), which breaks
down three important neurotransmitters that trigger or inhibit the transmission
of nerve impulses. One of these neurotransmitters is norepinephrine, which
raises blood pressure and increases alertness as part of the body's "fight or
flight" mechanism. Brunner believes that the lack of this neurotransmitter
could cause an excess of chemical messages to the brain, in times of stress,
causing the victim's fury. The men's urine found extremely low levels of the
breakdown products of the three neurotransmitters, which are the breakdown
products after MAOA has done its work.
Another of the chemicals is serotonin, which inhibits the effects of
spontaneous neuronal firing, and consequently exerts a calming effect. The lack
of this inhibitor is held responsible for the "Jekyll and Hyde" personalities of
the afflicted men, and may be responsible for their low IQ's.
Over the course of four years, Brunner was the first to ever link and
pinpoint a single gene to aggression. Also, he analyzed the X chromosomes of 28
members of the family, compiling sufficient evidence to prove his discovery.
However, Brunner never studied the influence of a shared environment on the men.
Many other factors of genetic and biochemical signals have been shown to
greatly influence behavior. In humans, impulsive aggression has been linked to
low concentrations of a chemical known as 5-HIAA in the cerebrospinal fluid.
Scientists have found a human gene which lies on chromosome 6 that creates a 25
percent higher susceptibility to schizophrenia. Also, MAOA has been found
responsible for REM sleep deprivation in rats, which increases the incidence of
fighting among the animals. Testosterone levels in repeated sex offenders is,
almost without exception, extremely high. The National Research Council (NRC)
reports that female mice and rhesus monkeys which have been injected with
testosterone, in utero or at birth, repeatedly show more aggression at adulthood
than others of their kind. Girls exposed to androgenic steroids in utero have
an increased tendency to be more aggressive than their piers, where boys
injected with anti-androgenic drugs were not as aggressive as their peers. The
neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid has been shown not only to inhibit
aggression, but may stimulate the brain as well. This may be the reason that
the IQ's of the afflicted Dutch men were so low. In any case, all of these
chemicals, in a natural setting, are ultimately determined by the genetic
composition of the individual, and ample evidence exists that instances of
aggressive behavior and crime are closely related to genetics.
However, the relation between the environment, genetics, and aggression
has not yet been combined. Psychology and behavioral genetics, unfortunately,
are not combined as they sensibly should be. We know that Brunner never studied
the effects of the environment on the Dutch men; yet, experimentation with
animals has shown that, for example, aggressively bred mice can act non-
aggressively if placed in the right social environment. Therefore, the name of
"behavioral genetics" is finally beginning to live up to the literal meaning of
its name through the study of social and environmental influences.

Parental Aggression and Genetics
While there is very little known about the combined effects of genetics
and the environment, there is much to be said about the social tendency toward
violence with regard to the genetics of offspring. For example, parents are 60
to 70 times more likely to kill their children under the age of two if they are
not their genetic children. Fewer children are murdered by their stepparents as
the age of the children increases, but, nonetheless, a much higher number of
stepchildren are killed than genetic children. Moreover, male animals in the
wild, such as mice and monkeys, often kill the offspring of their mate if the
offspring is the product of another liaison. In humans, tribal men in Venezuela
and Paraguay simply refuse to feed the children of their wives if the children
are from another union, or simply demand that the children be put to death.
Few conclusions can be derived from these tendencies. Certainly, in
humans, the tendency to murder stepchildren can not be determined as purely
genetic. One could say that the cause is primarily social, as the stepchildren
are from broken families where there is likely more tension and parental
hostility towards children. Neither can animals' desire to kill the offspring of
their mate that are not their genetic children be explained. Whether the desire
to kill non-biological offspring is based on biology, sociology, or simple
emotion, this example displays the difficulty of pinning any sort of aggressive
or criminal behavior to a gene. It is also an example of the difficulty of using
social and genetic evidence, together, to track the source of any animal
behavior.

Society and Genetics
In the ten leading causes of death, violence kills more children than
disease. In 1988, 8150 US children between the ages if one and fourteen; 840 of
the deaths were clearly determined to be homicide; 237 were suicide. Homicide is
the fourth leading cause of death for children between one and nine years old,
and in the fifteen to twenty-four age group, it is the second leading cause of
death. Obviously, crime and violence do a considerable amount of damage to many
American lives. Consequently, limited amounts of genetic and other biological
research is being performed in order to find a genetic link, if any, to
aggression resulting in violence and crime. In 1989, $20 million in funds were
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