Monday, June 20, 2011

Are certain babies born to be criminals?

I was interested to come across an article in the New York Times [display] entitled Genetic Basis for Crime: A New Look, related to a US conference in Arlington that is opening this morning with a forum on "creating databases for information about DNA and new genetic markers that forensic scientists are discovering".

For many decades, we've all known that, when talking about the fuzzy but touchy subject of crime, it has been politically incorrect to evoke an alleged role of genes. Besides, we're more convinced than ever that, today, the only admissible direct answer to the question in my title—Are certain babies born to be criminals?—is no. But much has been evolving recently concerning our appreciation and evaluation of the undeniable influences of people's genes concerning their future behavior in society. And my question needs to be answered in a far more subtle manner than by a simple yes or no. As soon as I started to read the NYTimes article, I said to myself that the journalist surely couldn't carry on discussing a "new look" at arguments about a genetic basis for crime without mentioning the work of Steven Pinker, as evoked in my blog post of 24 February 2011 entitled I think, therefore I am… misguided [display].

Not surprisingly, the journalist soon got around to quoting Pinker, and even mentioned his latest book—The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence has Declined—which is already announced by Amazon and receiving advanced comments… even though it won't be published until next October!

In The Blank Slate, Pinker started out by evoking the most outspoken observer of Man's propensity to violence: the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Here is the text of Hobbes's "life of man" statement, which so alarmed his fellow citizens that the great thinker's brutal analysis was basically ignored for some three centuries… up until recent times.

Hereby it is manifest that, during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

To handle the state of Wild West lawlessness that he depicted as the normal destiny of humans in their natural state, Hobbes suggested that society might install a monstrous all-powerful sheriff, the Leviathan, inspired by ancient Judaic mythology.

But this "solution" was both unpleasant and unconvincing. So, ever since that catastrophic vision of humanity penned by Hobbes, countless critics have been trying to prove, simply, that he was totally wrong.

A few decades ago, many Americans tried to believe that even the worst criminals could be coaxed back into the folds of society by a process designated as rehabilitation. In 1970, a young Texan law professor and former US attorney-general, Ramsey Clark, with an unbounded belief in peace, wrote a book entitled Crime in America in which he sought to promote this wishful thinking.

Here are excerpts from Ramsey Clark on the rehabilitation theme:
Rehabilitation must be the goal of modern corrections. Every other consideration should be subordinate to it. To rehabilitate is to give health, freedom from drugs and alcohol, to provide education, vocational training, understanding and the ability to contribute to society. […]

Rehabilitated, an individual will not have the capacity—cannot bring himself—to injure another or take or destroy property. […]

The end sought by rehabilitation is a stable individual returned to community life, capable of constructive participation and incapable of crime. From the very beginning, the direction of the correctional process must be back toward the community. It is in the community that crime will be committed or a useful life lived.
Today, individuals such as Pinker, convinced that genes influence greatly an individual's propensity to commit crimes, are starting to debunk the "moralistic fallacy" (as he puts it) of rehabilitation. The challenge they face consists of explaining to concerned citizens that emphasizing the primeval causal role of genes in criminality is not at all equivalent to imagining the existence of a single binary-valued "crime gene", which is either turned on in the case of wrongdoers, or off in the case of decent citizens. That is not at all what is meant by a genetic dimension to criminality. It's far more subtle and complex than that. Besides, individuals are not generally condemned to a life of crime by the mere presence of "risky genes". Such a presence would simply indicate that there is probably an accrued risk that such individuals would fall into crime more readily than those who have no such genes. Genes, even when present, can be flipped on and off by environmental factors, and that is what gives us hope as far as combating violence and crime is concerned.

Today, as the article on the Arlington conference points out, the tide is turning in the sense that biology and genetics are no longer dirty words in the arena of research on violence and crime. But it would be naive to imagine that the ideas of an evolutionary psychologist such as Pinker are about to be welcomed wholeheartedly by the entire criminological establishment. In any case, the Hobbesian vision of humanity was surely closer to reality than the "blank slate" thinking of idealists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ramsey Clark.


  1. If environmental factors can flip the propensity of genes, then rehabilitation can still be a worthy goal, if a more difficult one as envisioned by Clarke.

  2. Dave, you are so right. And I like your expert style of saying things.