Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Is There a Genetic Susceptibility to Engage in Criminal Acts?

Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Is There a Genetic Susceptibility to Engage in Criminal Acts?

Article excerpt

Debates about criminality have long focussed on the relative contributions of environment and genetics as components of antisocial and destructive behaviour. Although genetic explanations for criminal behaviour have been circulated since the emergence of modern criminology in the 1700s, until recently, there has not been the scientific evidence to substantiate or refute any claims. The past decade or so has seen an increase in research on the genetics of behaviour, including antisocial behaviour. The findings of some of this research have inspired media speculation about its policy implications. Many criminologists are understandably concerned about the potential misuse of this research given the earlier historical experiences with the eugenic use made of biological explanations of crime, and of genetic explanations in particular.

This brief paper summarises this evidence. Recent twin studies show persuasive evidence that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to antisocial behaviour. However the genetic evidence indicates that there is no single gene, or even a small number of genes, that predict an increased risk of antisocial behaviour. Where there have been some effects the increase in risk associated with antisocial behaviour is modest..

A technical appendix to this paper discussing candidate genes for antisocial behaviour is available on the AIC website .

Toni Makkai

Acting Director

Genetic theories of the origins of criminal behaviour have been a source of contention for over a century since Lombroso proposed quasi-biological explanations of criminal behaviour (Pick 1989; Andrews 1999). Genetic theories of criminality have been especially controversial within the field of criminology because of the eugenic policies that they inspired that were implemented during the Nazi era (Kevles 1985).

The sequencing of the human genome has created a renewed interest in the contribution of genetics to socially disapproved behaviour such as addiction, mental disorders and criminal behaviour. Both the media and the public have shown significant interest in stories relating genes to such disorders and their presumed implications for policy. Criminologists, lawyers and policy makers in the criminal justice field need to be well informed about the results of research on genetics of criminal behaviour and its limitations, a need that will only increase as genetic research on behaviour becomes more sophisticated.

There is an understandable fear among criminologists that information on increased genetic risks of engaging in criminal acts may adversely affect strategies used to prevent and deal with people who commit crimes. Some commentators fear that genetic information on criminal predisposition may be used by policy makers to justify reduced funding for programs directed at environmental causes of crime (Wasserman & Wachbroit 2001). More speculatively, there is a concern that the identification of genetic susceptibility to criminality may lead to proposals for genetic screening of the population for susceptibility to criminal behaviour (Rowe 2002). These programmes would aim to identify persons at increased risk of engaging in criminal activities and then intervene in some ways to reduce their risk. Such proposals understandably raise fears of a return to the type of state-sponsored intervention in reproduction, pre-emptive incarceration or medication, and scientifically sanctioned racism that earlier enthusiasms for biological explanations of crime have prompted (Comings 1996; Andrews 1999; Rowe 2002).

Before the policy implications of genetic research are addressed we believe that it is essential to critically examine the current state of research on this topic. Such an examination provides the necessary basis for evaluating the validity and ethical acceptability of speculative proposals for the preventive use of genetic information about individual risks of engaging in criminal behaviour. …

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