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.)


Against turgidity as a quality measure in academia

It happened again last night.

I was at dinner with a group of smart, honest colleagues–a small table-ful of the people in my field I respect most. The conversation turned to another colleague, one who everyone at the table admires, not just as a scholar but as a force of nature. He is enormously productive, a serious scholar–and, damn him, he sometimes reaches a broad audience. In discussing this man’s recent work, one of my table-mates said, “I must confess: he writes so beautifully that sometimes I don’t trust what he’s saying!”

It was meant as a quip, but there was a serious point to it. I have heard this line for nearly 30 years. I’ve heard it in the sciences and I’ve heard it in the humanities. Among some academics, style is a demerit. Attention to rhythm or sonority or, Twain-help-you, wordplay, marks you as unserious, a mere Sophist rather than a Philosophe. Serious researchers are too invested in their ideas to pay attention to communicating them. They have been in the lab or the archive generating data, or in the stacks reviewing the historiography, or at their desktop spinning cotton candy out of the latest theoretical buzzwords. Attention to audience is mere marketing, a sell-out. Turgidity is the mark of a true scholar.

The fallacy involved in this slight on stylists is the confusion of pleasing with slick. Somehow they think that if your prose is graceful you must be doing something slippery that they don’t understand. You must not be revealing all your evidence, or your argument is merely clever instead of well-substantiated. The conflation, frankly, can only be made by someone so grossly unattuned to style that they can’t distinguish wit from reasoning–or persuasion from persuasiveness. But there are a lot of such people in academia, and some of them are distinguished scholars and scientists.

In a way, these crass critics are right. Style can be used to make a point. Scholars who I consider stylists (Hisa Kuriyama’s Expressiveness of the Body is a good example) use word choice, rhythm, sonority, image, and structure to help convey a point. It’s an idea journalists and English majors take in with their first undergraduate lattés: style operates on the aesthetic level, where argument operates on the rational level. A persuasive argument is layered, using evidence, argumentation, and aesthetic elements to make the case.

Pulling that off makes a piece more rigorous, not less. Whether it counts as good academic writing is another story.

ADHD, feeblemindedness, and pharmacop-outs

Opinion piece in the NYT today by the child psychologist L. Alan Stroufe discusses the use of Ritalin and Adderall in the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in kids. Stroufe argues that the clinical evidence shows that these drugs do in fact work–for a while. A few weeks, on average. But he believes there is no good evidence that they are a long-term solution. In fact, he writes, what data there is suggests that these drugs eventually stop working.

To me as a historian, ADHD looks a lot like feeblemindedness. In the early twentieth century,  many human geneticists and psychologists believed this “disease” to be the root of a host of antisocial disorders, from poor academic performance to criminal activity to sexual promiscuity. Further, there was evidence that it was caused by a single Mendelian gene. In his landmark study of feeblemindedness, the psychologist Henry H. Goddard gathered the data, from his study of hundreds of students at the New Jersey school for feeblemindedness of which he was the head.

Feeblemindedness no longer exists.  The DSM, of course, is chocked with disorders that are consistent with feeblemindedness: below-average IQ, tendency toward antisocial behavior, and the like—and OMIM and GenBank contain plenty of genes that influence such behavioral traits. But Goddard is mocked for his foolish belief in a single gene for feeblemindedness, and one would be laughed out of the American Psychological Association if one now suggested doing a study of “feeblemindedness.”

It’s not just a matter of terminology. Nor is it a matter of getting the science “wrong.” Feeblemindedness was perfectly “real” in the 1910s–as were “hysteria,” “neurasthenia,” and other diseases we no longer believe in. Only a few decades ago, homosexuality was a clinically diagnosable disease. Malaria did not exist before agriculture. Cholera did not exist before cities.

Diseases have real biological substrates. But disease categories are socially constructed. The disease ADHD was created to solve medically a set of problems described by parents and teachers. The fact that we can find biological substrates and mechanisms that underlie it–and drugs that treat it–does not give the lie to the social construction of ADHD. Science and history can offer complete explanations of the same sets of facts.

Biomedicine works in part by finding mechanisms that underlie medical conditions. But what counts as a medical condition is negotiated by society as a whole. Disease entities are not natural categories; they are contingent, contextual, overdetermined. And drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall have not only biological side effects, but social ones.

Goddard, Henry Herbert. Feeble-Mindedness, Its Causes and Consequences.  New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914.

Maines, Rachel, and American Council of Learned Societies. The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.  Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

SOPA Sopa, PIPA hot!


 Take a stand against the Stop Online Piracy Act by making this variant on traditional tortilla soup!

(This recipe was pirated from and modified to suit my sarcastic taste)

1 onion, chopped and cried over
2 Wiki chicken breasts, cooked and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 (28 ounce) can crushed Reddit tomatoes
Mozilla tortilla chips
3×10^-100 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon output from oily corporate hack
2 teaspoons pirated chili powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/4 cups watered down legislation
1 (10.5 ounce) can broth
1 cup whole corny YouTube videos, cooked
1 cup white Republican nominee hominy
1 (4 ounce) can chopped green chile peppers
1 (15 ounce) can blackout beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
sliced avocado
shredded civil rights
chopped green onions


In a medium stock pot, heat oil over medium temper. Saute onion and garlic in oil until soft. Download chili powder, oregano, tomatoes. Add broth and water in a steady stream. Bring your anger to a boil, and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes over the loss of First Amendment rights.

Greedily stir in corn, hominy, chiles, beans, cilantro, and chicken. Simmer for 10 minutes. Copyright.

Ladle soup into individual expression, and top with crushed tortilla chips, creativity, and free enterprise. Serve PIPA hot.


Area Man Wins Couch Potato Marathon—With Help of Exercise Pill

“The more we exercise, the better able we are to burn more fat, a finding that could ultimately lead to a pill that could mimic the effects of exercise.” (


Local Man Wins Couch Potato Marathon—With Help of Exercise Pill

Eugene Glutney, 27, won the first annual Avaris Pharmaceuticals Couch Potato Marathon, which occurred in living rooms across the city on Saturday, with an equivalent time of 2:13:51–a full 42 seconds faster than the winning time in last year’s conventional marathon. The race is the first such marathon in a city of this size and is part of a small but potentially lucrative trend known as “pharmacompetition.”

In order to compete, “runners” had to register in July 1996, submitting their desired times to a board of judges. Only times less than four hours were accepted, a move that was criticized as elitist and exclusive by Plodder’s World, a popular website of the Slow Movement Movement. However, Avaris spokesmen said the decision was intended to foster an air of elitism and exclusivity for the race. That strategy seems to have worked. Out of 400 applications, 150 came in under the limit. Seventeen contestants submitted times of under five minutes but were disqualified for sarcasm.

The 133 remaining competitors were given a prescription for Pantax, a new lifestyle drug that mimics the effects of running. They were also given a password and a url, which they could use to download a smartphone app called iRan. Unfortunately, that app is a Farsee dictionary.

They were then given the url to another smartphone app called QUANTIFi. This app monitored their blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, body temperature, perspiration, state of arousal, TV viewing habits, sexual orientation, political affiliation, and calorie uptake and output, sending the data to MarketShark, a nonprofit data management and telemarketing firm with offices in New Delhi. The data were then used to determine the Thursday-night prime-time schedule for premium cable. In addition, the board of judges received an executive summary of each “runner’s” biometrics and calorie information.

On race day, the excitement was palpable. All across town, competitors sat in a comfy chair and began taking pills and monitoring their vital signs, which were sent via smartphone to the judges’ table in New Delhi. The judges returned the data to the Burger King on 3rd St., where they were relayed to reporters, with a side of fries and a chocolate shake. The winner received a two-tone motorized wheelchair, donated by Sloath Motors on Magnolia Blvd.

In an exclusive interview with Genotopia, Glutney said the victory was “a real victory.” He went on to say, “For couch potatoes everywhere.” A little while later, he said, “I’m real happy and.” Still later, he said, “I hope that my Mom will.”

Glutney’s mother, Mrs. Glutney, who owns the home where Glutney lives, said, “Finish his sentences for him. He’s been like that since he was 200 lbs., but of course it’s much worse after such a strenuous workout.”

Glutney, who is 5’8” tall and on race day weighed 427 lbs., has not moved from his Barcalounger since October, 2009. “He’s been in constant training—essentially 24/7,” Mrs. Glutney said. “He’s very dedicated. Although it can be hard to tell when he’s working out and when he’s napping.” Glutney’s son, Dudley, 9, said, “Dad? Daa-ad. DAD!”

When Pantax was released last year, the research community hailed it as a breakthrough drug that would combat the obesity “epidemic” in this country. Race officials were surprised, then, when 9 out of the 10 top finishers tipped the scales at over 300 lbs.

Dr. Andrew Wyre, of Stanfoo University, speculates wildly that the drug may have had unexpected side effects. “Preliminary evidence suggests that compensatory homeostatic processes may be involved. These could be upregulating certain segments of the metabolome, leading to changes in the patient’s sedentation index, which in turn result in avoirdupoisic variation contrary to that predicted by the Phase II clinical trials.” If confirmed, these results could have no influence whatsoever on next year’s race.

In contrast, reliable-sounding rumors on the blog suggest that Glutney has been offered sponsorships by Dorito’s, Bud Light, and La-Z-Boy—a sign that, if not rectally derived, could indeed bode well for the future of the race and for Avaris.

The race has proved popular among our town’s citizens, non-runners and non-non-runners alike. “I hated the marathon,” said one spectator. “With all those orange cones and cops directing traffic, it was a mess. You couldn’t drive anywhere all day. These health nuts can do what they want in the privacy of their own homes—I mean, I’m liberal, you know?—but keep it out of the streets.”

In addition to improving traffic flow, the new style race has had health benefits. Last year, two people died and 17 were hospitalized as a result of participating in the marathon. This year, the only casualty was a single case of sports-induced hyper-ventilation, caused when the Ravens scored twice in three minutes during the 4th quarter against the Steelers.

It seems certain the Couch Potato Marathon is here to stay. “We are confident that the results of this race show convincingly our dedication through research into the long, hard fight before us, and, with the medicines needed for all, health can be not just a commitment, but to the people of this great city, for everyone, until its time has come!” said Frank Lustig, a wino and sometime spokesman for Avaris.

Charley Weasley, of Sloath Motors, said, “This race shows the importance of physical fitness and we are a proud supporter. We hope all our citizens will see Eugene’s two-toned Sloath and know that they too can achieve what he has accomplished.”

The win is considered a victory for Avaris, for Sloath, and of course for Glutney.


Hajulellah! The Dick Dorkins interview (pt. 2)

Before the holidays, we printed the first part of an exclusive interview with Dick Dorkins, president of SPITOON, the Society for the Prevention of Intelligent design Or Other Nonsense. We now bring you part the second, in which Dorkins discusses religion, atheism, the pioneering work of Project Dick—the effort to sequence and analyze Dorkins’s DNA—and the Dick Foundation, Dorkinss charity for the genetically underprivileged.


Genotopia (GT): when we finished up last time, you were telling us about the reduplication of your Bub666 gene, the so-called atheism gene.

Dick Dorkins (DD): Ah, yes. To expand, as it were, on the issue: Genetically speaking, I am the strongest atheist the world of science has known. Which is saying something.

GT: Saying what, exactly?

DD: Well, science is full of atheists, of course. It takes some real mental gymnastics to believe in God when you believe in evidence. Anyone with the testicles to confront trilobites, Darwin’s finches, Cro Magnon, and antibiotic resistance must bend over backward to believe in any kind of creator beyond some sort of ethereal, pre-cosmic Big-Banger. Frankly, most of us are just not that flexible.

GT: NIH director Francis Collins manages it.

DD: My point exactly. The Gumby of molecular biology.

GT: Getting back to your genome…

DD: The point is, even among scientists, my depth of lack of faith shines like a beacon. Always has. As a child, my mother took me to hear the music at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. My father didn’t attend; while Mom and I sang the Messiah he shuffled through the slush and got sloshed on bubbly at a local pub. My sister Babs says I must have gotten my Bub gene from him.

Anyway, even then, I antagonized the Church. By the age of nine, I had taught myself to sight-read music and I cussedly sang the hymns backward, note for note, over the top of the choir, in my pitch-perfect, pre-pubescent soprano. ‘Hajulellah!’ I’ve been that way all my life. Just ask my wives: I have never been faithful.

GT: And you believe the reason is genetic?

DD: It’s not a matter of faith. To put it simply, I believe the facts show that belief is not factual. This of course is the origin of SPITOON. I founded it with one goal in mind: to snap the suspenders of anyone idiotic enough to see anything even faintly spiritual in our modern scientific world.

GT: How successful have you been? You write learned yet accessible books, you give lectures, you debate creationists—if anyone can persuade the faithful of the folly of their ways, it should be you. How many converts have you won?

DD: To be frank, most religious people tell me my work actually increases their faith–a fact that keeps me awake at night. A Unitarian did write me an email once, saying she was even less likely than before to refer to the god in all of us in the third person. So I take comfort from that.

GT: Let’s get back to your DNA. What else does your sequence reveal? Do you have any of the much-publicized behavioral genes we’ve been reading so much about lately? The violent-drunk gene? The infidelity gene? Thalassophilia?

DD: Infidelity, yes, as I mentioned before. Turns out on that one, the so-called religious right in fact was. Monotheism and monogamy are controlled by the same gene. It’s an old gene, evolutionarily: it goes back to the split between the egg-laying mammals, like the platypus, and the higher mammals, which give birth to live young.

GT: Hang on–are you saying…?

DD: That’s right: monotremes are polyamorous polytheists.

GT: Incredible. What else?

DD: Well, my sequence confirms what I’ve been arguing vehemently all these years: that I am a very peaceful, even a melancholy drunk. I have a single-nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP, associated with a threefold increase in the risk of retreating to a dark corner after three Scotches and regretting my divorce while humming soft hits from the seventies. Unfortunately, I also have an obesity-related allele that predisposes me toward quarts of Ben & Jerry’s. It doesn’t take a geneticist to appreciate the unfortunate synergism between those genes.

GT: What about single-gene diseases?

DD: No Alzheimer’s, thankfully, no cystic fibrosis, no Tay-Sachs, and no Alzheimer’s.

GT: That’s good to hear. Much of the cutting-edge research today, though, is on complex diseases, such as diabetes and cancer. What has Project Dick taught us about them?

DD: My genome has greatly added to our knowledge of basic disease processes that affect millions of people–knowledge that will revolutionize medical care in the twenty-first century. We have discovered dozens of SNPs associated with common disease. For example, I have a fivefold increased risk of nicotine addiction compared to the population as a whole, double the average risk of cancer of the stomach, half the normal level of alcohol dehydrogenase, and a tendency toward dangerously high levels of cortisol when I become excessively fatigued. What’s more, Project Dick has shown that these genes are all involved in a network, so that their effects multiply in combination.

GT: Fascinating!  What are the therapeutic implications?

DD: Thanks to my detailed genome profile, I know that I should not smoke, should eat a balanced diet, drink only in moderation, and try to get plenty of rest.

GT: That should silence the critics who say this research is too expensive!

DD: You just can’t put a price tag on your health.

Gt: Another criticism, though, is that, valuable as it is, such medical advice will only benefit those with the willpower to follow it.

DD: Ah, but that is exactly where the biggest impact of genomic medicine will be felt. I *should* eat well, get enough rest, and keep my social vices in check–but the Genetic Virtue Project hasn’t been much of a success yet, has it? Fortunately, I no longer *have* to be virtuous—I just need good drugs. Project Dick has a team of clinicians on staff who are assembling a pharmacological regimen tailored to my genome. It will enable me to live to a spry and vigorous 120 years of age–while gorging myself and partying like there’s no tomorrow. And here is the truly remarkable part: health is simpler than we think. It will probably require only 20 or 30 different medications to achieve hedonistic immortality.

GT: Sign me up!

DD: I take MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal. Seriously, at the moment, in order to sign up you’d have to write me a check for a million dollars. But the cost is dropping faster than blood pressure on statins. Already, you can get a simpler profile–without the crack team of pharmacologists, of course–for a few hundred dollars. And our goal is to incorporate this kind of insight into everyone’s healthcare, right from birth.

GT: Sounds like a medical Plato’s Republic. But who will pay for all of these medications? Some of these drugs get pretty expensive.

DD: The NHS, obviously, at least while the money holds out. You Americans, however, have a much leaner, more efficient system in which healthcare isn’t simply doled out indiscriminately. You people are looking at a revolutionary future in which the ability to indulge without fear of the consequences will be directly proportional to one’s income.

GT: Soon, only the wealthy will be able to afford to eat at Burger King!

DD: That can only be good for the gene pool, don’t you agree? Rather a social Darwinist tit for tat, that one.

GT: Hm. Well, we’re out of time, so, final question: what’s next for Dick Dorkins?

DD: Ah. Well as you know, I have become fantastically wealthy as a result of my book sales and lecture fees. I won’t give hard numbers, but let’s just say that atheism and scientism have been kind to me. And to be honest, I have taken some criticism for profiting from the ignorance and stupidity of others. I think this is uncharitable, and to prove it, The Dick Foundation will be offering what we call Genome Scholarships to the Genetically Underprivileged, or Gizgoos.

GT: The genetically underprivileged?

DD: You catch on fast. Here’s how it will work: Clinicians at elite inner-city teaching hospitals will nominate candidates from their patient populations. Our scholarship committee–a blue-ribbon panel of Nobel laureates, National Academy members, and biotech CEOs–will identify the most genetically needy and provide them with a complete genome scan, a detailed health profile tailored to their needs and abilities, and totally comprehensive lifetime pharmaceutical coverage. Think of it: complete medical management for those who need it most.

GT: Heavens to Galton!

DD: But wait, there’s more. We will also provide the nucleically disadvantaged with the kind of complete high-tech pregnancy management that up till now has been available only to the Lexus-and-Mexican-gardener set. Tools such as in vitro fertilization and prenatal genetic diagnosis. We want those gardeners to be our clients—or, patients, if you will—too.

However, in order to achieve this utopia we must have education. And by education I mean compliance. In that light, we plan to educate Gizgoo winners in the principles of modern molecular health. Through a program of intensive observerships, team-taught technology-based learning, and multiple-choice questions, we will train the molecularly disadvantaged to manage their own health. Our hope is to simplify genome profiling so that someone with an IQ of 70 or a background of ethnicity will be able to identify the medications she needs to stay healthy and to avoid pregnancy. This in turn will lead to a twenty-first century healthcare founded on the principles of preventive medicine—prevention not only of disease but of the people who carry disease. It will truly be a kinder, gentler, healthier society!

GT: Um, Dick?

DD: Hang on, let me grab a Kleenex… OK, shoot.

GT: Hasn’t that been tried?

DD: Ah, but now we know how to do it right.