How would you react if, all of a sudden, you are told that you are a criminal before you even commit a crime? Wouldn’t you feel offended or harassed? What if the one who tells you has a dead-on evidence that criminal behavior is encrypted in your genes? Wouldn’t you begin to question yourself? If by any chance there is a gene modification treatment for people like you, would you willingly subject yourself even if it means changing what really made you who you are?
“The smell of the children is so alluring that I need to hold them soon. Floating along with the wind, their scent is so strong that I couldn’t resist them. I have to play with them soon. Oh, here they come. I have a toy for you! And yes, they’re playing a game with me! They seem to be very fond of me. And now it’s my turn to enjoy too. The feel of the knife cutting through the neck is exciting me. The thrill of the blade’s penetration in every inch of the skin makes me feel more alive. Dismembering the body, I place the skin, bones, and other organs in a sack.”
This is how Luis Garavito did it or should we say, how he imagined things. He murdered 140 boys in Colombia, not because of anger but because of impulse and yearning. He was not the only one who committed such horrible crimes.
Psychologists and other scientists have been in great perplexity as to why these people commit such remorseless acts. For decades, experts have been mulling over on the relative contribution of one’s genetic makeup and of the environment to his behavior. The study of behavioral genetics focuses on the genetic contributions to variation in behavior. In short, heredity can influence behavior. Body-type theorists even presented their argument that those who had greater tendencies to commit violence differ from those who did not based on physical aspects. The thought of the existence of more criminals in future generations causes an increased apprehension not only to some people but to the entire humankind. With such fear, desperate measures have been conducted to dig into this abstruse matter. Alongside the entire process, ethical considerations are still of great concern.
For the millionth time the question “nature or nurture” passes through our ears, it would somehow be expected that some are already tired of hearing this. This never-ending biting of the tail debate will continue until the end of the universe’s existence. Although we are aware that our own genes and the environment both contribute to our own behavior, we are still uncertain as to what degree each of them independently influences our ways. Should we remain complacent with this fragmental chunk of knowledge and not wonder about it at all?
Each one of us has his own set of genes and that what makes one unique from the others. We are who we are. Genes are immutably the functional units of inheritance controlling the transmission and expression of one or more traits. Since we all have different sets of genes, we expect that one would be different from the other considering the fact that a person’s traits and behaviors are influenced by the genes of his own family. When inherited, these traits are passed on to the next generations. Scientists say that in animals, hereditability of behavior is breed specific. However, it goes far more complex in humans. There are so much varieties in traits that the behaviors of humans are more diverse. This makes the wonder about hereditability in humans more complicated. Genetics, after all, goes beyond the skin and the flesh.
It is important for us to be at least familiar with how people behave, because human behavior is, after all, the foundation in which the interactions of people to people and of people to the environment are based upon. If well studied, reasons as to why conflicts in society arise might be discovered.
Sir Francis Galton said that the various traits vary continuously from one extreme to another and results from a blending of hereditability and environmental influences. The question on how relevant genes are in influencing the violent behavior of criminals will always be part of the puzzle that the criminal justice system around the world has been trying to solve.
“Large head and small face. Receding hairline. Large, protruding ears. High cheekbones. Fleshy lips, but thin upper lip. Bumpy face. Thin neck. He must be a criminal!” You may say that this one is a careless and an irresponsible kind of judgment against a person. But Cesare Lambroso would understand as to why you made such judgment. It was he who pioneered studies on Criminal Anthropology, a discipline concerned on deducing character from a person’s facial and bodily features (Physiognomy) and deducing the external characteristics of a person’s skull as an indicator of their personality, abilities, or general behavioral propensities (Phrenology). He argued that criminals can be identified by several distinct physical features, because he studied on the anatomical differences between those who had violent behaviors and those who did not. Another scientist named Sheldon came to a conclusion that narrow faces, wider chests, larger waists, and bigger forearms were associated with delinquency. With these, some of the scientists at that time were kind of encouraged to believe that genotype can be determined through observations on one’s phenotype. However, their assumption was considered to be fallacious after realizing that the logical reasoning of their statements was somehow flawed. Moreover, the argument that genotype could be determined through the phenotype is still valid and scientifically accepted. It’s just that one cannot directly assume that a person is prone to criminality based on his physical characteristics.
For years, many have been pushing for the improvement of the genetic quality of the entire human race. This set of beliefs and practices is named Eugenics. One of the pioneers of the Eugenicist Movement, Charles Davenport, made an emphasis on the importance of “better breeding” in creating a well-enhanced society. If acknowledged and practiced by people, Davenport believed that an improved human race would be achieved. The hereditability of traits was further explained by him when he studied criminality. He claimed that violent behavior does not only occur due to environmental factors but also because it lies in the genetic makeup of a person. Moreover, he argued that criminality is interconnected with disease and nervous defects. Unfortunately, the logic behind his reasoning was also considered a fallacy just like Lombroso’s. If we believe in their arguments, we assume that it is impossible for someone to avoid commiting a crime when he has the “criminal gene”. This simply implies that some individuals are criminals before they even commit a crime. It was later on found out that he only considered the data that supported his hypothesis and that did not make his work credible.
In scientific researches, it is very important that the evidence be established truthfully. A researcher must be objective in any way even though he might not be pleased with what he finds. Every method should be logically correct in order to arrive to a truthful and valid conclusion. It is also important to take note that the correlations among variables should be well established and be well-defined. For example, if we have observed that almost all drug pushers in the Philippines are men with dark skin, we cannot say that skin pigmentation is a product of having a “drug-pusher” gene. Take another case wherein 90% of the prisoners in a country are psychologically ill. We can conclude that there is an association between psychological illness and criminality, but we cannot say that being psychologically ill can make someone a criminal.
With the increasing number of criminal cases around the world, it is of everyone’s concern that this should stop from happening or should at least be minimized. “Prevention is better than cure” has been where health practitioners and policy makers hold on to most of the time. In order to stop something from getting worse, the stimulus that causes it to happen should be mitigated as soon as possible. If this holds true in all aspects, can we do a gene predetermination test to detect which people would commit crimes in the near future? Of course we can! But the real question is, should we? The problem lies in the ethical aspect of the process. What do you think will happen if your relatives and neighbors know that you have genes associated with aggressive behavior? Knowing how people think, we would expect that these people who tested positive for the genes will be stigmatized and worse, criticized. How much more if parents just knew that their newly born baby will someday be a criminal? How will this change their life? Research is too preliminary to be applied to the real world quite yet.
Going back to the question, “Is it true that some men are instinctively born with stimuli that dictate what they must do and that they do not have control over their actions?” Genes, many argue, are the answers in understanding the mind of criminals and the only way to stop these crimes is to detect them. Modern geneticists say that the nature or nurture question will forever be untenable and meaningless. The subject has to be discussed in terms of the continuous and complex interactions between the organism and its environment, and the relevant contributions of both sets of variables in determining the behavior of the organism.
If we look into Luis Garavito’s childhood, we would see that he suffered physical and emotional abuses by his father. He gave a testimony about being a victim of sexual abuse when he was young. With this, we are then left with two schools of thought, “are criminals like him born with predetermined genes that play an integral part in their violent activities or do they become murderous through their childhood experiences and surroundings?”
Science is a very dynamic discipline. We are certain that whatever facts it has presented right now is way too insufficient to be compared to whatever it might discover soon. With this, more researches might provide compelling results in the succeeding generations that would probably change what we believe in at this moment.
Willing to Change?
“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” Someday, who knows, there might be a DNA-based testing that could detect if a person is apt to violence. If reliable and convenient detection tests will be available soon, there would surely be a heightened curiosity on what interventions could be possibly done to mitigate the condition. New drugs might be discovered. Another intense treatment would be a germ-line therapy designed to influence the person including his or her offspring. However, this method also has its flaws. Remember that this procedure is done by health professionals who are plainly humans. We all know that humans commit mistakes. What if the new gene would be inserted in the wrong place at the wrong timing? This, of course, might alter the normal functioning of the normal genes. There might also be a mutation, we just do not know.
If this happens, would you still be willing to take the drugs or undergo therapy? Would you possibly jump into treating yourself with medications even if you have not expressed any aggressiveness yet? Don’t you think this would just create a great paranoia to the entire human race?
With all the ethical issues concerned, we still are obligated to practice our morality. We just do not stand there at one corner witnessing a crime and not doing anything about it. Normal human beings do not do that. Biologically, we develop as we grow. Alongside with that growth, our conscience is being enhanced. Each of us has an obligation to ensure that every being is treated with respect. We can do that by being conscious of the science and its consequences.
In this world full of questions, one must not settle for the question mark at the end. As we are capable of almost anything, discovering even the depths of things where light cannot even penetrate, these questions will not be allowed to stay as questions. Are some of us born to kill? Are we capable of changing who we are in the molecular level? We do not know the exact answer yet. But we will. Maybe not now but as long as we tread towards the future, it is given that there will always be answers.
Barash, C. I. (2007). Mean Genes: Hereditability, Human Behavior, and a Genetic Basis for Aggression. In C. I. Barash, Just Genes: The Ethics of Genetic Technologies (pp. 89-112). Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group.
The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. (2014). American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress . Retrieved from Serial Killer: Nature vs. Nurture: http://www.aaets.org/article21