Adam Lanza and Genetic Profiling

Posted: 2013/01/18 in Books, Corrections and "Rehabilitation", Crime, Genetics

In the face of unspeakable evil, we sure do a helluva lot of talking.

I’ve been reticent to chime in on the Adam Lanza DNA sequencing story, but since I spent four years writing a 300-page novel about this kind of thing, I guess I might as well. I suppose it was only a matter of time before some hideous crime with unclear motive would lead authorities down the logic path of “science has all the answers.”

Christmas Day dawned to an article in the New York Times, about University of Connecticut’s plans to sequence the genome of Adam Lanza.

NYT strove to show the controversy surrounding this decision, and give opportunity for experts on both sides to voice their opinions.

“Ultimately, understanding the genetics of violence might enable researchers to find ways to intervene before a person commits a horrific crime. But that goal would be difficult to achieve, and the pursuit of it risks jeopardizing personal liberties. Some scientists shudder at the thought of labeling people potential violent criminals.”

One Ph.D. geneticist who struck a less modest tone was Ricki Lewis, in her article titled “Comparing Adam Lanza’s DNA to Forensic DNA Databases: A Modest Proposal

She explicitly calls attention to her title’s allusion to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick” – a satirical essay saying the starving Irish should ease their poverty by selling their children as food. Swift appeared to be lampooning the atrocious attitudes toward the Irish expressed in 18th century England. (His essay contains such gems as the following: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.” Or, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”) So one would expect Dr. Lewis’s “Modest Proposal” to be mocking people’s terrible attitudes toward young men like Adam Lanza. But it was nothing of the sort.

“I’m borrowing Swift’s title to bring up another outrageous idea: analyzing forensic DNA databases for a genetic signature of criminality.”

[facepalm]

She tries to moderate things a bit in her wrap-up:

“I’m playing Devil’s advocate here. I agree with other geneticists that looking for clues to the Newtown tragedy in DNA could do more harm than good. I also agree that environmental influences on behavior and personality are as important if not more so than inherited factors. But at the same time, I can’t help thinking of those forensic DNA databases and the clues to violent behavior that they may hold, anonymously searchable by crime. And we now have the technology to derive much more information than we did when the technology was limited to selected repeats — we can sequence genomes. That’s a lot of information.”

Yes, it could be interesting. But where would a public educated only by Hollywood run with that, if such studies claimed to discover something? The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008  provides minor protections, but mostly with regard to medical insurance and employment, and laws can be changed.

A disturbing aspect of Dr. Lewis’s immodest proposal is that comparing Adam Lanza’s DNA to forensic DNA databases would tell us nothing about the prevalence of any “clues to violent behavior” found in people who have not been convicted of crimes. Her suggestion does not involve a control group. Ignoring disconfirming cases increases the risk of stigmatizing yet another group of people just so the rest of us can feel like we have a bit more control. [Note: Dr. Lewis has clarified the intent of her blog post in a comment below. Please be sure to read it before passing judgment.]

It’s likely that full sequencing of Adam Lanza’s DNA will yield nothing useful. But is it setting a precedent for more DNA sequencings? As unexplainable tragedies continue to occur, will we fall back on science, assuming that understanding leads to prediction, which leads to control?

The New York Times quotes Dr. Arthur Beaudet of Baylor College of Medicine as saying
“But what if a significant fraction of the shootings were linked to gene variants? What if scientists were to discover genes that were risk factors, increasing a person’s chance of violent behavior but not foreordaining it?”

Yes, what if? Will genotypes be used as evidence in murder cases? Will people “plead genetics” the way they currently plead insanity? Will people want schoolteachers and doctors to be screened for the violence genotype? These are exactly the questions I sought to explore in Born to Kill. Sad to say, the novel may be more believable today than when it was published a few months ago.

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Comments
  1. Ricki Lewis says:

    Thank you for this blog and for mentioning mine. I do not, in fact, agree with myself re sequencing Lanza’s genome. I wrote the blog because several people asked my opinion, and I noted that none of the people quoted in places like the NYT even brought up the existence of forensic DNA databases. I think novelists and satirists are more creative thinkers than scientists! Anyway, I wasn’t suggesting that we actually do this because it would indeed create a Minority Report scenario and further stigmatize a lot of people. But it’s something to think about …

    • akhoffman says:

      Thanks for clarifying. It’s an interesting dilemma presented to us by the implications of recent science. I am not above allowing that genetics may play a role in some behaviors, but I fear that many people prefer to latch onto one explanation rather than looking at the interactions between genes and environment; gene expression, etc.

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