My Genes Did It! Advances in Genetic Sciences Are Changing the Way the Law and Society Understand Behavior

By Wolfson, Elijah | Newsweek, March 14, 2014 | Go to article overview

My Genes Did It! Advances in Genetic Sciences Are Changing the Way the Law and Society Understand Behavior


Wolfson, Elijah, Newsweek


Byline: Elijah Wolfson

By noon, the temperature had risen to the high 80s in eastern Arkansas, and the mosquitoes were swarming clouds in the humid, fetid air. As church services at Ellis Chapel concluded, Dixon Platt, the pastor of the United Methodist community in the town of Wynne, wondered why 80-year-old Lillian Wilson, one of the most devoted of his flock, hadn't shown up to worship that morning. It was all the more curious because he had agreed to have lunch with her.

Platt tried to track her down, but no one knew her whereabouts. Eventually, he made his way over to the Central United Methodist Church, where the group sometimes met on Sundays, and where Wilson had been working earlier that week, putting together disaster buckets for folks in need. He opened up the doors of the church, and there, underneath a pew, a few feet from the entrance was a body, a female, with blood on her pants.

Wilson had been murdered, and it didn't take much for the police to figure out what had happened.

In the trial of Rene Patrick Bourassa Jr., the defendant and his attorneys made no effort to deny he had killed Wilson. Bourassa even walked the authorities through the murder, re-enacting it for them. He had been sleeping at the church that week, first outside, and then in the chapel, presumably to escape the heat and mosquitoes. When Wilson walked into the church that morning, Bourassa picked up a brass cross from the Communion table, beat her to death, and stole her car.

The crime could have been set in 1930 or 1970; most of the details seemed familiar, almost old-fashioned. But what was decidedly modern was the question of moral culpability that arose during the trial: The lawyers didn't argue over whether Bourassa had committed the crime; they argued over whether his brain made him do it.

The criminal justice system is based on responsibility: For someone to be convicted of a crime, it has to be shown they were consciously aware of what they did, when they did it. The problem, according to Deborah Denno, a professor at the Fordham University School of Law, is that almost all 50 states still define consciousness based on what's in the Model Penal Code - a document published by the American Law Institute (ALI) in 1962, and derived almost entirely from Freudian texts.

The Freudian view - at least as interpreted by the ALI in its formulation of the mens rea, or "guilty mind" - is that science and the law can clearly demarcate between someone who chooses their actions, and who did not. It's the basis for the insanity defense, which argues that a person charged with a crime is so far gone they are essentially unconscious actors, and the reason why the law has developed a spectrum of murder charges ranging from first degree (willful and premeditated) to voluntary manslaughter (unplanned, but intentional, the result of circumstances which could have generated a "reasonable" fit of anger).

But as the fields of genetics and neurosciences have advanced, so has our understanding of human behavior: It is now thought that, instead of there being a clear line between conscious and unconscious processes, a fluid interplay exists between the two sides. "People don't have the degree of control over their behavior that we thought," Denno tells Newsweek. "That doesn't mean to suggest that there's no control over their behavior - but that some of us have higher hurdles than others."

This is intriguing in the abstract, but in the practical world of the legal system, it forces a troubling question: If a person is predisposed to a certain type of behavior, is it his fault for acting as he did? From one vantage point, Bourassa's choice to kill was never made; the illusion of free will masks the reality that he followed the plans laid out by a small anomaly, buried deep in his genes, that drove him to violence.

The field of behavioral genetics is the branch of science that seeks to answer the complex and often politicized question of nature vs. …

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