Letter : Gene article had inherent fault

Click to follow
The Independent Online
From Professor Sir Michael Rutter

Sir: I was saddened that such a distinguished scientist as Patrick Bateson should write a misleading article on "The perils of genetic determinism" (18 February). The account of development that he provided, in terms of an interplay between individuals and their environment, is, of course, correct, but that is precisely the view universally expressed at the Ciba Symposium [on the genetics of criminal and antisocial behaviour].

Professor Bateson attacked the strawman of a "gene for crime". As the symposium emphasised, that is a ridiculous notion because crime is heterogeneous in origin, is due to a mixture of causes working together, and because genes work in probabilistic, not deterministic, ways.

The slur on fellow scientists by the innuendo that the meeting was designed to produce a strong message, so that there can be more of the "gravy" for genetic research, does Professor Bateson no credit. The meeting was chaired by a medical social scientist (myself) well known for supporting the view of development put forward by Professor Bateson, and the participants at the meeting came from backgrounds as diverse as cultural anthropology, evolutionary psychology, biology, moral philosophy and law, as well as genetics.

Moreover, Professor Bateson's counter messages disregard the evidence. No one doubts that there are links between unemployment and crime, but the crime wave post-Second World War came during a period of very low unemployment, a rising standard of living, and a reduction of social inequalities. It is true that crime has kept rising during the last 15 years, when those social advances have been reversed, but the increase is no greater now than in the Fifties to Seventies.

The quick fix of US programmes for deprived children that Professor Bateson favours (with the suggestion of a "hundredfold" saving) grossly overstates the case. The Perry programme was indeed a remarkable study which carries important lessons, but its success was not of the order claimed. It involved less than 100 children; over a third had a criminal record, and 7 per cent committed at least five crimes. It is true that the control group did much worse, but the financial savings were sevenfold (on the authors' own calculations), not a hundredfold. Reducing the suffering (for both victims and perpetrators) associated with crime is much too important a problem to be dealt with in the simplistic fashion of Professor Bateson's article.

Yours faithfully,


Centre for Social, Genetic and

Developmental Psychiatry

Institute of Psychiatry

London, SE5

18 February