October 6, 2022

Criminal bumps make a comeback

US prof links genes to delinquency

Back in the 19th century, pioneer Italian criminologist
Cesare Lombroso claimed that criminality was genetic. Born criminals were
throwbacks to an earlier, less evolved form of humanity and could be identified
by physical feature. True criminals had sloping foreheads, jug ears, large
chins, fleshy lips, and hard shifty eyes. He attempted to analyse these with
craniometers and calipers.

Eventually Lombroso’s work fell out of
favour, as it was based on social Darwinism and led to racism and eugenics. But
now it may be making a comeback in a more nuanced form. In the latest issue of
the American Sociological Review,
Guang Guo, of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, claims that
delinquency is at least partially genetically determined. He has identified
three genes which predict delinquency, at least when linked to certain
environmental conditions. For instance, there appears to be an interaction
between repeating a school grade and the MAOA*2 repeat (2R) allele in
adolescent boys.

Guo acknowledges this his work has enormous
policy implications. Genetic evidence, he says, points to the existence of
hard-wired genetic differences. “For example, evidence of genetic propensities
for criminal behavior may be used to challenge a basic assumption of the US legal
system: individuals have free will and consequently are held legally
responsible for their behavior. If an individual’s free will is weakened by
innate propensities for criminality, should the person not be held fully
responsible? In such a case, punishments like the death penalty might seem
cruel and unusual.

“The same genetic evidence may also work
against a defendant. In some states, sexual predator laws indefinitely jail
offenders who have been convicted of multiple sex crimes against children, for
fear the perpetrators may harm children again if released. Conceivably, genetic
evidence could be used to suggest that individuals predisposed to commit sex
crimes should not be released. Responsible use of genetic evidence in these and
other ethical, legal, and social issues remains an unresolved challenge.” ~ American
Sociological Review, August