Born To Raise Hell

Feb. 21, 1994
By Dennis Overbye

Some of us, it seems, were just born to be bad. Scientists say they are on the verge of pinning down genetic and biochemical abnormalities that predispose their bearers to violence. An article in the journal Science last summer carried the headline evidence found for a possible "aggression" gene. Waiting in the wings are child-testing programs, drug manufacturers, insurance companies, civil rights advocates, defense attorneys and anxious citizens for whom the violent criminal has replaced the beady-eyed communist as the boogeyman. Crime thus joins homosexuality, smoking, divorce, schizophrenia, alcoholism, shyness, political liberalism, intelligence, religiosity, cancer and blue eyes among the many aspects of human life for which it is claimed that biology is destiny. Physicists have been pilloried for years for this kind of reductionism, but in biology it makes everybody happy: the scientists and pharmaceutical companies expand their domain; politicians have "progress" to point to; the smokers, divorces and serial killers get to blame their problems on biology, and we get the satisfaction of knowing they are sick--not like us at all.

Admittedly, not even the most rabid sociobiologists contend that babies pop out of the womb with a thirst for bank robbing. Rather, they say, a constellation of influences leads to a life of crime, among them poverty, maleness and a trait known as "impulsivity," presumably caused by bad brain chemistry, caused in turn by bad genes. What, you may ask, is impulsivity? The standard answer tends to involve people who can't control their emotions or who get into bar fights. A study conducted in Finland found that men so characterized tend to be deficient in the brain hormone serotonin--one of several chemical messengers that transmit signals between nerve cells. In another study researchers found that the men in a Dutch family with a history of male violence seemed to lack the ability to break down certain neurotransmitters, including serotonin, that build up in the brain during flight-or-fight situations. Couple this with persistent statistical surveys purporting to show that criminals tend to run in families and you have the logic behind the Violence Initiative dreamed up a couple of years ago by the Department of Health and Human Services, which included research to discover biological markers that could be used to distinguish violence-prone children as early as age five. Any doubts about the potential for abuse in such a program were erased when Frederick Goodwin, then director of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, lapsed into a comparison of inner-city youth to murderous oversexed monkeys during a speech about the initiative. "Maybe," he said, "it isn't just the careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities jungles " Amid the ensuing outcry, the National Institutes of Health canceled its financial support for a planned conference on the biology of violence. Now, however, bolstered by a cautious approval from the National Academy of Sciences, the conference is back on, and Goodwin is head of the National Institute of Mental Health.

Science marches on. Or does it? The whole affair is uncomfortably reminiscent--as the scientists admit--of the 1960s, when researchers theorized that carriers of an extra Y, or male, chromosome were predisposed to criminality, or of earlier attempts to read character from the bumps on people's skulls. As any doctor who ever testified for a tobacco company in one of those trials knows, the statistical association of two things, like smoking and cancer, or guns and murders, does not necessarily imply cause and effect. We know too little about the biochemical cocktail that is the brain, and all too much about how stigmatized children live down to our expectations.

Being a great fan of science, I'm all in favor of more research, testing, poking, drugging, jailing, genetic therapy, amniocentesis, just as soon as someone can give me a scientific definition of impulsivity, one that provides, say, a cultural- and color-blind distinction between a spirited child and an impulsive one. If bar fights are the criteria, it's nice to think that a simple blood test might have spared us the antics of people like Billy Martin or George Steinbrenner.

My real complaint is that the violence initiative doesn't go nearly far enough. Some laboratory should be looking for the racism gene, or the homophobia gene. Goodwin was right; the inner city is a jungle. But so are the corporation, the newsroom and the White House staff. The language of trial lawyers or bond traders in full testosterone fury is as bloodcurdling as any mugger's. When it comes to social carnage, the convenience-store stickup can't compare with a leveraged buyout, trickling-down unemployment, depression, anger, alcoholism, divorce, domestic abuse and addiction. I'd like to see white men with suspenders and cellular phones tested for the greed gene. The genomes of presidential candidates should be a matter of public record.

I'm a middle-aged white man as afraid as anyone else of being not quite alone on a dark New York City street, and I've stared into the stone-cold eyes of a mugger while he told me, "It's just you and me." When you hear those words, it's too late to fight the war on crime. The rush to define criminals as sick obscures an uncomfortable truth about our society, which is that crime and violence often pay handsomely. Just ask the conquistadores, the Menendez brothers, Oliver North or the comfortable and respected descendants of bootleggers and slaveholders. Ask the purveyors of the most violent television program in recent memory: the Gulf War.

Copyright (c) TIME Magazine, 1995 TIME Inc. Magazine Company; (c) 1995 Compact Publishing, Inc.

Go Back to Shy David's Evolution Page.