No natural born killers

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We are facing a full-scale row this week over whether criminals are born or made. Is the murderer's inclination to kill genetically predetermined, or the result of upbringing and environmental influences? A group of scientists meeting in London will reignite the controversy with studies suggesting that the roots of criminality can be found in a person's genetic make- up.

It is easy to see why such biological claims generate so much heat. Some will seize upon them to defend a belief that criminals are incorrigible and should be locked away for ever. Others will herald genetic engineering as offering society a salvation from crime. They will argue that if a defective gene can be spotted, a foetus carrying the offending trait could be aborted. Still others will contend that genetic explanations make a nonsense of free will and, therefore, of morality. Meanwhile, many sociologists will maintain their view that criminality is explained solely by the failings of society.

All these stances are variously flawed. So, before the hubbub gets too confusing, we should calmly establish a few points. First, genes may indeed influence human nature to a certain extent. They affect our bodies, so why should they not also have a bearing on our behaviour? The mechanisms may remain a mystery: it is almost impossible to design experiments that will distinguish between the effects of upbringing and genetic make-up. But it is conceivable that we will eventually be able to separate out many of the influences.

We should not be frightened to discover knowledge that may help us to understand our own complexity. In genetic research may lie useful insights into why people are happy or miserable, aggressive or passive, loud or quiet.

But this research will not give us the solution to crime. Even if it were the case that certain people were predisposed to act in certain ways, it would not mean that they were genetically pre-programmed. The determinants of human behaviour are likely to be a complicated mixture of environmental factors and perhaps a mlange of various genetic influences. Sociobiologists would be foolish to think that they could detect a simple line between a single cause and a predictable effect.

Some would like to think that such a discovery is possible. They imagine iron laws of human behaviour akin to those that physicists use to explain the workings of the universe. Their search is in danger of distracting them from other important, more easily discernible factors that explain crime.

Biological determinism overlooks the fact that genetics offers little insight into recent increases in criminality. It would be ridiculous to claim that the biological make-up of Western peoples has suddenly altered and made large numbers of them anti-social. Environmental causes such as unemployment, poverty and family break-up provide more likely explanations.

These problems may be overwhelming in scale and costly to tackle. But there can be no escaping the reality that understanding criminality is more complicated that just finding a gene.