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Genes and behaviour research sparks controversy

14 August 2006
Appeared in BioNews 371

Comments made by a New Zealand scientist carrying out research into the effects of a genetic variation linked to addictive, risk-taking and aggressive behaviour have angered the country's indigenous Maori population. Rod Lea, a geneticist based at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research in Wellington, New Zealand, told delegates attending an international genetics conference in Brisbane, Australia, that Maori men were twice as likely as Europeans to carry a particular version of the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene. He claimed that the research, aimed at understanding smoking behaviour, 'goes a long way to explaining some of the problems the Maori have'.

Previous studies have linked the MAOA gene to an inherited predisposition for aggressive behaviour, which, despite their inconclusive nature, have lead to it being dubbed the 'warrior gene'. Lea reportedly told the conference that the widespread presence of the MAOA variant in the Maori population meant that 'obviously, this means they are going to be more aggressive and violent and more likely to get involved in risk-taking behaviour like gambling'. However, he stressed that 'there are lots of lifestyle, upbringing-related exposures that could be relevant here, so obviously the gene won't automatically make you a criminal'.

Maori leaders have reacted angrily to Lea's comments, saying that they only serve to reinforce 'Once Were Warriors' cultural stereotypes - a reference to a book and film of the same name that portrayed domestic violence in poor Maori families. 'I've been asked by reporters whether this gene is the reason why we're a violent race, why we feature so highly in criminality rates, that we're predisposed towards aggression', said Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia in a statement, adding 'once were gardeners, once were astronomers, once were philosophers, once were lovers'.

Nicola Poa, a researcher at Christchurch School of Medicine in New Zealand, has also condemned the 'warrior gene' label. 'It is pretty contentious to be tagging a gene, especially with that type of behaviour, to an ethnic race', she told the New Zealand Herald, adding 'I was appalled'. Lea has responded to his critics by stressing that the reason for his research is to find better ways to treat tobacco dependence using genetic information. One in five New Zealanders smoke, but this rate rises to 46 per cent in the Maori population - a difference that Lea thinks could be down to variations in genes that influence the way the body metabolises nicotine, of which MAOA is one.

Speaking on New Zealand national radio, Lea said that although the MAOA has been linked to different antisocial and risk-taking behaviour, 'the link that's been made is usually quite weak and often is only present in association with non-genetic factors'. A 2002 study carried out by researchers based at Otago University and King's College in London, UK, found that children were more likely to be aggressive if they inherited a particular version the MAOA gene. However, they also showed that a genetic predisposition to antisocial behaviour was heavily influenced by upbringing: children who inherited the MAOA variant behaved normally if they were parented well.

Maori gene claim stirs NZ family violence debate
The Scotsman |  9 August 2006
Maori 'warrior gene' claims appalling, says geneticist
The New Zealand Herald |  10 August 2006
Row over 'warrior gene' findings
ABC News Online |  9 August 2006
Warrior gene theory sparks debate and highlights domestic violence in New Zealand
News-Medical.net |  9 August 2006
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