What Will We Get From Analyzing Adam Lanza's DNA?

As noted in Reason 24/7 yesterday, scientists intend to analyze Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza's DNA.

Local CTV News notes not everyone thinks this is an important thing to do:

Geneticists at the University of Connecticut have been asked to study the DNA of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza....

The study is expected to look at abnormalities in Lanza’s DNA that could increase the risk of aggression. However, some health experts are warning of the ethical repercussions in linking generic mutations to violent behaviour.  

University of Connecticut spokesperson Tom Green told ABC News that the state’s medical examiner has asked for help from the school’s genetic department.....

While few details have been released about the study, some mental health experts worry that the findings could lead to an unfair stigmatization against others with similar genetic abnormalities to Lanza’s.

“To date there’s no known gene to going postal,” said Dr. John Vincent, head of molecular neuropsychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Vincent told CTVNews.ca on Thursday that there have been very few studies on the genetics of aggression in humans.

“If you were trying to find a gene, I’m pretty sure this would not be the way to do it. You would need to study a population in the order of tens of thousands.”

Atlantic Wire at Business Insider sums up some of the concerns, including the best modern source of insight into anything, a string of Tweets:

The New York Times's Gina Kolata reports that this undertaking is thought to be the first time scientists have studied the genome of a mass killer. Baylor College of Medicine's genetics professor Arthur Beaudet endorses the research, saying, "By studying genetic abnormalities we can learn more about conditions better and who is at risk." 

But the ethical implications of singling out genetic mutations to explain violent behavior trouble many other scientists, who worry that such research might be held against innocent people who happen to share some of Lanza's genetic features.

Harvard Medical School's Dr. Harold Bursztajn told ABC News that he's not sure what the U. Conn geneticists will "even be looking for at this point," considering how thorny and full of false positives the link between genetic markers and violence is.

My Reason colleague Ronald Bailey has written enthusiastically about the scientific and personal benefits of our increasing ability to map our genome and gain detailed understanding of our genetic makeup, most extensively in this January 2011 feature. A relevant section:

What if future research turns up genes associated with criminal behavior, for instance? I have two copies of the “warrior” version of the catechol-O-methyltransferase gene, which correlates with higher functioning in a crisis, possibly because it confers some protection against anxiety and pain susceptibility. The alternate “worrier” version of the same gene is associated with better memory and more focused attention, but individuals carrying it may crack under pressure. In addition, research published in the April 2010 issue of Neurologysuggests that the warrior gene helps prevent cognitive decline as people age. Then again, some studies associate it with higher levels of aggression and greater risk of schizophrenia.

For the record, I haven’t been in a physical fight since the eighth grade and have not been arrested so far. And late-onset schizophrenia is quite rare. But right now, an employer naively using the results of my, or anyone else’s, genetic tests to make hiring and firing decisions is likely to be misled by the very preliminary information that gene screening currently makes available. It would be like deciding to pass over first baseman Albert Pujols if his gene scan indicated that he might have a slightly higher risk of alcoholism, or turning away physicist Richard Feynman because he had an SNP combination suggesting a tendency toward aggression.

After all, genes are not destiny, especially genes for relatively common complex traits and diseases. Even while having my share of hangovers, I have managed to support myself and more or less satisfy my employers since the age of 18.

Bailey in 2009 saw some early signs of possible promise in aiming counseling at people with certain genetic markets for behavior, and in 2010 gently mocked using genetic predispositions as excuses or explanations for behavior.

The sci-fi/science blog Io9 weighs in, quoting a geneticist, Paul Steinberg making the case for more psychiatric imperialism and lamenting that more psych professionals don't weight in with their professional judgments on "patients" they've never met:

Steinberg points to the so-called Goldwater Rule, an ethical standard the American Psychiatric Association adopted in the 1970s that discourages psychiatrists from commenting on someone's mental state if they have not been examined.

"It has had a chilling effect," he says. "After mass murders, our airwaves are filled with unfounded speculations about video games, our culture of hedonism and our loss of religious faith, while psychiatrists, the ones who know the most about severe mental illness, are largely marginalized."

I mocked the use of literary criticism as scientific explanatory expertise when applied to Columbine's killers back in 2004.

I am tempermentally, intellectually, and of course perhaps dead-wrongly, very skeptical about solid links between physical facts about DNAs and brains and understanding, predicting, or certainly trying to manage (absent your own choice) behavior. So I come at the Lanza DNA story thinking that not only will it not produce knowledge that is of particular value outside the tautology of "these are Lanza's genes" but that it's politically dangerous to even begin imagining that government or law has any particular reason to care or to make any presumptions or judgments based on what they might find.

I wrote for Reason back in July 2007 on how little neuroscience has to contribute to legal issues of culpability and blame. I wrote on database mission creep for DNA back in 2006.

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  • nicole||

    "After mass murders, our airwaves are filled with unfounded speculations about video games, our culture of hedonism and our loss of religious faith, while psychiatrists, the ones who know the most about severe mental illness, are largely marginalized."

    And yet we still manage to fill the airwaves with plenty of unfounded speculation about mental illness. Somehow.

  • R C Dean||

    Yeah, you could say pretty much the same thing about video games, guns, etc., namely, that the ones who know the most about them are largely marginalized.

    I mean, facts can only interfere with hysteria, so to the margins you go, Mr. Lifetime Expert Man.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Unfounded you say? Our nation's phrenologists and physiognomists are hard at work identifying which skull bumps correlate to murderous evil.

    I shall brook no ignorant twaddle from the likes of you, woman!

  • Brett L||

    But what say the astrologists about the alignment of the stars at his birth?

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    "He looks like he could be Mitt Romney's son."

  • Brett L||

    An excuse for mandatory DNA registries and denying "the wrong people" enumerated rights?

    Too cynical?

  • nicole||

    Just barely cynical enough. Maybe.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    Too cynical?

    When dealing with the gov, never.

    Especially if it saves *just one* of the precious snowflakes.

  • ||

    With Obama Care I am sure a national DNA registry is not that far away.....

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Especially if it saves *just one* of the precious snowflakes.

    That's the problem, isn't it? Adam Lanza was the quintessential "precious snowflake". It wasn't that his social awkwardness was indicative of the sociopath's complete inability to empathize. Oh no! He just wasn't neuro-typical, you silly person! And people with Asperger's are smart because they're good at math and shit, so shut up!

  • $park¥||

    If some nice young lady had just tried talking to him one time instead of calling him "Mr Dicknose."

  • Frank_Carbonni||

    In all fairness, a lot of mass shooters aren't technically sociopaths. Sociopaths can be rather socially competent (in the short-term at least).

    He's more of the "angry loner" who let his rage and isolation stew and ferment until he went on a rampage.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    My cynicism went in a different direction... thinking that whoever is doing this is planning on reaping the rewards of mentioning it in every grant proposal and every curriculum vitae and at every conference he goes to until he retires... and then pestering his grandchildren with the story.

    Of course, Lanza will have walked uphill to school both ways in that version.

  • Brett L||

    Sadly, I regard that as harmless in the big picture. Sure, some PhD candidate gets a dissertation and a cushy post-doc or tenure position out of it. But unless he's Jim Hanson, how much damage can he possibly... oh. Shit.

  • sloopyinca||

    But unless he's Jim Hanson, how much damage can he possibly... oh. Shit.

    What, is the guy going to develop new and crazier muppets with the data or something?

  • Enough About Palin||

    That's Jim Henson.

  • sloopyinca||

    I know and he's already dead so he can't do anything with Lanza's DNA, thankfully.

  • $park¥||

    New and improved Murder Muppets! Coming soon to a theater near you.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Murder Muppets IS A REAL THING!

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    It can be both. The gov gets to use his work for their ends, and he gets to keep studying the issue until he dies.

  • R C Dean||

    What will we get from analyzing Adam Lanza's DNA?

    I'm guessing cheap publicity and maybe some grant funding.

    Err, I mean, SCIENCE!

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    You've been around medical researchers too long, RC. So cynical.

    You need to hang with some more wholesome professions, like assistant crack whores.

  • R C Dean||

    Actually, the bona fide medical researchers I knew, the real scientists, were delightful people, who really were in it for the science.

    Of course, they wouldn't have minded if their royalty sharing agreements paid off big, but we were constantly having to drag them off of various, no-doubt-fascinating, rabbit trails, and back on to the actual project with commercial potential.

  • Enough About Palin||

    "“To date there’s no known gene to going postal,” said Dr. John Vincent, head of molecular neuropsychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health."

    Well then the science is settled.

  • OldMexican||

    What Will We Get From Analyzing Adam Lanza's DNA?


    Final and convincing evidence that choice is a mere genetically-driven mirage and that we need government bureaucrats to choose for us?

  • R C Dean||

    But if choice is a genetically driven mirage, how can bureaucrats choose anything?

  • Frank_Carbonni||

    Because they are infinitely wiser and more control than us peons.

    They are Top Men after all.

  • Ryan60657||

    "I am tempermentally, intellectually, and of course perhaps dead-wrongly, very skeptical about solid links between physical facts about DNAs and brains and understanding, predicting, or certainly trying to manage (absent your own choice) behavior. "

    Brian Doherty spurning science? Have fun in that special club with your new buddies Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock.

  • ||

    As long as they can link his DNA to Warty's--I mean Little Miss Muff--then it will all be worth it. Then we can finally hunt him down and chain him to a stage in New York and take pictures of him with lots of flashbulbs, and nothing will go wrong. What could possibly go wrong?

  • AlmightyJB||

    Is there any doubt that they would find such a link? I do like your solution. Can we do that for my birthday?

  • Brett L||

    "Do not taunt Happy Fun BallWarty. If Happy Fun BallWarty begins to smoke, seek shelter and cover head."

  • ||

    "That suggests a primate-level intelligence. That's it! I shall call them 'Primal Beasts'!"

  • $park¥||

    "Sod it! I'm so sick of coming up with names for - you know what? 'Bonerfarts' All of the - that's right, we're calling them 'Bonerfarts' now."

  • AlmightyJB||

    So are they analyzing it for a Eugenics program or a Weaponization program? Manchurian candidate + Lanza DNA?

  • JEP||

    "abnormalities in Lanza’s DNA that could increase the risk of aggression."

    Wow, we're only a few years away from creating Reavers.

  • Jerryskids||

    So the state ME has asked the university to examine the DNA? On what grounds? Doesn't the ME simply examine the body to determine cause of death? Is the state ME free to do whatever he wants with the body (presumably the source of the DNA), or are there some sorts of laws restricting his freedom to play around with someone else's body parts as much as he wants to? Shouldn't the ME have to present some evidence that he has reasonable expectation that the university might find something of value to the ME's office? Is it the state's position that dead bodies are the property of the state? Is anybody interested in finding out just what laws there are that govern the ME's ability to do what he's doing?

  • mr simple||

    Who's going to object? His mother's dead and his father never wanted anything to do with him, especially now. I bet they had no trouble getting someone to sign something, if they even felt they needed it.

  • nicole||

    It's the state's position that all bodies are the property of the state.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Pretty much.

    I like the part where eminent domain can evict a corpse from its grave.

  • Romulus Augustus||

    That's been the situation for a long time. I had ancestors dug up in the 1930s for public housing projects (now bulldozed). Of course the relocators weren't supervised and ended up stealing all the jewelry and gold teeth they found, then tossed skulls and etc. into wagons and reburied them in mass graves.

  • R C Dean||

    MEs and coroners are not allowed to use bodies for research without consent. Sometimes that's from the deceased via their will.

    Otherwise, the next of kin can give consent. In this case, the Lanza initially wrongly fingered for the shooting by the media.

    He might have done so.

  • sloopyinca||

    Hey, he was hurt by FB, right? It had nothing to do with the media. Maybe John was right after all...

  • sarcasmic||

    DNA made him do it!

    It couldn't have possibly been his own fault! No personal responsibility! None at all!

    It was DNA! It was mental illness! It was poor parenting! It was video games!

    It wasn't his fault! Some outside force is to blame!

    These things can be prevented! We can prevent them!

    With enough power and money we can prevent these things from happening!

  • ||

    He ran out of gas! Someone stole his car! And old friend came in from out of town! He didn't have cab fare! There was a terrible flood! Locusts! Earthquakes! IT WASN'T HIS FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!

  • AlmightyJB||

    Take off sunglasses. Bat thick eyebrows.

  • sloopyinca||

    +1/2 a pack of cigarettes

  • Jerry on the road||

    Yet, we institutionalize people on the basis of fairy mental conditions. How fricking unethical is that.

  • $park¥||

    basis of fairy mental conditions

    You mean like people that believe in Tinkerbell and stuff? Or you mean teh gayz?

  • mr simple||

    Damn!

  • Enough About Palin||

    50 years ago, yes. Today, not so much.

    Go to any large cities Central Business District if you don't know what I mean.

  • sloopyinca||

    True. Especially in any city with a Federal Reserve Bank or a large FedGov office complex.

  • mr simple||

    Dude, it's called homosexuality. Be a little more considerate.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Actually, he means this guy.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Isn't that the Vikings punter?

  • Randian||

    Maaaan, I've been around the Internet for a coon's age and I never saw that before.

    Awesome.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    ... a coon's age...

    Raaaaaaciiiiissssst!

  • GILMORE||

    What Will We Get From Analyzing Adam Lanza's DNA?

    ....Subsequent DNA analysis revealed that Adam Lanza was not only Gay, a Republican, and that his great great great Grandparents were French Corsicans ... but that he was in fact a Long-Haired Lhasa Apso, and likely could have achieved "Best In Show" had he had been better trained... In the meantime, authorities have warned Toy-Dog owners to keep their firearms completely secure at all time...

  • $park¥||

    See, this is why I'll never own a dog. At least with cats you know they want to kill you so you make sure to keep the guns where they can't get them. Dogs always look so sweet and innocent then *BLAM* *BLAM* *dead*

  • Romulus Augustus||

    So, cops are on to this?

  • Marshall Gill||

    I am not so sure. While I certainly do not believe in genetic predestination, genetic predisposition seems possible.

    Slightly off topic, I recently saw a show about the Russians domesticating blue foxes. The more domestic they became, the more dog-like traits were expressed. I think that they claimed to have identified the genes associated with aggressiveness and passivity, at least in blue foxes. It is on netflix and I highly recommend it. It was fascinating.

  • wef||

    We must find the gene that causes magical-thinking syndrome.

  • R C Dean||

    Pretty sure that's the X chromosome.

    [ducks]

  • sloopyinca||

    Why would you duck for telling the truth?

  • waaminn||

    Wow, I like the sound of that dude. Wow.

    www.Anon-et.tk

  • Michael S. Langston||

    The problem here is how little we truly know about DNA sequences when it comes to human behavior... therefore I think the larger fear should be "what happens if they find some abnormality?"

    It's not like finding one or many should lead to the conclusion that this was a contributing factor, as we still know very little about how DNA does what it does and we certainly know very little about the true inner workings of the brain (sure, we can FMRI people, but all we can say are things like this "most people seem to use section X for math and Y for emotions" - they also tend to find people who use vastly different areas for unknown reasons and those people don't seem to have any negative effects for doing so - so there's differences to be sure, but we still don't know why they are here, much less what it exactly means - the same is largely true with DNA).

    We're just recently coming to grips that ignoring RNA research was a bad idea...

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