The Cloudy Crystal Ball: Genetics, Child Abuse, and the Perils of Predicting Behavior

Article excerpt


In the cinematic world of Minority Report, mankind stands on the brink of a society without murder.1 Police can see the future, predicting murders and arresting perpetrators before they act.2 This Utopian system is the ultimate evolution in preventative policing because it offers perfect prediction; it does not show what people intend to do, only what they will do.3 Society accepts the incarceration of pre-murderers, people who have committed no crimes, because there is no such thing as the "wrongfully accused."4 Is the ability to predict behavior only science fiction, or can a combination of genetic and environmental factors actually identify future criminals?

In 2000, almost 900,000 children were victims of maltreatment in the United States.5 Many will grow up to become fully productive citizens while others will lead lives of antisocial or violent conduct.6 We have never before been able to definitively identify the future criminals.7 But now, because of the union of genetics and behavioral science, society may be on the brink of allowing us to identify those abused children that will, one day, commit violent acts.8

Science recently published an article entitled "Role of Genotype in the Cycle of Violence in Maltreated Children" ("Caspi Study").9 Using a study of over 500 boys, researchers asked whether the presence of a certain genotype (MAOA low) combined with exposure to childhood maltreatment would result in increased levels of antisocial behavior.10 Results showed the greatest incidence of antisocial behavior in the boys who both possessed the genotype and experienced childhood maltreatment.11 This confirmed the researchers' hypothesis that, to some extent, genetics can protect a child from the psychological effects of maltreatment.12 If validated, this research could lead to the development of tools that distinguish between future offenders and future productive citizens.

This Note examines the peril and promise of such efforts to predict behavior. Although the predictive power of genetics has been discussed many times before, the Caspi Study may prove to be the beginning of a new era. Historically, our culture has understood behavior to be the result of either biology or environment, of nature or nurture.13 The Caspi Study, by incorporating both nature and nurture factors in its conclusions, disarms the extremists in both camps.

When the study's comprehensive approach is coupled with the iconic position of genetics in our society, the legal, ethical, and moral dilemmas multiply rapidly. How well do we as a society truly understand the "science" of prediction? Can it and should it be relied upon? What interests should guide our decisions when faced with predictive genetic information? For example, when addressing the needs of an abused child who tests positive for the violence-prone genotype, does the State's interest in preventing violence trump the child's interest in being free from government intervention? Should the Caspi Study's general conclusions even be applied to individual children at all?

Not surprisingly, evidence of a genetic predisposition for violence is consistent with stereotypes many people already hold. One potentially negative outcome of the Caspi Study is that it appears to lend scientific credibility to those inclined to use labels such as "bad kids," "bad blood," or "criminal genes." Tagging children with negative labels may result in stigma, discrimination, and self-fulfilling prophecies. However, the Caspi results may also lead to useful tools for accurately identifying and proactively treating abused children who stand the greatest risk of developing behavioral disorders. While abused children are extremely vulnerable, the general public stands to benefit greatly from a decreased incidence of violence. Without careful forethought, society risks the erosion of legal protections for individual children in the name of preventing violence. …