Not even science: misguided genetics, in two notes (note 2)

Note 2. Genetics and crime

What is the use of genetic research into specific behaviors of individual behaviors, if we cannot properly define what those behaviors are?  The insistence on the part of behavioral geneticists, that they will find the secret genetic code to ‘intelligence’ (defined behaviorally – but how?), potential for ‘success’ (defined economically within a presumably normative capitalist society), or ‘crime’ (determined by what criteria? within what society?) isn’t just just wishful thinking – its damn near criminal negligence.

That genetics can produce tendencies in behavior is not being denied, given the appropriate stimulus (like we see in alcoholism). But tendencies are not deterministic. That creates a problem when trying to use genes to predict behavior. Environment does matter; that throws the wrench into genetic-reductionist explanations of human behavior. Because social environments are as varied and diverse as the humans who live them out.

On the broader issue of the relationship between heritability, genetics, and behavior, I’ve long maintained that any studies on such issues need to be rigorously examined for the socially-biased assumptions we make about behavior. Without such examination and consequent qualifications, such studies will likely prove worthless.

Consider the article “Abandon Twin Research? Embrace Epigenetic Research? Premature Advice for Criminologists,” by Terrie E. Moffit and Amber Beckley: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1745-9125.12061/full , a fairly reasonable attempt to maintain openness on the issue of relating behavioral genetics and social causative studies, while defending twin-studies as a means of bolstering epigenetics studies on environmental effects on gene activation. But towards the end of the study, Moffit and Beckley make an odd remark, that, given its casual appearance, is apparently widely accepted in the field – that cigarette smoking is strongly associated with crime. This stuck in my craw. In 1950, it was estimated that more than half the population of the US smoked cigarettes. ** If the Moffit and Beckley remark is taken as a necessary correlate, then should we assume that in 1950 half the population was involved in crime? Obviously the correlate requires considerable historical and social qualification to be in anyway meaningful. Today only some 20% of the population smokes cigarettes; what percentage of these smokers are active criminals? No doubt engaging in any risk-taking behavior will leave one more open to other risk-taking behaviors; yet there’s an important question about whether any such behavior necessarily or only incidentally leads to any other specific behavior. Those more likely to smoke cigarettes are possibly more likely to eat at McDonald’s once a day, and any good nutritionist will tell us that this is risk-taking behavior; but it’s not a crime.

As I have repeatedly insisted in such discussions – what constitutes “crime”? Crime is socially, culturally, and politically defined – it’s not hanging out there in the environment like mosquitoes, nor is it an inevitable natural behavior of the body like defecation. Until well into the 1980s, homosexuality was quite literally criminal behavior; now gay marriage is becoming widely legal behavior. In 1980, homosexuality was considered ‘risk-taking’ behavior, and psychiatrically diagnosable. Now that diagnosis has been considerably redefined, and will probably be further redefined in the future. Yet in 1980, behavioral-genetic criminology research would have needed to account for it (in the same era that behavioral psychologists were supposedly developing ‘therapy’ to ‘modify’ homosexuals into heterosexuals).

There was a time, not so long ago, when a husband beating his wife was not considered a crime – indeed, in certain countries, primarily Islamic, it still enjoys the same status.  Now, in the US, all states consider it criminal behavior.  So if we find genetic markers for ‘spouse-beating behavior,’ these can be used in genetic statistics on tendencies to criminal behavior – but not in Saudi Arabia – because it is not only not considered a crime there, but it is sanctioned by the state religion.

That is no argument that wife-beating is a good thing, or a bad thing.  Such an argument cannot be made using genetic information.  It’s quite obviously a matter of cultural values argued out, voted on, fought for, among people who have some real interest in it.

Without considering that, scientific research into such matters flies blind and without fuel.  That tells us that questions concerning genetic tendencies toward ‘criminal behavior’ are 1) poorly formed and uninformed, and 2) irrelevant to social and political debates concerning what does constitute criminal behavior.

The Saudis who immigrate to the US, should we give them genetic counseling warning them not to reproduce for fear that their male off-spring will become criminals in later life?

But let’s take a less culturally charged example;  Smoking marijuana is considered a crime in the majority of states, but no longer so in Oregon and Colorado.  Should the state of New York insist on genetic counseling for emigres from Colorado?

Corporal punishment in schools is now considered grounds for the civil charge of battery – not quite a crime, but certainly not a good thing – in New York.  Should geneticists search for genetic markers for ‘tendency to use corporal punishment while teaching’?  Should the state of New York then provide genetic counseling to teachers who move there from, say, Kansas, where corporal punishment in public schools is considered completely legal?

What constitutes a “crime,” let alone any “tendency toward criminal behavior,” that geneticists can research?  I never see this question addressed in the literature.  I suspect it is buried somewhere in a footnote; but I also suspect that it is borrowed from some psychiatric manual, probably out of date, and poorly interpreted.  Ultimately, I suspect, behavioral geneticists don’t even bother with such definitions; their attitude seems to be, ‘tell us what it is and we’ll find markers for it.’

That isn’t just bad science – it’s not even science at all.  Behavioral genetics is a hoax.

Frankly, any genetics research on human behavior should be approached cautiously and skeptically. Tendencies do not make certainties; and if they don’t, then any such research is going to have considerably limited application.

Or, simply none at all;  an excuse for having a career in a funded research program, perhaps, contributing pretty much nothing to anything of practical value to the greater good of the community.  The community should think twice before contributing funds to such.

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** http://www.smokingstatistics.org/Smoking_Statistics_Since_1950.asp
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Repeating my opening remark: The above is not to be seen as a condemnation of the field of genetic research.  Genetic research has proven invaluable in understanding evolution, epidemiology, breeding of better food sources, etc., etc.  But there is still a hold over from the era of eugenics, that racists and fascists cling to, the hope that genetics can be used to determine the differences in behavior between individuals, to the extent that we can predict individual behavior and life stories before they ever happen, and take steps to control them.  This is worse than fantasy, predicated on obvious cultural biases, bad questions asked poorly, useless research, misguided interpretation of the data – in short, everything private funding groups and some government agencies are willing to throw away money for.    It’s a joke; but because of the money, it’s likely to continue for some time.  So keep on laughing – It’s your money getting thrown away, after all.

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