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Dec 27 2012

Fishing for meaning in a dictionary of genes

I’ve constricted my anus 100 times, and it isn’t helping! I’m still feeling extremely cranky about this story from the NY Times.

Scientists intend to sequence Adam Lanza’s DNA. They’re looking for genetic markers for mass murder. Why? Because some scientists are stupid.

Some researchers, like Dr. Arthur Beaudet, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and the chairman of its department of molecular and human genetics, applaud the effort. He believes that the acts committed by men like Mr. Lanza and the gunmen in other rampages in recent years — at Columbine High School and in Aurora, Colo., in Norway, in Tucson and at Virginia Tech — are so far off the charts of normal behavior that there must be genetic changes driving them.

“We can’t afford not to do this research,” Dr. Beaudet said.

There must be genetic changes underlying this specific behavior? There is no reason at all to assume that. Furthermore, this isn’t “off the charts of normal behavior” — there have been 62 mass murder events in the US in the last 30 years. There are witch-burnings going on in Africa right now. European Americans casually exterminated the native population of the Americas, and now pens the remnant population in reservations where they are kept in poverty. We had entire nations worth of people involved in the mass murder of 6 million Jews in the last century. Hey, shall we round up a bunch of Germans and take DNA swabs so we can figure out what there is that’s unique to their genes that allows them to commit genocide? (I better be clear here: I’m being sarcastic. I really don’t think Germans have a biological predilection for racism or murder, any more than any other people.)

I would ask whether there is any reason to assume that this behavior is a heritable trait. Is there a familial history of mass murder? Are we really going to assume that the diverse individuals who have committed these horrific crimes are all related, or all carry some common marker that isn’t found in people who don’t commit murder?

I can predict exactly what will be found when they look at Adam Lanza’s DNA. It will be human. There will be tens of thousands of little nucleotide variations from reference standards scattered throughout the genome, because all of us carry these kinds of differences. The scientists will have no idea what 99% of the differences do. They will make dubious associations — for example, they might find a novel nucleotide in a gene that has other variants correlated with schizophrenia — and in the absence of any causal link at all, they’ll publish garbage papers that try to impute a signal to common genetic noise. Some idiot will make noise about screening for an obscure mutation that Lanza carried, just because it’s something different.

I wonder if there are neurologists poking around in his brain, looking for differences, too. It’s the same issue; we don’t understand the majority of the functional consequences of individual variations in connectivity in the brain, and we have a population with large amounts of random variation. So how are you going to recognize what’s special and unique and causal about Lanza’s brain (or Einstein’s brain, or my brain, or yours)?

Fortunately, there are some sensible people out there.

“It is almost inconceivable that there is a common genetic factor” to be found in mass murders, said Dr. Robert C. Green, a geneticist and neurologist at Harvard Medical School. “I think it says more about us that we wish there was something like this. We wish there was an explanation.”

I suspect the explanation is going to be more a consequence of individual experience, although of course biology is going to shape how we respond to circumstance. But to go rifling about in a genome we don’t understand to find a simple cause is ridiculous and futile. Sure, freeze some cells down and store them away; maybe some day we’ll understand more and there will be a legitimate and specific hypothesis that can be tested by examining killers’ genetics…but a fishing expedition is pointless and dumb, and at this state of our understanding, only opens the door to misconceptions and ethics abuses.

70 comments

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  1. 1
    birgerjohansson

    “It is almost inconceivable that there is a common genetic factor” to be found in mass murders, said Dr. Robert C. Green.”
    Likewise, scientists in Japan had to deal with politicians who wanted them to identify genetic markers for non-Japanese people, since the politicians claimed most crimes were perpetrated by foreigners.
    — — — —

    Here is a much, much, much better target for sequencing (crossposted from the Lounge)
    Superheroes of Mammalia: “Did learning to fly give bats super-immunity? http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23020-did-learning-to-fly-give-bats-superimmunity.html
    “What we’re hoping is bats can do something better than humans can, and maybe we can strive to reproduce it”

  2. 2
    Sastra

    This is simply a modern form of Phrenology.

    It’s about as scientific, and just as open to abuse.

  3. 3
    timgueguen

    There have been shootings in US schools since before the American Revolution. The worst example of in school violence was the Bath incident of 1927, where 45 people in Bath Township, Michigan, including 38 children, were killed by explosives. Somehow I doubt they’ll bother to hunt of the remains of any of the perpetrators of those incidents and sequence their DNA.

  4. 4
    ChasCPeterson

    OP: agreed.

    Likewise, scientists in Japan had to deal with politicians who wanted them to identify genetic markers for non-Japanese people

    That’s not “likewise” at all. Such phylogeographic markers are very likely to exist (though Koreans would be included in most).

  5. 5
    The Mellow Monkey

    Wow. It’s the ultimate in dehumanization.

    Surely the very genes of a mass murderer are different! Maybe they are descended from monkeys while the rest of us are the proper creations of God!

  6. 6
    jose

    There’s a longing for the Eureka moment, the easy answer, the secret key to discover nature’s secrets. It’s the old idea that nature’s rules have to be elegant and simple, not hairy and complicated. It goes as far back as Kepler when he found his elegant, platonic and false solution to the solar system.

  7. 7
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    It’s a shame something bordering on pseudoscientific like this can get funding, and other more cutting edge science goes unfunded.

  8. 8
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    Dr. Green was right on the money.

    We don’t want to imagine that a (relatively) normal person can just snap and decide to kill a bunch of people. So we try to come up with a reason that can satisfy the “normals.” At least I don’t have the 355 Gene. If we think it’s some inborn trait that they share then we’ll blame genetics, we’ll blame an accident of birth.

    What will never be blamed is the gun culture, the hero cults built up around people like whatshisface who shot those kids, and the media who play and repeat their names all day. No one will ever forget the name of that guy with the cult, or the man who bombed the building, or the one who orchestrated the destruction of the WTC. We should forget their names, though.

    To change those things requires time, energy, a change of culture and a willingness to tell some people ‘no, you can’t have your toys in this society.’ It’s too hard, so we look for something else we can quickly fix. Maybe we will find some gene marker or trait, slap a band-aid over it and call it a day, then when someone not sharing that trait (or perhaps sharing that trait and not having it dealt with) causes another atrocity like this, we’ll moan and whine and cry about ‘oh what went wrong, how can we fix this problem’ and ignore the obvious thing that will fix the problem.

  9. 9
    Goodbye Enemy Janine

    Too bad they cannot do a genetic sequencing of the members of Reserve Police Battalion 101. They could do a compare and contrast of the genetic markers of the men who willingly took part in the mass killings and those who opted out.

    (I am making reference to Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning.)

  10. 10
    Bronze Dog

    I remember watching Gataca and knowing it was largely nonsense. I find it disturbing that so many people seem to want it to be true so they can engage in genoism.

    Besides, as absurd as the fishing expedition is, I think it’d be slightly more realistic to look for genetic anomalies in pacifists. Murdering people labeled as The Other has always been a part of human nature. It’s the rejection of that mindset that’s more novel.

  11. 11
    vaiyt

    This is simply a modern form of Phrenology.

    Sure it is. Just think about exactly WHAT kind of evidence these clowns would be looking for if Lanza were black.

    Who bets nobody will make the obvious assumption and write a paper on how white people are genetically predisposed to mass murder?

  12. 12
    unbound

    Time for some fishing in the 4th level of hell…

    http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com/2010/11/9-circles-of-scientific-hell.html

  13. 13
    David Wilford

    I can’t help but think that the faculty of the biology department at Baylor University is embarrassed about this.

  14. 14
    Brian E

    It’s the sinister ones. I bet they’re all left handed like me!

    As the “evil twin,” Hugo had been consigned to living in the attic of the Simpson home and once a week was given a bucket of fish heads to eat because he was the evil one. Hugo also did experimental surgery to prepare for his eventual reattachment to Bart, and created a “Pigeon-Rat” in the process. The family later learned, however, that Bart was actually the evil twin, as Hugo’s scar from when he and Bart separated was on the wrong side. Bart then took Hugo’s place in the attic and was fed fish heads, while Hugo moved downstairs to live with the family.

    Don’t scoff, it’s just as scientific.

  15. 15
    Randomfactor

    “Surely the very genes of a mass murderer are different! Maybe they are descended from monkeys while the rest of us are the proper creations of God!”

    Comparing the bonobo with His actions in the Old Testament, you may have that backwards.

  16. 16
    birgerjohansson

    “a genetic sequencing of the members of Reserve Police Battalion 101″

    Since most of those will be buried in Germany in well-marked plots, it could be done. The hard part would be getting documentation about which ones opted out of the killing, but since the moral integrity was almost certainly the result of nurture, not nature such a comparison would be meaningless.

    Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents are also probably not genetically distinct from other Russians.
    — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
    “Such phylogeographic markers are very likely to exist (though Koreans would be included in most)”
    Japanese do not tend to regard Koreans as equals even though thousands have lived there for generations without getting Japanese citizenship. Likewise the “untouchables” in Japan are genetically similar to other Japanese. What is a “proper” Japanese is very much a social construct.
    Anyway, looking for non-Japanese DNA at a crime scene is not likely to track down the culprit.

  17. 17
    birgerjohansson

    “how white people are genetically predisposed to mass murder?”

    Given that most of the more than 100 million people deliberately killed last century were killed by caucasians…

  18. 18
    dantelevel9

    I know exactly what they’ll find: Adam Lanza was a human being. A normal human being. And that’s what terrifies us all. Remember when a scientist took apart John Wayne Gacy’s brain looking for abnormalities that might explain his horrific crimes? What did she find? Nothing. Structurally his brain was no different than the rest of ours. We tend to be a very unpleasant species at times. (I’m still not ready to accept any of that Original Sin stuff, but I do despair at times.)

  19. 19
    Kevin

    Caucasians don’t have a corner on the mass murder marketplace.

    Khmer Rouge, anyone? Rape of Nanking? The Cultural Revolution? Rwanda? Papa Doc Duvalier? And on and on.

    We see through Western eyes. We sensationalize our mass murders. Even celebrate murderers: Lizzie Borden took an axe…

  20. 20
    AlexanderZ

    Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    We should forget their names, though.

    Because ignorance is bliss.

    birgerjohansson

    Given that most of the more than 100 million people deliberately killed last century were killed by caucasians…

    Do you include the 50 or so millions starved to death by the Chinese Communist Party?
    All people are potential killers. Their race doesn’t matter. their ethnicity doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is who has access to which weapons. This should have been the main lesson from Newtown, but instead you’ll probably get the NRA vision of armed guards in every school which so far hasn’t shown any evidence of working in Israel.

  21. 21
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    birgerjohansson

    Re: Koreans, I believe the point there was that the larger part of the Japanese population are immigrants from Korea*, just not recently. What constitutes Japan to day still has identifiable indigenous populations, which, of course, came from the continent at some points in the last 30 ky as well.

    *Separating facts (or allele frequencies and other fun stuff) from historical propaganda would likely be interesting.

  22. 22
    dianne

    Even assuming there is something there to find (an extremely dubious assumption), how are they going to find it on an N of 1?

  23. 23
    Corey Yanofsky

    Long time lurker here. May I just say that looking for genetic contributions to variation in aggressive behavior is not, in fact, bad science? For example, there is a variant of the promoter region of the monoamine oxidase-A that, in the presence of social factors, is associated with violence.

    As neuroscientist and self-confessed prosocial psychopath James Fallon has found, we (well, he) can actually look at a fMRI brain studies and see the depressed function in specific regions that correlates with violent behavior. He also found that certain genotypes are predictive of violent behavior — again, in the presence of social factors such as exposure to continuing violence at a young age.

    Of course, Adam Lanza’s genome alone can’t give strong evidence of genetic contributions to violent behavior in the presence of mental illness. However, a case-control analysis is a reasonable starting point in a search for such genetic contributions, and sequencing Adam Lanza’s genome can contribute to that.

  24. 24
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    @alexanderz:

    No, not ignorance. The hero cults and the media worship of these monstrous people should stop. Going out in a blaze of glory with everyone talking about your name and forever etching your name in history should stop. We have a fascination with mass murderers, and I don’t understand it. I can’t name a single person who got killed in any of the attacks or serial murders I mentioned, but I can remember every single one of the murderers’ names.

  25. 25
    dianne

    Even celebrate murderers: Lizzie Borden took an axe…

    Lizzie Borden was acquitted and technically the rhyme is slander or would be if she were alive. Not sure if you can slander a historical figure.

  26. 26
    Sastra

    Corey Yanofsky #23 wrote:

    Of course, Adam Lanza’s genome alone can’t give strong evidence of genetic contributions to violent behavior in the presence of mental illness. However, a case-control analysis is a reasonable starting point in a search for such genetic contributions, and sequencing Adam Lanza’s genome can contribute to that.

    The trouble with this however is that Lanza probably wouldn’t fit the profile of someone classified as having high aggressive tendencies. My guess is that individuals already in such a study would have personalities which are always typically angry — and a long history of short fuses, violence, and aggression.

    By all reports Lanza was on the opposite end of that personality spectrum: shy, withdrawn, passive, and self-effacing to the point of oddness. The explosion of violence was unexpected. Imo you’re not going to be able to fit this kid into a study group of other ‘aggressives.’

    The only value I see for studying Lanza’s brain would be if they found he had a recent stroke in an area involved in decision-making and control.

  27. 27
    dianne

    Of course, Adam Lanza’s genome alone can’t give strong evidence of genetic contributions to violent behavior in the presence of mental illness.

    Back up a step. Has there ever been any solid evidence presented that suggests that Lanza had a mental illness? Not just that the neighbors think he’s kind of strange in hindsight, but actual evidence? Like a diagnosis from a therapist or even a GP?

  28. 28
    AlexanderZ

    Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    My point is that people don’t need a specific real name of a murderer to become killers. They can invent one from scratch – which is where we got most of our mythology from. Trying to ban names has been ridiculous in Herostratus’ time and it will be even more ridiculous in the age of twitter. Fetishizing names is equally absurd whether you do to ban a name or to glorify it (though the latter is obviously much worse).
    If you believe that any person can commit great violence, then there is nothing special about the perpetrator’s actions. If you do believe that names have intrinsic power to transform other individuals into killer you walk onto a slippery slope that can only end in book burnings and the like.

  29. 29
    roland

    Yes, but it’s really hard for the popular press to find stuff people want to read you know. Thanks, Dr Beaudet, this goes into the folder: “Shit we publish when we don’t know what to write about”.

  30. 30
    kevinalexander

    I constrict my anus the whole time I read this blog.
    Otherwise, I shit myself laughing.

  31. 31
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Anything, anything but NOT gun culture.
    Anything but NOT a culture of violence.
    Anything but NOT a popular culture that has the lonely hero standing who doesn’t have to care about laws and rules.*
    Let’s not ever talk about things we can actually change. Let’s just look at genes and stuff and then pretend this is something like a Tsunami: unpreventable but maybe we can cushionthe fall.

    *Last Friday I went to the movies. The previews gave me nightmares. Lots of unjustly maligned guys who then went on their totally justified wild killing spree.

  32. 32
    robb

    i heard about this the other day on MPR or NPR. there is some gene that is correlated with violent behavior. iirc a sizable portion of violent felons have the gene. seemed interesting.

    anyway, the geneticist they interviewed went out of the way to say that having the gene is *not* predictive of violent behavior. there are other factors (environment etc) that when taken all together *may* lead to violent behavior. they even mentioned that some perps have tried to use the fact they have the gene as a defense in trial.

    the genes made me do it!11!!1!!!11!

    so it seems that testing the shooter is a complete waste of time and will not give any credible reason he committed his atrocious act, even if he did have the gene.

  33. 33
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    @Gilliel:

    But, but, those things are so hard to change! If it’s genetic we can just medicate!

  34. 34
    Nick Gotts

    Do you include the 50 or so millions starved to death by the Chinese Communist Party? – alexanderz

    No, because this was not deliberate: it was the result of ideological blindness to reality, but most of those who died were not even “class enemies”, but simply poor peasants who perished because of the vast disruption caused by the “Great Leap Forward”.

  35. 35
    chigau (違う)

    kevinalexander #30
    You should probably see a doctor about that.

  36. 36
    sadunlap

    Wouldn’t you need lots of twins separated at birth and raised in significantly different socio-economic environments for any such research to have any possibility of having a meaningful result? How do you control for non-genetic factors otherwise?

  37. 37
    gillt

    There are fishing expeditions and there are fishing expeditions. Mutating zebrafish sperm and filtering the hundreds/thousands of crosses for interesting mutations is standard.

    It would be a pretty simple and straightforward thing to do so I’m in favor of sequencing Lanza’s genome/exome/transcriptome/metabolome/epigenome/etc. or dissecting his brain and gathering tons of data and reporting on it. Maybe there’s some low-hanging fruit such as a Charles Whitman brain lesion. That would obviously be the biggest bang for the buck but still inconclusive by itself. What would be most intriguing in my opinion is if there was no smoking gun, but a bunch of normal-looking variation in Lanza’s genome. But the fact is, the likely outcome of this sort of glamor study is premature speculation in a high impact journal which will then be magnified in the media. That’s the problem.

  38. 38
    Corey Yanofsky

    @Sastra #26, I can’t help but feel that you don’t know what a case-control study is. Also, no one is proposing to study Lanza’s brain — he killed himself by shooting it.

    @dianne #27, to the extent that the concept of mental illness carves nature at its joints, I feel, contra PZM and Kate, that spree killing of strangers is itself behavior diagnostic of some kind of mental illness (most likely affecting ability to form social bonds). Kate’s argument against this is a straight-up appeal to consequences.

    I appreciate that this identification, made carelessly, can have bad consequences, but that’s mostly because people often commit the prosecutor’s fallacy. Knowing this and being able to explain it to those perpetuating harmful attitudes about mental illness is the key to shutting down those attitudes.

    @sadunlap #36, you don’t need twin studies to obtain useful results, especially when you’re fishing for meaning in a dictionary of genes (as PZ accurately titles this post). You do need a sample size much larger than just one spree killer. As to controlling non-genetic factors (or confounders in general), well, you measure them and include them in the statistical model.

  39. 39
    AlexanderZ

    Nick Gotts (formerly KG)

    because this was not deliberate

    The harvest reduction and the inability to buy needed food was indeed a product of the ideology. The actual death were not. Just like in the Holodomor, instead of trying to distribute food equally the government intentionally stripped the most productive areas bare and then prohibited any movement to from those areas so that people would starve.
    I know that to Western eyes all poor peasants look the same, but they aren’t. Both Holodomor and the Great Leap Forward target exclusively more organized/affluent peasants who were opposed to collectivization. Curiously in neither case the less productive agricultural areas didn’t suffer nearly as much as the growers, with cities being better fed than the country side. Look at this map of the Holodomor and this map of The Great Leap Forward. Notice how the hunger is strangely restricted to well defined areas despite the communist claims to equality? At least in case of the Holodomor the death correlates very well with the so-called Chernozem soil (highly rich soil), the location of peasant “upper” class (made relatively rich through high crop yields) and the distribution of the independent Cossack population (who, incidentally, where almost completely eradicated) in both Ukraine and northern Caucasus.
    Rolling your eyes and claiming that those deaths were not intentional, when both Mao and Stalin clearly said that they a certain percentage of peasants dead (Mao talked about 10% of the entire peasant population. Thankfully less people died. Stalin didn’t give a specific number but said he wanted to kill off all of the so-called “Kulaks”, where Kulak was defined as any peasant with more than two chickens) is nothing less than willing blindness. You might as well have said that in Nazi labor camps and Death Marches nobody was intentionally killed because they all died from exhaustion instead of a bullet to the head.

  40. 40
    WhiteHatLurker

    After careful analysis, we have have found the subject to have a “Y” chromosome, which is present in other mass killers in a higher proportion than would be expected in a random sample of the population.

    Likewise, the subject had an “X” chromosome, which on analysis, we have found ALL mass killers to possess.

  41. 41
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Likewise, the subject had an “X” chromosome, which on analysis, we have found ALL mass killers to possess.

    *leaves fuming tankard of grog while backing away slowly*

  42. 42
    laconicsax

    “Anything, anything but NOT gun culture.
    Anything but NOT a culture of violence.
    Anything but NOT a popular culture that has the lonely hero standing who doesn’t have to care about laws and rules.*”

    Sounds about right. The degree to which people are desperate to avoid talking about what we know keeps surprising me.

  43. 43
    rrhain

    While I certainly think that sequencing Lanza and coming up with a “Eureka!” moment is outrageous in the extreme, I do think there is something to be said for studying those who show unusual traits. My personal guess is that there will be certain aspects that, given certain extremes of circumstance, will be loosely correlated with what we might call “anti-social” or “violent” activities. That said, notice all the caveats I put in there. We do know that there is a biochemistry involved with proclivities toward violence. Testosterone has effects on the brain. While most men aren’t violent, men tend to be more violent than women. People who have undergone sex reassignment surgery from female to male report there is a different thought process that goes on when they are on testosterone that leads one to react physically. Clearly something is going on.

    So then we get to the question of circumstances. Genetics is not destiny. We have brains and are rational(ish) creatures who can channel our desires into actions. It was hardly his genes that made him do it. There are so many environmental and cultural aspects involved that it would be ludicrous in the extreme to say that gene X causes behaviour Y. It isn’t that simple.

    But just because it is complex and all outcomes are unique doesn’t mean it isn’t instructive to examine the parts and see how they fit together. This would be a study that would take a long time to produce any results, indeed, but it would make for a very interesting study.

  44. 44
    DLC

    This is nothing more than an extension of the old, hackneyed “Y-Y chromosome” nonsense that was briefly popular in the late 70s and early80s, mostly thanks to newspapers of the day. They drew an artificial and completely unproven correlation between XYY syndrome and violence. No such correlation existed, but it took hold in the imaginations of the populace.

  45. 45
    rorschach

    30 billion neurons in the brain. 25000 protein-coding genes in human DNA. Clearly the brain does stuff independent from the DNA makeup of the person. These people should know that.

  46. 46
    mudpuddles

    Hi there PZ,

    There must be genetic changes underlying this specific behavior? There is no reason at all to assume that.

    Very true, there is no reason to think think that genetic changes must be behind the behaviour.

    ““It is almost inconceivable that there is a common genetic factor” to be found in mass murders”

    Meehh… not totally true… It is worth noting the research into changes in the MAO-A gene that affect monoamine oxidase pathways, and which have been strongly linked with a propensity towards anti-social behaviours when combined with physical / psychosocial factors (e.g. in people who experience abuse in childhood), and which have been determined to be predictors of violent behaviour in a large number of cases. In particular, they have been correlated with an expressed lack of empathy. Such changes are not necessarily causative factors, but it seems clear that they can be contributing.

    Here is an interesting paper on the topic:
    Mayer Lindberg et al 2006, Neural mechanisms of genetic risk for impulsivity and violence in humans, PNAS vol 103 issue 16, 6269–6274

    This does raise certain warning flags about the rush to judgement, i.e. assuming a particular individual must have committed a horrific crime because of a genetic default or abnormality, and of course there should be no suggestion that a person committing a violent crime must be genetically predisposed to do so. But it may be insightful to identify the range of factors, including possible genetic ones, that could interact along with the easy access to tools specifically designed for mass-murder that lead to any given tragedy.

  47. 47
    mudpuddles

    A colleague has suggested a more recent paper on the topic: Fergusson et al (2012), Moderating role of the MAOA genotype in antisocial behaviour, British Journal of Psychiatry vol 200, issue 2, 116-123

  48. 48
    rorschach

    Moderating role of the MAOA genotype in antisocial behaviour

    And if the MAOA gene indeed modifies behaviour in the way suggested in the study, then we still have a situation where we will have no or very few deaths from MAOA gene induced violence in Germany or Australia, and a great many deaths in the USA.

    Because guns, remember?

  49. 49
    mudpuddles

    Hi rorschach,

    Yes, as I stated: “…the easy access to tools specifically designed for mass-murder that lead to any given tragedy”

    To imagine that a pervasive gun culture and an extremely powerful lobby that convinces the masses that assault weapons are A-OK to have in the home would not be major contributing factors would be… well, GOP-like.

  50. 50
    Ing

    It is worth noting the research into changes in the MAO-A gene that affect monoamine oxidase pathways, and which have been strongly linked with a propensity towards anti-social behaviours when combined with physical / psychosocial factors (e.g. in people who experience abuse in childhood), and which have been determined to be predictors of violent behaviour in a large number of cases. In particular, they have been correlated with an expressed lack of empathy. Such changes are not necessarily causative factors, but it seems clear that they can be contributing.

    Yeah and it’s much easier to look for the gene than to actually make the world a better place.

  51. 51
    mudpuddles

    Hi Ing,

    Yeah and it’s much easier to look for the gene than to actually make the world a better place.

    You assume that the research has no value in improving the world, though the potential applications of the research are many and varied, including identifying people for whom social or psychiatric intervention may be most important, as well as in cases of criminal law.

    Anyway, even if it did not have such potential value, so what? Should scientists only ever conduct research that has a direct beneficial influence on the world? Is the abstract pursuit of knowledge about how the world works now a bad thing? I think understanding the range of causative factors in mass murders is important.

  52. 52
    Ing

    You assume that the research has no value in improving the world, though the potential applications of the research are many and varied, including identifying people for whom social or psychiatric intervention may be most important, as well as in cases of criminal law.

    Sorry HOW does this research help that?

  53. 53
    mudpuddles

    #52, Ing:

    For a start, if science can establish the links between gene polymorphisms and propensity to violence and then establish the major contributing psychosocial factors, which are likely to include developmental experience and exposure to guns and gun culture etc, then this can inform policy on prevention of mass murder, and on the criminal liability and treatment, incarceration or rehabilitation of mass murderers that carry such genetic markers.

    It can also potentially lead to development of genetic testing which might identify a spectrum of propensity to anti-social behaviours, which may inform a wide range of social policies including in education, health care, community support etc.

    Aside from the issue of violence, the research also expands knowledge of how genetics can interact with environment in determining behaviours.

  54. 54
    Ing

    For a start, if science can establish the links between gene polymorphisms and propensity to violence and then establish the major contributing psychosocial factors, which are likely to include developmental experience and exposure to guns and gun culture etc, then this can inform policy on prevention of mass murder, and on the criminal liability and treatment, incarceration or rehabilitation of mass murderers that carry such genetic markers.

    Except as you said we’re pretty sure we know a lot of the major psychosocial factors and basic things like access to weapons. So why are we bothering again?

    It can also potentially lead to development of genetic testing which might identify a spectrum of propensity to anti-social behaviours, which may inform a wide range of social policies including in education, health care, community support etc.

    Yes a wonderful new way to discriminate and stigmatize. That’s so much better than addressing actual social issues.

  55. 55
    mudpuddles

    Hi Ing,

    Except as you said we’re pretty sure we know a lot of the major psychosocial factors and basic things like access to weapons. So why are we bothering again?

    No, “we” are not sure – “certainty” depends on political persuasion and cultural background, for example. NRA nuts will tell you they are certain its the fault of Hollywood, video games or Lady Gaga. Republican party stooges will tell you its gay marriage, Obama or or the lack of bible study in schools, and I will say its largely to do with gun culture, weakened social fabric and an appalling lack of primary mental health care. But we don’t actually know what the actual combination of factors is, which is why the research I mentioned is being carried out.

    That aside, we bother because we can potentially target better treatment at certain individuals who don’t need easy access to guns in order to plot or commit murders, rather than solely concentrating on finding catch-all policies that might not be possible or ever work. Better treatment or intervention to deal with specific problem cases – as is practcised for a wide range of psychopathies – is generally considered a good thing, not only to prevent wider societal difficulties, but because doing something that can help someone enjoy a peaceful life within society is just the right thing to do. It does not replace efforts to remove other triggers, but it should be part of a package, because ignoring opportunities for effective practical intervention that could save lives would be silly.

    In the case of Adam Lanza, if – as has been suggested in some reports – he exhibted certain behaviours suggestive of a dissociative personality, then testing of the troubled individual may have identified a genetic marker (if the MAO-A link was established at the time) and suggested specific treatment (educational, psychiatric, social, and / or pharmaceutical, in addition to “lose the guns”) to minimise the risk that he might do something terrible.

    Yes a wonderful new way to discriminate and stigmatize. That’s so much better than addressing actual social issues.

    What? You’re not suggesting that mental illness, adequate intervention for young offenders and the effective treatment of people with psychopathies or neurological disorders are not real social issues…. So what do you mean?
    And why would the test results be public? Kids in my family have been tested for certain genetic conditions (as have I), the results are confidential and will never be open for publication, but they have identified certain interventions that will be important for one child (and another which may have saved my life). Genetic test results are not worn as a badge. No one will be carrying a card saying “I have the low-activity variant of the MAO-A gene” – but if parents know that certain educational approaches or drug treatments could prevent developmental problems that could lead to future anti-social behaviour, they can make more informed choices. So I don’t get your logic.

  56. 56
    Ing

    . NRA nuts will tell you they are certain its the fault of Hollywood, video games or Lady Gaga. Republican party stooges will tell you its gay marriage, Obama or or the lack of bible study in schools, and I will say its largely to do with gun culture, weakened social fabric and an appalling lack of primary mental health care. But we don’t actually know what the actual combination of factors is, which is why the research I mentioned is being carried out.

    You dismiss your own point with that stupid analogy. One side has a degree of evidence based on it the other doesn’t. You’re arguing that because there’s a political controversy there is a factual controversy.

  57. 57
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    No one will be carrying a card saying “I have the low-activity variant of the MAO-A gene” – but if parents know that certain educational approaches or drug treatments could prevent developmental problems that could lead to future anti-social behaviour, they can make more informed choices. So I don’t get your logic.

    Nor do I get yours, until it is established a true genetic connection is established and we know the developmental and sociological triggers that can cause such behavior. And given the rarity of it happening, this is unlikely to occur with any real certainty. Pie-in-the-sky thinking, very little real science behind it. Just speculation and more speculation. I call that fantasy.

  58. 58
    Ing

    No one will be carrying a card saying “I have the low-activity variant of the MAO-A gene”

    No they’ll just have an albatross around their neck they’ll have to hide their whole lives. But hey you’re probably right, I mean it’s not like this hasn’t happened before or doesn’t’ happen today with health status right? Not like schizophrenic symptoms, bipolar, ADD, HIV status etc are stigmatized or problematic if it becomes known right? Not like you can lose work opportunities or be shunned for those right? So a gene for “mass murder” (as the press will report it) isn’t going to be any problem at all.

    Meanwhile we DO know the general conditions that can cause social problems and the cultural issues that lead to access of guns and familiarity with their use. I’m sorry but I do not buy that we have to reinvent the wheel on this one.

  59. 59
    mudpuddles

    Hi Ing & Nerd,

    until it is established a true genetic connection is established and we know the developmental and sociological triggers that can cause such behavior. And given the rarity of it happening, this is unlikely to occur with any real certainty. Pie-in-the-sky thinking, very little real science behind it. Just speculation and more speculation. I call that fantasy.

    The connection between antisocial behaviours in certain people (who have experienced certain developmental, sociological or psychological triggers) and a MAO-A gene polymorphism is already pretty well established, and has been for some time. Real science, well reported in major scientific journals – more than speculation, certainly not fantasy.

    they’ll just have an albatross around their neck they’ll have to hide their whole lives…. it’s not like this hasn’t happened before or doesn’t’ happen today with health status right? Not like schizophrenic symptoms, bipolar, ADD, HIV status etc are stigmatized or problematic if it becomes known right?.

    All the conditions you name are behavioural or pathological, identifiable after the fact. I’m talking about the identification of a genetic marker with no physical or outward manifestation of a nightmare scenario unless and until violence happens, at which stage the “mass murderer” thing is kind of out of the bag. The particular MAO-A variant is very prevalent in the US – its at around 40% of the population, which is relatively low compared to some other countries. It is also associated with depression, addiction and sudden infant death syndrome. So we know that the conditions that would lead to violent tragedy must be pretty specific, since we don’t have 40% of the population who are exposed to guns and rap and cinema etc, or even 40% of abuse victims, committing mass murders. To suggest that people who have a genotype present in 40% of the population will suddenly become ostracised as a result of someone finding out about it (if they ever did) is missing the point of my post.

    I’m suggesting that knoweldge of how the genetics interacts with social factors has many potential applications. For example, people who are known to have experienced key triggers could potentially be tested where such a test might be reasonably considered (e.g. during medical work ups of abuse victims, with their consent or that of their guardians), and provided with options for appropriate care – maybe they take a course of a certain antidepressant drug to regulate serotonin uptake at a critical period in development, like 80 million other Americans, or receive therapies to help avoid other triggers.

    Here’s a scenario: One of the known risk factors interacting with the MAO-A polymorph is abuse during childhood. I do not think we will fully eradicate sexual and physical abuse of children soon, but hopefully we will get better at identifying, protecting and treating the victims early. If we know that within the cohort of abused children certain individuals may have a genetic factor that – due to a mis-step in the metabolism of serotonin or dopamine, and perhaps in combination with another factor or factors – might significantly increase the likelihood that their experience of abuse will encourage them to engage in violent anti-social behaviour, then potentially their treatment can be directed or improved so as to negate that increased risk, if those individuals are identified.

    a gene for “mass murder” (as the press will report it)

    Of course, and that has happened already, but that’s a result of bad science reporting and not insurmountable. Considering its prevalence, proper education would likely reduce this problem.

    we DO know the general conditions that can cause social problems

    No, we do not know for certain what all the important psychosocial factors are, sorry. And “general” is not good enough – as I said, we need to understand the specifics, because we don’t have a 40% rate of mass murderers. I think the three of us would agree on what we think the three or four core conditions might be, but there is evidence for and against many, including movies and video games etc. Its not a “factual controversy”, its a knowledge gap. This isn’t like climate science where there is a major scientific consensus, there are still uncertainties and much of the research into the triggers or its interpretation is itself questioned.And, as stated, we are dealing with an as yet unclear set of pretty specific factors, possibly many sets. Does the current state of gun laws in the US promote mass murder? Obviously not on its own. The research I mentioned asks “since we know that a certain gene variant can be a marker for risk of antisocial behaviour when combined with certain triggers, exactly what triggers are most important, are more than one needed, and what intervention is best in case that trigger occurs?” I don’t see how that research is not valuable.

    I agree that many of the likely triggers are being addressed and should be addressed more forcefully, but if we can identify individuals who may be at risk of developing antisocial behaviours, we can potentially provide specific treatment or prevention. And there is still the issue of criminal law and sentencing where this and many other issues in neuroscience are becoming increasingly important. Its not reinventing the wheel, its about reducing risks and providing appropriate treatment for those who would benefit from it.

  60. 60
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    The connection between antisocial behaviours in certain people (who have experienced certain developmental, sociological or psychological triggers) and a MAO-A gene polymorphism is already pretty well established, and has been for some time. Real science, well reported in major scientific journals – more than speculation, certainly not fantasy.

    Yet the proposed research is over all the genome. Wild goose chase, given the paucity of mass murders, and lack of apparent running in families, which indicates probable genetic component. Simple PCR test can determine one gene if a gene like MAO-A is present. There might be a weak link to your MAO-A, but until the evidence is in, get off pretending it is the answer.

  61. 61
    mudpuddles

    Yet the proposed research is over all the genome.

    How do you know, when details of the research have not been released? How do you know they are not targetting specific areas?

    given the paucity of mass murders

    I’ve addressed that already

    and lack of apparent running in families, which indicates probable genetic component.

    Familial effects have been demonstrated, not just for the link with violence but also with addiction.

    There might be a weak link to your MAO-A, but until the evidence is in, get off pretending it is the answer.

    Oh wow! Just reinventing your own little discussion there, aren’t you? Point out precisely where I stated that the MAO-A effect was the answer to the question of Adam Lanza’s actions, or get off inventing straw men. On the contrary, I said “there is no reason to think think that genetic changes must be behind the behaviour.” My point was that contrary to some points made in PZs post, there is evidence for a link between violent behaviour and genetics in many cases given certain other conditions, and therefore the idea that genetics might be useful in understanding risks factors behind mass murders is not daft.

  62. 62
    dancaban

    Best Edgar Allan I’ve read. I’ll get my coat.

  63. 63
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    My point was that contrary to some points made in PZs post, there is evidence for a link between violent behaviour and genetics in many cases given certain other conditions, and therefore the idea that genetics might be useful in understanding risks factors behind mass murders is not daft.

    But, is it really good and useful science? Like how does one untangle the developmental/environmental contributions, which are more likely to triggering than genetics? No, it’s a fishing expedition with too few examples for meaningful data. Since scientific funds are limited, the money is better spent elsewhere, doing real science, not something that smacks of pseudoscience. That has been my point all along, and will remain my point.

  64. 64
    rrhain

    #63

    Oh, because it’s difficult, it’s not worth doing. I get it.

  65. 65
    John Horstman

    Hey, shall we round up a bunch of Germans and take DNA swabs so we can figure out what there is that’s unique to their genes that allows them to commit genocide? (I better be clear here: I’m being sarcastic. I really don’t think Germans have a biological predilection for racism or murder, any more than any other people.)

    Yeah; this was the impetus for Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments. He found that Americans were just as likely to cruelly and slowly murder someone at the behest of an authority figure as were Germans. I blame cultures that socialize deference to authority (hell, the existence of authority at all) instead of contextual ethical reasoning, which is most of them. As PZ says, the premise on which this study is predicated – that violence like this is somehow out of the norm – is entirely, demonstrably (it has already been demonstrated in any number of ways, the historical record being an obvious one) false.

  66. 66
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Oh, because it’s difficult, it’s not worth doing. I get it.

    Nope, because scarce resources can be put to better use, and save more lives in the long run.

  67. 67
    mudpuddles

    Hi Nerd,

    Nope, because scarce resources can be put to better use, and save more lives in the long run.

    Oh no, no no no… Who gets to decide that only certain avenues of science are valuable? And when? The real value of much discovery is only determined after the fact. Your argument may as well be that space exploration should be entirely shelved until we find a cure for cancer, or that all research into the conservation needs of cetaceans be halted until we have a vaccine against HIV. That’s billions of dollars right there that could be diverted in an effort to search for direct benefits to human health. But that’s not how scientific study works. Funding for research into the hibernaton habits of polar bears was heavily criticised by Republicans in the 90s as a waste of money when the economy was struggling, but from it we now have deeper insights into (and new avenues for treatment of) human diseases such as osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity and bowel cancer. Who could have predicted that? The point is that no one knows what discovery may derive from the absract pursuit of knowledge (there is another point about funding mechanisms, and that private foundations will fund science wherever they see fit regardless of what society at large thinks, but I’ll leave that aside). And in this case, the pursuit happens not to be abstract – you claim “pseudoscience”, which clearly signals that you have not read the literature, and I suggest you look into it. Even a simple search through the literature abstracts will show you it is largely sound science, with scores of papers on the MAO-A link to anti-social behaviour published in relevant and respected peer-reviewed journals since the mid 1990s. The link is now fairly well established, as is the understanding that it is highly dependent upon developmental experience and trauma. Publication in a top journal is not a guarantee of quality, but when you’re looking at such a large volume of data replicated across different studies by a large number of scientists its definitely pushing the needle one way.

    You ask if its useful science – I reckon any science which can help to better understand the development of severe antisocial behaviour disorders, and help improve treatment or prevention of those disorders, provide guidance for improved targetting of primary mental health care services, and also help paint a clearer picture in questions of criminal liability or otherwise inform related policy and sentencing, is useful.

  68. 68
    spellatron

    I for one would love to know if he has the warrior gene as described here (causes lack of empathy): http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=3nYWpwDYCtQ
    Also whether the NRA top brass have it.

  69. 69
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Who gets to decide that only certain avenues of science are valuable? And when?

    Who else? Peer review for Grants. Like all NSF proposals. Which leaves me out of biological studies.

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