Scientist denounces criminal gene theory

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A private meeting of scientists who believe that the roots of criminality are anchored in human genes has been condemned as "troublesome, disturbing and unbalanced".

Much of the research "would be scientifically unacceptable in the context of animal behaviour, yet it is given a veneer of respectability in the human context," according to Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University based in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.

The controversial meeting in London this week is organised by the international Ciba Foundation. It will be dominated by American psychologists, and outsiders are barred. Critics of the "criminal genes" position do not appear on the participants list.

Professor Rose, who is a long-standing critic of the belief that individual differences in human behaviour have a genetic not an environmental basis and wrote in this month's Nature journal that genetic determinism offers no solutions to what are essentially society's problems, pointed out that when the United States National Institutes of Health tried to organise a similar event "the political furore was so great, it had to be cancelled. It was seen as overtly racist".

The chairman of the meeting, Professor Sir Michael Rutter, of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, was unavailable for comment. Press inquiries were referred to the Ciba Foundation which said that all the participants had been told not to comment in advance of the meeting.

Professor Rose questioned the definition of "criminal and anti-social behaviour" being analysed at the meeting. "They are nearly always thinking about working-class crime, and do not mention white-collar crimes such as fraud or wife-beating among middle-class men. The definition has a social and class bias," he said.

He admits "it is improbable that genes are not involved," but he does not believe they are the real determining causes of crime. Even accepting the meeting's definition of crime, he said, "Violence in British society has risen dramatically over the past decade. In the US, the homicide rate among young males has doubled since 1985. There is no conceivable genetic explanation for that - this isn't a sudden mutant gene appearing."

Apart from a Dutch study which has traced a behavioural problem through three generations of one family to a specific biochemical defect, most of the research being discussed during the meeting does not actually focus on human DNA. Instead, researchers have tried to infer that behaviour is genetically based by studying statistical similarities and differences between identical and non-identical twins. Historically, however, twin studies of traits such as intelligence have failed to withstand scientific scrutiny.

The eminent Oxford moral philosopher Jonathan Glover will be talking to the conference about the implications of precise genetic explanations of human behaviour for our concepts of blame and responsibility. "There is a timebomb under our moral thinking - determinism," he said. He does not see a great different between genetic or environmental causes of behaviour: "If we seek to explain the characteristics that make people praiseworthy or blameworthy, then ultimately we are driven back to factors that are not under their control."

Mr Glover feels that we may have to resort to an aesthetic appreciation of people's character, rather as we judge their physical looks as beautiful or ugly: "We ought to give up the metaphysical assumption that character is something for which people are responsible," he said.