April 13, 2024

My genes made me do it, says Italian murderer

But some scientists are sceptical

An Italian of Algerian descent who stabbed a man to death in 2007 has had his sentence reduced because he has a gene which predisposes him to violence. Abdelmalek Bayout originally received a relatively mild sentence of 9 years and 2 months because he had a psychiatric illness. But his lawyer succeeded in knocking another year off by pointing out that he had gene variants linked to aggression, notably the gene encoding the neurotransmitter-metabolizing enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAOA). A molecular neuroscientist and a cognitive neuroscientist testified that this would make him more prone to violence when provoked.

This is not the first time that MAOA has been invoked as a defence in criminal law. In the last 5 years, it has come up more than 200 times in US trials, according to Nita Farahany, of Vanderbilt University. She specialises in the ethical and legal perspectives on neuroscience and is sceptical of the “my genes made me do it” defence. “The point is that behavioural genetics is not there yet, we cannot explain individual behaviour, only large population statistics,” she told Nature News.

Genetic determinism is far from being a dogma amongst geneticists. “90% of all murders are committed by people with a Y chromosome — males. Should we always give males a shorter sentence?” says Steve Jones, of University College London. “I have low MAOA activity but I don’t go around attacking people.” — Nature News, Oct 30

Michael Cook

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