I’ve constricted my anus 100 times, and it isn’t helping! I’m still feeling extremely cranky about this story from the NY Times.
Scientists intend to sequence Adam Lanza’s DNA. They’re looking for genetic markers for mass murder. Why? Because some scientists are stupid.
Some researchers, like Dr. Arthur Beaudet, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and the chairman of its department of molecular and human genetics, applaud the effort. He believes that the acts committed by men like Mr. Lanza and the gunmen in other rampages in recent years — at Columbine High School and in Aurora, Colo., in Norway, in Tucson and at Virginia Tech — are so far off the charts of normal behavior that there must be genetic changes driving them.
“We can’t afford not to do this research,” Dr. Beaudet said.
There must be genetic changes underlying this specific behavior? There is no reason at all to assume that. Furthermore, this isn’t “off the charts of normal behavior” — there have been 62 mass murder events in the US in the last 30 years. There are witch-burnings going on in Africa right now. European Americans casually exterminated the native population of the Americas, and now pens the remnant population in reservations where they are kept in poverty. We had entire nations worth of people involved in the mass murder of 6 million Jews in the last century. Hey, shall we round up a bunch of Germans and take DNA swabs so we can figure out what there is that’s unique to their genes that allows them to commit genocide? (I better be clear here: I’m being sarcastic. I really don’t think Germans have a biological predilection for racism or murder, any more than any other people.)
I would ask whether there is any reason to assume that this behavior is a heritable trait. Is there a familial history of mass murder? Are we really going to assume that the diverse individuals who have committed these horrific crimes are all related, or all carry some common marker that isn’t found in people who don’t commit murder?
I can predict exactly what will be found when they look at Adam Lanza’s DNA. It will be human. There will be tens of thousands of little nucleotide variations from reference standards scattered throughout the genome, because all of us carry these kinds of differences. The scientists will have no idea what 99% of the differences do. They will make dubious associations — for example, they might find a novel nucleotide in a gene that has other variants correlated with schizophrenia — and in the absence of any causal link at all, they’ll publish garbage papers that try to impute a signal to common genetic noise. Some idiot will make noise about screening for an obscure mutation that Lanza carried, just because it’s something different.
I wonder if there are neurologists poking around in his brain, looking for differences, too. It’s the same issue; we don’t understand the majority of the functional consequences of individual variations in connectivity in the brain, and we have a population with large amounts of random variation. So how are you going to recognize what’s special and unique and causal about Lanza’s brain (or Einstein’s brain, or my brain, or yours)?
Fortunately, there are some sensible people out there.
“It is almost inconceivable that there is a common genetic factor” to be found in mass murders, said Dr. Robert C. Green, a geneticist and neurologist at Harvard Medical School. “I think it says more about us that we wish there was something like this. We wish there was an explanation.”
I suspect the explanation is going to be more a consequence of individual experience, although of course biology is going to shape how we respond to circumstance. But to go rifling about in a genome we don’t understand to find a simple cause is ridiculous and futile. Sure, freeze some cells down and store them away; maybe some day we’ll understand more and there will be a legitimate and specific hypothesis that can be tested by examining killers’ genetics…but a fishing expedition is pointless and dumb, and at this state of our understanding, only opens the door to misconceptions and ethics abuses.