The Genetics of Violence
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...
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