The good, the bad and the genetically predetermined – at the Royal Institution

Yesterday, I went along to a debate at the Royal Institution (RI) about the effects of genes on our behaviour.  The main topic of discussion was about whether people should be given more lenient prison sentences for violence, if they have a genetic predisposition to aggressive behaviour.

The three members of the panel: Jonathan Pettitt, Robin Mackenzie and Thomas Baldwin started the debate by giving their views on the matter.  This was followed by a debate and questions to the panel from the audience.

All three panelists talked about the MAOA gene, which when dysfunctional has been correlated with heightened aggression in humans.  For this reason, the gene is also known as the ‘warrior gene’.  Jonathan Pettitt, a geneticist, talked about two cases in which behavioural genetics has been successfully used in court; in both cases the sentence was reduced as a result of the gene.  In 2009, in the US an argument based on the murderer having this defective gene and having a history of child abuse, reduced his sentence from the death penalty to 32 years.

Robin Mackenzie, Professor of Law, brought up the issue of how people with these genes should be treated. About 1/3 of Caucasians carry the variant allele, so the question arises should we intervene?  We can’t force such a large number of people to be treated, but once they have committed an act of aggression, is it justified to hold them indefinitely for treatment or give them a more lenient sentence because of their genes?

She also brought up the issue of children diagnosed with callous unemotional conduct disorder (CUCD).  This is a heritable condition, which can make children act like ‘fledgling psychopaths’.  Professor Mackenzie asked whether they should be screened for compulsory treatment with oxytocin to make them more empathetic. Or should they be given special drugs to promote ‘moral enhancement’.  A member of the audience brought up an interesting issue: whether branding these children as ‘fledgling psychopaths’ would make them a self fulfilling prophesy.  If children are simply told they will become psychopaths, they may just become what they have been told they will become.  If instead however they are given treatment and help, without the stigma of the brand, they may live completely normal lives.

Thomas Baldwin, philosopher, focussed more on the question of the environment in which the person with the dysfunctional gene is in.  Using the MAOA gene example, of the 1/3 of Caucasians who have the gene, most aren’t aggressive.  This is because many will have been brought up in a caring environment.  A combination of a bad childhood and the gene gives you a higher predisposition to aggressive behaviour than a good childhood and the gene.

Should a genetic predisposition to aggressive behaviour allow you to be treated more leniently in a court of justice or are you responsible for your genes and the effects they have on you?

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