A recent New York Times article on the growing research into the genetic basis for crime – research that in the past would have been both technologically impossible and highly criticized as pointing toward eugenics – notes that it’s not just DNA that influences criminal behavior. Like almost everything else in human development (education level, age at marriage, number of children), the environment plays a huge role. And it acts early.
Researchers agree that here is no single “crime gene”. Instead, a group of so-far-unidentified genes seem to act together to tilt an individual toward crime, through traits such as aggression and anti-social behaviors. The role of empathy is hugely important, as well. Psychopaths, for example, exhibit little to none. But in the continuing nature versus nurture debate, nurture is increasingly seen to play an essential role in “turning on” the genes that influence crime.
People, even children, exhibit self-control to various degrees. Children who have been taught to wait for rewards, to delay gratification of simple desires, maintain self-control for longer periods. A Duke University researcher, Terrie E. Moffitt, studied 1,000 New Zealand children from birth onward, and found that the more self-control children were able to display by age 3, the less likely they were to commit crimes much later in life. “Forty-three percent of the children who scored in the lowest fifth on self-control were later convicted of a crime, she said, versus 13 percent of those who scored in the highest fifth.”
Adrian Raine, of the University of Pennsylvania, recently presented a paper that demonstrated how the brains of toddlers could be used to predict with significant accuracy whether the child would later commit a crime. Looking at variations in a part of the brain that regulates emotions – the amygdala, associated with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) – he found that some children’s brains contained smaller amygdalas, and that that dearth (which is responsible for fear conditioning) could be key to understanding why ASPD-affected people fail to fear the consequences of their antisocial behavior. However, the development of that part of the brain could be affected not only by genetics, but also by maternal nutrition and by the way children have been treated.
At Florida State University, Kevin Beaver points out that while genetics may account for some aggression, the markers for it seem to be associated with many genes that, depending on the environment, may be either left quiescent or – in a stressful environment full of negativity and violence – turned on, like an extremely slow-motion flick of a light switch. Beaver studied male twins and siblings (some separated at birth and raised in very different families) to determine how factors such as having delinquent friends, violence in the home, or living in a poor neighborhood “switch on” a predisposition to antisocial behavior. What he found was that in boys who were not exposed to risk factors – whose home environments were positive – the genetic “switch” was left off. In boys who lived with at least eight risk factors, however, the “switch” had been flipped on, leading to violence.
What does this say? It says that early environment is crucial to children’s development. Parents who provide a non-violent household, good structure, guidance, training, good nutrition, love, physical affection and gentle humor are on the right track for producing healthy children. Seeking out healthy friends and neighborhoods is also crucial. Even a child from a healthy family is affected by surrounding violence, which can push a genetic switch to “on”.
It’s not just bad genes, bad seed. No child asks to be raised in a violent family or a neighborhood characterized by neglect and criminality. No child wants to attend a school with leaking buildings and uncaring teachers. A child who by the age of 12 has faced all these challenges is one who – without his even knowing it – may have had the genetic switch of criminal behavior turned on.
Social context – which begins in the family – is, as always, crucial.
Link to NYTimes article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/20/arts/genetics-and-crime-at-institute-of-justice-conference.html