Civil Liberties

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 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.