Scientists take another look at the genetics of crime

Who knows what goes through mind of a criminal? Well, while mental-health experts ponder what motivates a lawbreaker, other scientists are again tiptoeing through the ethical minefield of discovering what courses through a criminal's genes. This time, though, scientists looking at the genetics of crime are quick to point out that this is not the pseudoscience of "eugenics" that in centuries past has been tainted with outdated ideas of ingrained racial and ethnic differences. Given what we know about how genes are triggered, the social scientists who look at the environments that produce criminals are joining forces with geneticists who are discovering not only genes that indicate criminal propensity but also which environments or situations trigger that genetic predisposition.

For example, according to an article in The New York Times, Duke University behavioral scientist Terrie Moffit and her husband, Avshalom Caspi, looked into a gene that has been linked to violence. The gene regulates production of an enzyme that controls the amount of serotonin in the brain. Those who possess a version of that gene produce less of this enzyme and thus tend to be more impulsive and aggressive. Moffit and Caspi found, however, that this gene's effect is activated only by stressful experiences. So, we're talking about environment and genetics working hand-in-hand to produce a potentially criminal act.

"Throughout the past 30 or 40 years most criminologists couldn't say the word ‘genetics' without spitting," Moffit told Times. "Today the most compelling modern theories of crime and violence weave social and biological themes together."

There is no "crime gene," the article points out, but should the result of all this research influence, say, sentencing? If there is a predisposition for a certain type of crime, should a judge take that into account? This and other fascinating questions are being discussed this week at the National Institute of Justice conference in Arlington, VA.

- read the story in The New York Times
- and take a look at the conference agenda