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Event Review: The Good, the Bad and the Genetically Predetermined

28 October 2013
Appeared in BioNews 728

The Good, the Bad and the Genetically Predetermined

Organised by the Royal Institution of Great Britain

Royal Institution of Great Britain, 21 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4BS, UK

Tuesday 15 October 2013

'The Good, the Bad and the Genetically Predetermined', organised by the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Tuesday 15 October 2013

Behavioural genetics has once again been hitting the headlines. Earlier this month it was front page news when Dominic Cummings, adviser to schools minister Michael Gove, suggested that academic achievement was down to genetic variation rather than the quality of a child's education. The story has provoked passionate debate among politicians, scientists and the wider public as the relative influences of nature versus nurture are taken apart.

It felt apt, then, to be attending the Royal Institution's discussion titled 'The good, the bad and the genetically predetermined', examining another issue within behavioural genetics: the role that genetics can play in our justice systems. Three speakers were invited to give presentations on the subject, geneticist Dr Jonathan Pettitt, professor of law Robin Mackenzie and philosopher Professor Thomas Baldwin.

The rationale behind this event boils down to an ongoing scientific debate around the gene MAO-A following a 2002 study linking aggressive and violent behaviour in males with mutations in the gene. Presence of the mutation, dubbed the 'Warrior Gene', has been successfully used by lawyers in at least two cases to reduce sentences. In one case this involved a capital offence altered to 36 years imprisonment.

First to speak was Dr Pettitt who took us through his analysis on whether it is possible to say with confidence that the mutations in MAO-A can cause violent behaviour. It was clear from the start that he is not convinced, pointing to caveats within the original research and highlighting the crucial role of environment. To me, one of the most persuasive arguments for his scepticism was the fact that the association between aggression and MAO-A mutation only persists when the perpetrator was subjected to an abusive childhood.

Up next was Professor Robin Mackenzie who continued the theme of pointing to environmental causes having more influence than a mutation in MAO-A. She spoke of a study linking violence in Maori men to the mutation, highlighting that the sample size was small and that there was almost no acknowledgment of the fact that the Maori have been colonised and subjected to racial persecution in their recent history.

I found Professor Mackenzie's presentation the most thorough of the evening. When covering the possibility for prescribing preventative medication of those with MAO-A mutation she considered how effective any medication might be, as well as the ethical dilemma of such a practice. Like the rest of the panel she was against these measures, but was supportive of behavioural therapies such as anger management lessons, provided stigmatisation could be avoided.

The final speech was from Professor Baldwin. He approached the question of whether genetic predisposition can excuse someone from their own behaviour. I found this an interesting point as it seems that often in these discussions, people somehow separate themselves from their genetics, when the truth couldn’t be more different. He argued that these predispositions, even if proven, do not remove free will and as such do not remove our capacity to learn right from wrong.

A round of questions followed which included some perceptive and thoughtful opinions. One particularly compelling point raised was that if a gene can cause someone to be unable to control aggressive behaviour, is it not an argument for an increased sentence rather than a reduced one?

It was also interesting to consider that not all people with the mutation will go on to commit violent crime, with Dr Pettitt citing this figure as being around 30 percent of males who have the mutation. Although said tongue-in-cheek by Professor Baldwin, a different genetic association gave food for thought. The vast majority of violent crimes are committed by those with a Y-chromosome: the male sex.

In some ways it was a shame that there were not more conflicting opinions on display, with all speakers in broad agreement with one another. This did mean that a satisfying consensus in most areas was reached. It was agreed that, based on the current evidence, it would not be appropriate to reduce sentences for those carrying MAO-A mutation who had committed a violent crime. However, it was suggested that it could be appropriate to offer these people ways of controlling their emotions and anger, which is probably something from which we could all benefit.

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