Friday, December 12, 2003

P and Genes

Russell Brown makes the observation:

"...Williams own father was shot dead by his partner as he tried to stab her adult son in, yes, a blind rage. No one appears to have addressed the possibility that the mental illness of Williams Snr was also visited on the son, either by heredity or environment. As touchy-feely-social-worker as it might sound, there was a cycle of violence."

This study into 442 New Zealand boys - Gene That Prevents Male Violence Discovered by Otago Researchers indicates that there is a genetic basis as to why some children who grew up in abusive environments go onto become violent and abusive themselves while others do not.

This is the first study to link a specific gene to a specific behavior.

Environmental or social factors can lead to the activation or expression of some genes.

What this means for dealing with people such as Williams is hard to say. In this interview Professor Terrie Moffitt, one of the authors of the study, says:

"One of the strongest findings from our study was that one-third of the New Zealand population has this gene, and that means the gene will never be useful for screening to find out in advance who might become violent, so it's just much too common. It only works when it's in combination with child abuse or child maltreatment, and in that sense, I think that one of the most straightforward findings from the study is that if we're to prevent violence, we must prevent child maltreatment. That would be much more effective than trying to do anything about the gene."

Russell touches on the related issue of personal freedom and responsibility. If there is a gene for violence in what sense can a person claim no responsibility? Daniel Dennett has written a very good book on this issue of how our knowledge of genetics and evolution is influencing thinking in this area - Freedom Evolves .

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