THE EVIL GENE
by Frank Stephenson
Could a monster be swimming in the human gene pool?
A spooky thought, but it's commanding increasing attention these days from a variety of scientists who study human and animal behavior. Debate on the topic dates to Darwin, but here of late, the noise reverberates with a louder and different tone through new venues in criminology, psychiatry, sociology, psychology, behavioral genetics and ethology, the science that studies behavioral differences between animal species.
Thank goodness, the Ted Bundys of the world are comparatively rare in the modern pantheon of two-legged beasts. Unfortunately, it doesn't take a lot of Bundys or Danny Rollings--the man whose savage murder of five University of Florida students in 1990 caused seasoned crime investigators to retch--to suggest to reasonable people that on occasion, some people may be born hideously bad to the bone.
One month after two FSU Chi Omega co-eds were found bludgeoned and strangled to death in their beds on January 15, 1978, Theodore Robert Bundy was caught in Pensacola, Florida. Before he was electrocuted 11 years later, Bundy confessed to murdering over 30 women and was further implicated in the murders or assaults of more than 50 victims over a 15-year period.
In 1985, Jim Sewell, a Ph.D. criminologist at FSU and a member of the campus police force at the time of the killings (now director of criminal justice information systems for Florida's Department of Law Enforcement), published an analysis of Bundy based on FSU psychologist Ned Megargee's "algebra of aggression" approach to the nagging question--why? He found Bundy to be a curious hybrid of over- and undercontrolled tendencies, whose high intelligence, likeable character, and nurturing childhood (Ted was a regular church-goer, a Boy Scout and the apple of his mom's eye) should have made him a model citizen. In the end, such assets obviously proved worthless.
Criminal history, of course, is studded with examples of murderous madmen. From Jack the Ripper to Jeffrey Dahmer, modern men and women of science have marvelled at the chilling depths of depravity humans are capable of. FSU's Megargee once interviewed a man who had cut out a young girl's heart in front of her mother and then ate part of it.
Such acts often are described as "bestial," inferring a similarity to the routine habits of wild animals. Biologists, however, could argue that such comparisons are character assassination--nothing in the animal kingdom compares with the human animal's lust for spilling the blood of its own kind. While animals can and do kill each other from time to time in nasty fights over food, females or territory, most don't resort to lethal force against their own species, researchers say. Fighting rattlesnakes, for example, pull a major punch--they don't bite each other, as if they're aware of the fact that they possess no immunity to their own venom.
Ethologists say that humans are "extra-aggressive" compared with other species. Evolutionists say this could be because in the dim beginnings of human development, evolution most likely favored aggressive over non-aggressive behavior. The "fittest" who survived did so on the strength of innate abilities for besting rivals for food, shelter and mates.
In ascending the evolutionary ladder, humans obviously failed to inherit from their hairy forebears inhibitions against using lethal force against members of their own species. The bizarre "ghoul factor" of sadistic psychopaths like Bundy aside, humans' historic willingness to slaughter each other wholesale in war and genocide offers compelling evidence to some scientists that in the genome of some humans lies a fully armed biochemical code for the gamut of aggression, from kicking the dog to killing the wife.
In the 1960s, geneticists thought they may have found proof. Discovery of a rare condition--an extra Y chromosome--in some unusually violent offenders prompted much attention. Since then, studies have shown that while men with the condition tend to have a greater propensity for (non-violent) crime, they also tend to have low I.Q.s as well. The rarity of the condition, which isn't hereditary, also calls into question the likelihood of its serious involvement in the parade of violence witnessed today.
So what real evidence is out there for a so-called "evil gene" that makes foul mischief in human affairs? None, most scientists say. "There is no single gene capable of producing criminal behavior per se," writes noted University of Southern California criminal psychologist Dr. Adrian Raine in The Psychopathology of Crime (Academic Press, 1993). However, Raine goes on to conclude that "despite strong criticisms from social scientists, empirical data from several sources provide strong converging lines of evidence indicating some degree of genetic predisposition for crime."
Raine says that in all likelihood, such a condition is the result of multiple genes acting in concert to control the development of proteins and enzymes that drive a variety of "physiological processes," which in turn set the stage for criminal behavior in some people.
FSU behavioral geneticist Dr. Glayde Whitney, past president of the Behavioral Genetics Association, who has studied the association between genes and animal behavior for 35 years, says that such fields as criminology, psychology, sociology and medicine now stand at the threshold of a new era of understanding about the role of biology and genetics in human antisocial behavior. He believes the day is coming when science will be able to reliably answer what may be the most vexing riddle in the annals of modern psychology: What part of human behavior is biologically determined, and what part is determined by environmental factors?
That there exists this double-barrelled influence on most human behavior is no longer in dispute in most scientific circles, says Whitney. "The concept of human behavior being derived entirely by either genetic factors or by environmental factors is no longer tenable scientifically," he said. "In most cases, both factors are vigorously at work, the only question is to what degree."
In the areas of criminal behavior and aggression, Whitney says studies now show that up to 50 percent of such behavior--including violence--throughout a given human population may be heritable. Hard evidence for such links have long been established for such inherited disorders as schizophrenia--once thought to be entirely environmentally based--and evidence tying other disruptive mental, neurological and hormonal problems to genetic origins is mounting.
One example concerns the long-standing debate about the effects of testosterone, the powerful hormone that drives physiological development in males, on human behavior. Only recently have researchers found conclusive evidence that the hormone can contribute to aggressive and even violent behavior in humans as it does routinely in lab animals. While evidence also shows that environmental factors play a role in how and to what degree testosterone influences behavior, research suggests that the capacity for making and reacting to the stuff--regardless of the characteristics of a male's environment--is as genetically programmed as the color of one's eyes, Whitney said.
Experiments with lab animals continue to offer fascinating insight into the links between aberrant behavior and genes. Just last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that the absence of a single gene in mice can turn them into vicious, over-sexed killers. As reported in Nature, mice raised without the gene needed to make nitric oxide, an important brain chemical, exhibited such violent and antisocial behavior that they had to be separated from the normal group. Scientists speculate that nitric acid may act on serotonin, another brain messenger that is widely believed to act as an inhibitor against aggression in humans.
Such discoveries may be well and good for science, but scarcely beneath this entire vein of research lies a colossal cultural minefield. Research suggesting that four-legged animals can be born with "bad" or "faulty" genes is one thing; similar work suggesting the same may be true for the two-legged variety is a finger on a raw political nerve. The number-one bugaboo surrounding any discussion of the relationship between heredity and aggression are inferences about race. No matter its scientific context, to many such talk is tantamount to opening the door to legitimizing social and political policies based on racial differences.
Two recent academic books stoked fiery passions over the issue. The Bell Curve (Free Press, 1994), by the late Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, kicked off an ugly furor among academics and social activists that still smolders. Murray implied that the disproportionate levels of crime and violence found among black populations in the U.S. and in other parts of the world are attributable in part to blacks' genetic disadvantage, as determined by their historically poor showing on standard I.Q. tests. On the heels of the best-selling Curve appeared a far-less publicized scholarly work, Race, Evolution and Behavior (Transaction Publishers, Rutgers University, 1995) by J. Philippe Rushton, a Canadian psychologist whose research into genetics and race has had him in hot water for a decade. Rushton's findings were viewed as being so incendiary that the Canadian government initially labeled his newest book "contraband" and held up shipments across the border.
Cool-headed critics argue that the racist sentiments such findings invariably induce obscure whatever scientific merit they may have, and throw roadblocks in the path of researchers genuinely intrigued with studying the nature/nurture character of criminal aggression.
Last September, Dr. Ray Jeffery, a recently retired FSU criminologist, along with Raine participated in a national, interdisciplinary conference on genetics and criminal behavior at the University of Maryland that quickly became a lightning rod for policital protest. The conference drew such ire from demonstrators that security guards had to be called in, ironically, to keep a lid on violence.
Jeffery, past president of the American Society of Criminology, subscribes to a field called biocriminology, which acknowledges that both genetics and environment work together to influence criminal behavior. What he saw at the Maryland conference disturbed and dismayed him.
"The failure of the demonstrators to show any interest in listening to the arguments and profiting from the discussion is of course most discouraging," he wrote this spring in The Criminologist, the ASC's newsletter. "When ideology replaces rational thought there is little hope for a better understanding of human problems."
Jeffery argues that finding out how biology and the environment conspire to make us the animals of aggression we are could lead to therapies for treating a variety of mental and other illnesses, as well as better social programs to help curb crime. But considering the volatility of such research, that may never happen. When it comes to unraveling the true nature of aggression, perhaps it's in our genes to do little more than fight about it.