Are Criminals Born or Made?

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A new study, "Delinquent Peer Group Formation: Evidence of a Gene X Environment Correlation," by Florida State University researchers published in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Genetic Psychology, finds that a gene variant of the dopamine transporter (DAT1) gene puts some males at risk of deliquency. As the press release describing the study explains:

Criminological research has long linked antisocial, drug-using and criminal behavior to delinquent peers—in fact, belonging to such a peer group is one of the strongest correlates to both youthful and adult crime. But the study led by Beaver is the first to establish a statistically significant association between an affinity for antisocial peer groups and a particular variation (called the 10-repeat allele) of the dopamine transporter gene (DAT1).

However, the study's analysis of family, peer and DNA data from 1,816 boys in middle and high school found that the association between DAT1 and delinquent peer affiliation applied primarily for those who had both the 10-repeat allele and a high-risk family environment (one marked by a disengaged mother and an absence of maternal affection).

In contrast, adolescent males with the very same gene variation who lived in low-risk families (those with high levels of maternal engagement and warmth) showed no statistically relevant affinity for antisocial friends.

"Our research has confirmed the importance of not only the genome but also the environment," [FSU criminologist Kevin] Beaver said. "With a sample comprised of 1,816 individuals, more than usual for a genetic study, we were able to document a clear link between DAT1 and delinquent peers for adolescents raised in high-risk families while finding little or no such link in those from low-risk families. As a result, we now have genuine empirical evidence that the social and family environment in an adolescent's life can either exacerbate or blunt genetic effects."

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A 2007 Michigan State University study of twins also found a link between the DAT1 variant and "adolescent-onset or adolescent-limited antisocial behavior." In 2002, Wisconsin University researchers reported that young males with a variant of the gene that encodes the brain enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) have a propensity toward criminality. 

So are criminals born or made? The answer from these studies appears to be that they are "made" by the interaction of certain genetic vulnerabilities with bad experiences. 

With the rapid spread of genotyping, the question arises: should infants be tested for these gene variants? Such testing could alert parents and enable them take steps to shield their kids from situations that might exacerbate their genetic vulnerabilities. Or would such testing just result in some kids being treated as "bad seeds"?

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  1. props for the Alex pic

  2. Wouldn’t any parent who would take the effort to gene screen probably be the kind that would show the affection needed to prevent the issue even if the allele showed up?

  3. Criminological research has long linked antisocial, drug-using and criminal behavior to delinquent peers

    You know why this is stupid?

    Because if someone behaves in a certain way due to the acceptance of that behavior by their peer group, it’s moronic to call that behavior “anti-social”.

    It’s highly social. It’s pretty much the definition of social.

    In contrast, adolescent males with the very same gene variation who lived in low-risk families (those with high levels of maternal engagement and warmth) showed no statistically relevant affinity for antisocial friends.

    Um, maybe this is because once again the highly-social males possessing this gene are demonstrating their highly-social ways by exhibiting behavior that corresponds to that of their low-risk peer group.

  4. I’ve always wondered how similar the factors that produce exceptional individuals are to those that produce sociopaths.

    I’ll bet they are similar. If there is any space between them at all.

  5. Well, this does make some sense. Most everyone in my family is insanely violent and have criminal records. Apparently though it goes back a ways. I’m related to the McNair clan and apparently they laid siege to a couple of towns in Scotland and killed the sheriff of Angus(i think). A lot of relatives were outlawed.

  6. With the ever growing volume of laws today everyone is a criminal.

  7. Are Criminals Born or Made?

    Wasn’t this covered in the musical “Oliver”?

  8. Fluffy makes an excellent point. This gene may just be a marker of social malleability, and have nothing inherent to do with anti-social tendencies at all.

    “Hi. I’m a recovering crack head. This is my retarded sister that I take care of. I’d like some welfare, please.”

  9. Holy causation without correlation Batman!

    Seems like they’re trying to ramrod genetics into subjective values like “delinquency”, “low-risk family” and “peer groups”. Is any of this falsifiable? Was it a double-blind study? Any controls limited to one dimension at a time?

    Also, genetics doesn’t excuse you from being a douche. Neither does your “peerage” or “class”.

  10. I’ve no doubt that there is a genetic component to anti-social behavior. I’m equally certain that it is not the only or even the major factor.

    Bottom line, Genetic factors play a role in everybody’s life and kids need to be raised with love and discipline.

    Parenting is not a goddamed hobby.

  11. Whoops, that should be correlation without causation.

  12. Have you seen the John Cleese video where he explains that scientists have found a gene which demands genetic explanations for free will?

  13. Interesting. I’d say that Florida State does know how to identify criminals, since they employ so many of them to play football at their august institution.

  14. Epi,

    ” Let’s all recognize that this is a little awkward situation between friends at the welfare store and let’s go our separate ways, okay?”

  15. “Night Man, sneaky and mean. Spider inside my dreams, I think I love you. You make me want to cry, you make me want to die. I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you Night Man. Every night you come into my room and pin me down with your strong arms, And pin me down and I try to fight you, You come inside me and fill me up and I become the Night Man.”

  16. “Have you ever wondered why fat parents have fat children? Or why Chinese parents have Chinese children? It’s no coincidence.”

  17. “Evidence of a Gene X Environment Correlation” should be read as “Evidence of a Gene-by-Environment Correlation”, fyi

  18. “Have you ever wondered why fat parents have fat children? Or why Chinese parents have Chinese children? It’s no coincidence.”

    “I was having my fifth child and I was worried, because I read somewhere that every fifth child born on Earth was Chinese…”

  19. Have you ever wondered why fat parents have fat children? Or why Chinese parents have Chinese children? It’s no coincidence.

    Let’s see. I 5’6″, 285. Neither of my parents are overweight. My brothers are all 3 to 4 inches taller and slender.

    I’m a professional in a techical field; been married to the same women for decades.

    My bother is an semi-employed artist with a MFA and is currently in a long term relationship with his gay lover.

    Genetics is everything.

  20. Everyone is born with one genetic varrient or another that puts him at risk. Attentive parents steer most of us in the correct direction anyway.

  21. I also have a typing deficiency.

  22. Are Criminals Born or Made?

    I always thought they were elected.

    Bah-dum-pah!

  23. Congress is the only native criminal class in America

  24. short, fat bastard:

    without genes, no organisms, so yeah

    that doesn’t mean the environment doesn’t play a role

  25. Genetics is everything.

    Well, the utterly wacky and awesome field of epigenetics seems to indicate that the environment controls which genes get turned on or off, and to what degree they express.

    We proceed into a weird, wild world where both Lamarck and Darwin were right. I have resolved to be high all the time from here on out, because the alternative (going batshit crazy via Lovecraftian insights) seems less pleasing.

  26. In 2002, Wisconsin University researchers reported that young males with a variant of the gene that encodes the brain enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) have a propensity toward criminality.

    Surprised they didn’t start putting juvenile delinquents on monoamine oxidase inhibitors, one of the older anti-depressants. Of course, the drugs are incredibly dangerous, and taking them means that nearly the entire rest of the pharmacopia is contraindicated once you’re taking them. But hey, it’s for the children.

  27. So if my child is tested and doesn’t have the gene, does that give my wife and I license to pretty much ignore the kid and let him raise himself? I mean, if criminality is the result of bad experiences interacting with genetic predisposition, than someone without the genetic predisposition to criminality would be unlikely to become a criminal no matter how they are raised.

  28. Schizophrenics are genetically more susceptible to nicotine addiction.

    It’s a wacky world out there.

  29. I’m related to the McNair clan and apparently they laid siege to a couple of towns in Scotland

    Naga,

    Just so long as you’re not a bloody Campbell. The murdering bastards. (My family is 4 generations removed from Scotland, but when both the mayor of Vancouver and the premier of BC were named Campbell, my grandpa thought it was a sign of the apocalypse.)

    going batshit crazy via Lovecraftian insights

    Your signed copy of the Necronomicon is looking more and more useful, I bet.

  30. LMNOP

    I think you mean a world where Lamarck, Mendel and Darwin were right.

    Darwin thought Lamarck was right about inheritance, but was ignorant of Mendel’s work, as was the world, illustrating the importance of publishing in a popular journal if you want your work known.

    Later, we thought Mendel was right and Lamarck wrong.

    Now it seems Mendels was right and Lamarck partly right in a sense.
    As the great philosopher, Obi-Wan Kenobi once remarked, “Many things we hold to be true are true from a certain point of view.”

  31. I’m a Campbell.

  32. Just so long as you’re not a bloody Campbell. The murdering bastards.

    Aren’t you Clan McLeod? There can be only one.

  33. Epi,

    The Star Wars thread is a few down.

  34. Humans have this natural tendency to want to categorize one another. If that type of mentality gets perpetuated on a genetic level, we’re all screwed.

  35. Great minds, Pro L – that was my first thought on seeing that the study came out of Free Shoes University.

  36. I’ve got Wallace blood–hence the “Pro Libertate”. My other Scottish lines are of the non-Campbell variety. Scot-German–it’s a wonder I haven’t committed more acts of violence in my life.

    peachy,

    I don’t see a lot of FSU defenders here, either. Guess Hit & Run is a little too highbrow for them ?

  37. I’m a Campbell.

    Ha! Scottish clan flame war!

    I kid, I kid. I’m sure your people haven’t murdered your hosts in their sleep for decades now. 😉

    Aren’t you Clan McLeod?

    MacDonald, on my mum’s side. Those Scots have loooong memories. Which, when all the drinking is taken into account, is no mean feat.

  38. FSU’s not that bad. I grew up in Tallahassee and got my Master’s there. Even worked as a tutor for athletes after the scandal they had last year. No excuses for the thugs they recruit, but that shouldn’t give the rest of the school a bad rap. It’s like any other school – some idiots, some great students, teachers and programs.

  39. I’m sure your people haven’t murdered your hosts in their sleep for decades now.

    If not, they’re letting me down.

  40. The gene-environment connection isn’t so far-fetched. Incidentally, there are gene-drug interactions, too.

    Take PTSD and the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTT). People who suffer trauma *and* who carry the “short” variant of the gene, are more likely to develop PTSD than those who do not. That doesn’t mean the people with no “short” allele don’t get PTSD, it just means they’re less likely to do so.

    Sad part is, those who carry the “short” allele are also less likely to benefit from standard SSRI therapies.

    I’ll happily go into the molecular mechanisms, if anyone wishes.

    The dopamine receptor also comes in a couple of variant flavors that affect the sorts of symptoms experienced by those suffering schizophrenia or depression, as well as the severity of those symptoms and their ability to respond to standard therapeutic regimens.

    All of which is to say, this sort of phenomenon is not unheard of, and is entirely plausible.

    That said, I haven’t studied DAT1 and don’t know how well this particular set of work holds up.

  41. I’m just glad they didn’t blame me again.

  42. Those Scots have loooong memories

    No shit. I suppose it gives them something to do. Though I do have to say Inverness is a really fun little town. Better than Glasgow, at least.

  43. Hogan,

    A Campbell and a Seminole? I hope you’re a science fiction geek and/or a libertarian; otherwise, you’ll be mercilessly abused for the rest of the thread.

    FSU is fine–I was just kidding, because I went to a competing Florida university. Well, not so much competing as superior.

  44. Ah, Pro Lib, peachy… yes, Seminoles should have gone to a university with a good sports program, like, say, Ole Miss.

  45. BP,

    Fair enough. The Gators deluded me into thinking that they had a defense this year. At least Mississippi is in the SEC.

  46. A Campbell and a Seminole? I hope you’re a science fiction geek and/or a libertarian.

    I dunno if I count as a Seminole since I was there post-graduate. I think I might technically be an even more despicable creature: an NYU Violet.

    I guess I count as a science fiction geek, since I read it – though not to the exclusion of anything else. But I’m not really a libertarian. More of a conservative.

  47. JLE | October 1, 2008, 2:34pm | #

    Humans have this natural tendency to want to categorize one another. If that type of mentality gets perpetuated on a genetic level, we’re all screwed.

    It’s happened before sort of, most indeed got screwed, though some some far more than others.

  48. Though I do have to say Inverness is a really fun little town. Better than Glasgow, at least.

    I haven’t been, but when my family went back looking for old gravestones/stumbling from pub to pub, they liked Edinburgh the best.

  49. not so much competing as superior.

    And perhaps not so much superior as insufferable.

    Joshin’ ya.

  50. Fortuna Favet Fortibus, baby.

  51. It’s happened before sort of, most indeed got screwed, though some some far more than others.

    And it happened that one time in the future and would have worked out shitty for Ethan Hawke but man he was driven.

  52. Hogan,

    Only in Florida.

    I read a whole lot more than science fiction, but there’s no doubt that I love the stuff.

    Conservative? Come join us on the libertarian side of the aisle. You’ll enjoy our small government and freedom-loving ways, I assure you.

  53. they liked Edinburgh the best

    I was flying from London to Glasgow and fog caused us to be redirected to Edinburgh instead. Stupidly, instead of saying, “hey, cool, that works for me”, I got on the bus they provided to ferry us to Glasgow. Glasgow sucked, so I went to Inverness and the Loch, which was great. Then I went back to Glasgow, rented a car, drove to the Welsh coast, and got in a car accident that put me in a Welsh hospital for 10 days.

    Quite a vacation.

  54. Time for a chorus of Officer Krupke!

  55. Conservative? Come join us on the libertarian side of the aisle. You’ll enjoy our small government and freedom-loving ways, I assure you.

    I hedge between the two. I agree with libertarian perspectives on the scope of the state (though I’m a professional hypocrite and work as an urban planner), but I’m not a cultural libertarian – I think social encumbrances on personal behavior are pretty valuable. I find I agree with too much in City Journal to be a libertarian. Plus I’m not some kind of freak.

    Re: Glasgow and Edinburgh. I was there in the summer of 2005. Glasgow is a pit, like most of the unglamorous large cities of Britain. Interesting (in the way that a dismal joyless housing project is interesting), but not really fun. Edinburgh is gorgeous though. I was there with a friend during Live 8 (not by design) and we saw a huge crowd gathered around a hotel and we’d heard it was gonna be for James Brown so we hustled our way to the center of it by the door to the limo. After waiting forever it was fucking Bono, who passed within arm’s reach of me. At that point every nerve in my body was saying “take his glasses and smash them! take his glasses and smash them! jesus christ man now is your chance!” but I hesitated and the moment was lost. Shame of my life. Attractive city, though.

  56. Surprised they didn’t start putting juvenile delinquents on monoamine oxidase inhibitors, one of the older anti-depressants. Of course, the drugs are incredibly dangerous, and taking them means that nearly the entire rest of the pharmacopia is contraindicated once you’re taking them. But hey, it’s for the children.

    I’m not saying they should automatically put them on MAOI’s. However, not even close to the entire rest of the pharmacopia is contraindicated. The dietary restrictions are very annoying though. It also sucks if you get a cold or flu, since over-the-counter cold medicines are contraindicated. And “contraindicated” with MAOI’s means the risk of a hypertensive crisis. So, yeah, they’re not first choice antidepressants. They do work very well for a lot of atypical depressives who don’t respond to SSRI’s though.

  57. Re my non-libertarianism: I also have no problem with a militaristic foreign policy. Kill ’em all.

  58. “Plus I’m not some kind of freak.”

    Ah, the slogan of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

  59. I have to join in the Glasgow bashing. I took a week off from being in London, and decided to go to Scotland. Not really knowing anything about the cities, I spent a week in Glasgow, with a day in Sterling and a day in Edinburgh. Edinburgh was really nice, and I felt like a fool for not staying there. Even Sterling was more interesting than Glasgow.

  60. Somehow this reminds me of the Nazi goal of ‘purifying’ the race. It troubles me to think that children with ‘bad’ genes might end up in a sort of Coventry, forever disdained or feared.

    I have a hard enough time figuring out how to handle life day to day. Were I given a diagnosis of something that might or might not happen, I’d not live life fully.

    Somehow we’ve become a society that deems certain groups as an economic drain — smokers and fat people for example. We demonize these groups and become an increasingly tribal country.

    Will we get to a point where we demand child-free restaurants (already occuring) and perfume-free zones? Ill behaved children irritate me (well, in fact, I’m irritated at their parents). Perfume makes me sneeze, yet I don’t rise each morning thinking that lazy parents who indulge their child’s every wish should be sterilized.

    There’s a history of stomach cancer in my family. I don’t spend my life worrying about contracting same or having my health insurance rates jacked up because of potential disease.

    I like a life full of surprises and find myself a bit shocked that our daughters wanted to know the sex of their babies early in their pregnancies. If other markers were revealed propensity for bi-polar disorder, violence, hatred of orange juice, would they have abortions? Dunno. For myself, I’d rather not know. Life is an adventure and then you die.

  61. Hogan,
    yeah, I’m not a freak either. Let’s get together and lobby the government to outlaw any and all behavior that isn’t just like ours.

  62. Dagny T.,

    I’ve always kinda suspected my autocratic tendencies towards warlordism come from some kind of genetic factor. This just helps prove my case a little more. As for the Campbells? Bah! (waves hand dismissively)

  63. Another Phil: my statement was hyperbole, and meant to be seen as such. However, MAOIs are dangerous damn drugs, and they have a lot of nasty interactions. Giving them to teens, especially teens who are known to drink or take illicit drugs, is a recipe for disaster.

  64. Pinette – I don’t believe in greater government involvement in our personal affairs. “Social encumbrances” means exactly that – social, not political. Society’s informally enforced behavioral codes. “Freedom” from them is not necessarily an unqualified good.

  65. Hogan,
    Huh?
    by ‘society’s informally enforced behavioral codes’ I assume you are just referring to norms, taboos, mores. Do you think libertarians are against basic social structures? We just don’t want the government involved in it, which sounds like what you believe. So why did you represent that as an anti-libertarian position?

  66. Darwin/Mendel/Lamarck

    innominate one —

    Good catch and good correction. I was going for quick and dirty, but your account is certainly more accurate.

  67. Polish Jew, mother’s side. Scot (Fraser, Cameron) father’s side. Grew up on the “wrong” side of the tracks. Discuss possible genetic/environmental ramifications.

    Oi-vey. Och-aye!

  68. J sub D-

    “Parenting is not a goddamned hobby.” You are right. Too bad your parents did not understand.

  69. Pinette-

    A) My view of libertarianism is that it isn’t just a platform of policy ideas but a general, highly tolerant approach to human behavior. While I don’t think libertarians are against “basic social structures,” I do think their instincts towards being tolerant and nonjudgmental, while understandable, tend to reduce the effectiveness of taboos and social restraints. I think civil society deteriorates somewhat when there’s a “whateva, I do what I want” defense available to counter every taboo. That’s not to say that social order is more important than freedom, but (to my taste) libertarianism as a cultural attitude tends to work too forcefully in the one direction, at the expense of the other.

    and

    B) I also think there is a case for government involvement in the suppression of certain public victimless crimes. Street prostitution and panhandling, say. While I suspect the libertarian impulse with both is to allow the offender to let his or her freak flag fly, the consequence of a lax attitude towards public disorder is a decrease in the security of public space and quality of life. Even if the offenses are themselves relatively harmless, they help to erode the informal social restraints that do the most to prevent actual harmful behavior. Broken windows theory.

    Not meaning to start a debate, as this thread has come pretty far from it’s origin. But since I believe those things, I consider myself more a conservative than a libertarian.

  70. I fully concur with Fluffy’s first post.

    As Chris Rock said, If a three-year-old kid is callin’ his gandma mommy and callin’ his mother, Pam, he’s goin’ to jail.

  71. I find I agree with too much in City Journal to be a libertarian. Plus I’m not some kind of freak.

    Apparently, you’re not a freak. Just a dickhead.

    But dickheads can be libertarians, too! We’re inclusive that way.

  72. More seriously:

    I think civil society deteriorates somewhat when there’s a “whateva, I do what I want” defense available to counter every taboo.

    I think civil society is much more at risk from the Total State than it is from overly laid-back libertarians.

  73. RC Dean – A dickhead because of the freak comment or the City Journal? The freak comment was a joke, but if it’s for City Journal, that’s fair.

    For Part II, I think both are bad and society should try not to veer too much towards either complete order or complete permissiveness.

  74. Because if someone behaves in a certain way due to the acceptance of that behavior by their peer group, it’s moronic to call that behavior “anti-social”.

    It’s highly social. It’s pretty much the definition of social.

    You seem to be defining “social group” as peer group. That is not the only way to define “social.” Anti-social is usually referring to the larger society, not the smaller peer group. So, you get a anti-social peer group who are very socially bonded without being contradictory. The question is, I think, is there a genetic tendency to seek out that anti-social peer group? Or something close to that.

    Are criminals born or made?

    Born first, then made.
    How you are born with influence the range of options you are able to pursue, the environment will restrict the options available and influence the path you end up traveling.

    JsubD wins the thread.
    Parenting is not a damned hobby.
    Brilliant.

  75. How you are born with = How you are born will

  76. “Somehow this reminds me of the Nazi goal of ‘purifying’ the race. It troubles me to think that children with ‘bad’ genes might end up in a sort of Coventry, forever disdained or feared.”

    It troubles me too.

  77. “Somehow this reminds me of the Nazi goal of ‘purifying’ the race. It troubles me to think that children with ‘bad’ genes might end up in a sort of Coventry, forever disdained or feared.”

    You mean like young black males trapped in an urban ghetto?

  78. Sambo,

    Nicely played.

    Biomarkers do not equal destiny.

    But, of course, some biomarkers are more informative than others.

  79. J sub D-

    “Parenting is not a goddamned hobby.” You are right. Too bad your parents did not understand.

    You misundersand as usual. My parents considered raising me a burden brought on by their transgressions committed in previous lives.

  80. J sub D-

    They carried their burden well.

  81. My parents raised me on a single principle: What doesn’t kill the boy will make him stronger.

  82. “Biomarkers do not equal destiny.

    But, of course, some biomarkers are more informative than others.”

    I’m not certain what you mean by that with regard to young black males trapped in an urban ghetto?

    I do know from having worked at the local Boys/Girls Club that “doin’ a little dirt” is tolerated with a wink and a smile by people at or near Director level. I found that disturbing.

  83. They carried their burden well.

    Indeed. Six kids. No felony convictions. None have ever been on welfare. Two college grads. One sister took unemployment for a couple months, but nobody holds it against her.

  84. Yeah, turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies, that’ll do the trick.

  85. Sambo,

    Biomarkers = overt biological traits that serve as a marker for another underlying, covert trait.

    Skin color is a crappy biomarker.
    Some genetic biomarkers are better.

    I do know from having worked at the local Boys/Girls Club that “doin’ a little dirt” is tolerated with a wink and a smile by people at or near Director level. I found that disturbing.

    I am not certain what you mean by that (I assume sex with local boys/girls?).
    I am even less certain what the connection to the topic of criminality is.

  86. “I am not certain what you mean by that (I assume sex with local boys/girls?).”

    No, I meant young kids 12-14 breaking into cars and garages and such. The connection to criminality would be that property crimes were tolerated by the staff and the kids were essentially being told that it was okay. So my point was that it’s social, not genetic.

  87. Sambo,

    Ahhhh…
    Of course.
    Idioms are impenetrable, so you lost me with yours.

    Indeed…social forces dominate, imho, but they work within a context that includes genetic propensities. Personality differences between, say, risk-takers and risk-avoiders play a big role in who will end up “doin’ a little dirt” even if the social frame ignores or encourages it.

    Again, I will emphasize, that race/skin color does not provide an accurate biomarker for the relevant traits.

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