The continuing hunt for crime genes

“It is our hope that integrating behavioral genetic findings into mainstream criminological theories will elucidate the factors, both genetic and environmental, that ultimately lead to antisocial behavior.” (Barnes, JC, Kevin Beaver, and Brian B. Boutwell. “Examining the Genetic Underpinnings to Moffitt’s Developmental Taxonomy: A Behavioral Genetic Analysis.” Criminology 49, no. 4 (2011): 923-54. doi:0.1111/j.1745-9125.2011.00243.x.


The quote above is from a new study, getting media play over the last few days (“Is that a gun in your genes or are you just opportunistic?” it begins). It is an unselfconscious (i.e., not historically aware) contribution to a long and dangerous literature claiming to show the biological basis of crime.

Ten years ago, the historian of science Garland Allen published an article titled, “The biological basis of crime: an historical and methodological study” (History and Sociology of the Physical and Biological Sciences 31: 183-222). In it, he cited the recent spate of scientific studies purporting to show a strong genetic basis of crime. His focus was the 1992 “Violence initiative,” a federally funded program to help elucidate the genetic basis of crime and other antisocial behavior.

Allen pointed out the long tradition of finding the hereditary basis of crime, stretching back to the eugenic days of the Progressive era. Leading eugenicists such as Charles Davenport and the anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton claimed that criminal behavior was the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors and that elucidating the genes involved in crime could be a significant social and economic benefit. Davenport, Allen wrote, “brought criminal behavior into the biological arena as an inherited defect of the central nervous system.” (Allen 2001: 188) Hooton, in works such as Crime and the Man (Cambridge, 1939) dissociated himself from the cruder and discredited 19th century anthropometric studies of Cesare Lombroso but borrowed the notion that physical “stigmata” could be reliable indicators of specific criminal tendencies.

These research traditions, Allen shows, have clear continuation into the era of modern genetics, with findings such as the (now discredited) notion that an extra Y chromosome predisposed its carrier to a life of crime, and Richard Herrnstein and James Q. Wilson’s 1985 book, Crime and Human Nature.

“That most eugenicists did not envision the ultimate outcome of their program and ideology is not surprising,” Allen wrote. “Scientists are not very accurate social critics.” (2001: 220)

One could mount a critique of the science in the paper: it has no candidate genes and is based simply on association. It has a broad and subjective definition of “crime” that allows in dozens of subjective, uncontrollable variables. I leave that critique to others.

My argument is simply this: science needs social critics, because its findings carry increasingly potent social impact.

(If any readers have difficulty obtaining any of the linked articles cited above, post a comment with your email address and I will send them to you.)


10 thoughts on “The continuing hunt for crime genes”

  1. If you had listened to my scientific data about immigration and sterilization back in the day, we would not have the crime problem that we have today. I beg to differ with Dr. Allen’s feeble-minded paper; I was a leading scientist AND the country’s greatest social critic. Only the Nazis saw the wisdom of my arguments. God bless you, Jim and Richard, for carrying my torch.

    Harry Laughlin
    Doctor of Medicine (Hon), Univ. of Heidelberg, 1936
    And if you don’t think my degree is legitimate, you can look it up:

    • It is an honor, Dr. Laughlin, to know that you read Genotopia. And a surprise, given your age. Perhaps the search for longevity genes is paying off after all. I hope to hear more from you!

  2. Old eugenicists never die…..our work just keeps getting resuscitated. Heed us, or the Buck will not stop at this generation. We have our eye on you, Comfort, and your pedigree is on file.

    Harry L.

    • Seizures? That was just rumor-mongering on the part of that idiot Boas and the other liberals. It so happens that I have a brain that is so big and active that the EEG can be mistaken for a seizure. Grand cerveau, not grand mal, mon ami. Just ask Madison and Charles.

      Dr. H. Laughlin

  3. Is that so. I’d thought you discovered it yourself.
    Say, how’d you like to let me interview you, so you can clear up all these, um, misunderstandings? We could do it all over email, at our respective leisure. I think genotopia readers would be quite interested to hear from one of the giants of American eugenics. And it would provide you with a forum for your ideas–which, if I may say, are more complex than most people give you credit for. What do you say?

  4. As long as you ban non-Aryan immigrants, the feeble-minded, alcoholics, paupers, moral degenerates, and epileptics (oh wait, maybe not that last category) from your website, the interview is on. To show that I am not a bigot everyone thinks I am, you can allow the illiterate to read your web site.

    By the way, I would like to point out that the wide scale drop in violent crime in the US over the last decade can directly be attributed to the foresight of my early 20th century policies . So much for your pathetic “crime is not genetic” argument. As any geneticist can tell you, it takes a few generations for those genes to work their way out of the population.

  5. Excellent! I am honored to have the chance to interview such an important figure in the history of human genetics. Please email me at nccomfort at gmail and we can coordinate.

    As to the drop in violent crime, I am sure you will be as interested as I to watch as behavioral geneticists seek to unravel the genetic basis of antisocial behavior–a research program that indeed seems to confirm the Progressive eugenic agenda.

  6. Before jumping to conclusions, we should take a moment to recall a story which came out in the early 90’s on a boy named Michael Rickson:
    Michael Rickson participated, at the age of 5, to the scientific research behind the study on the “criminal gene”. Upon discovering that he possessed an extra y chromosome and that he was therefore predisposed to criminal behavior, he was raised with a continuous reminder of his natural inclination and was constantly monitored for the slightest display of violence. It did not come to a surprise to his parents when, at the age of 18, he fired a shot to an elderly couple.

    • Fine, we can recall it, but then we must put it in the same category with correlation-causation fallacies such as the “curing” of a 6-year-old boy by prayer to the Mohawk Pocahontas.

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