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Scientists just got closer to understanding the genetic roots of crime — and it’s making them nervous

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Scientists just got closer to understanding the genetic roots of crime — and it’s making them nervous

September 12, 2016



There is no easy explanation for why some people commit crimes and others don't.

Similarly, there's no easy answer to the question of why some people end up in jails and prisons while others do not. It's a mathematical reality that the American criminal justice system disproportionately punishes poor people and black people.

But at the same time, the population of people who end up in prison do share some traits. And scientists have now traced one common criminal trait to specific genes.

Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) is wildly overrepresented in prisons. Take a crowd of 100 people of the street, and chances are just one to three of them will have ASPD. Take 100 people from a prison, and you can expect 40 to 70 of them to have the disorder.

That's significant, because ASPD has been linked with aggression, irritability, disregard for rules, disregard for other people, and dishonesty. 

It's a controversial diagnosis — broad, ill-defined, and overlapping heavily with other disorders like psychopathy.

But there's reason to take it seriously. Twin studies suggest that genetics explain about half of the variance in ASPD diagnoses, and environmental factors the other half. And a new study has begun the task of identifying which genes are most likely involved in ASPD, with significant success.

An international team of Finnish, American, British, and Swedish researchers examined data from the Finnish CRIME sample — a database of psychological tests and genetic material from 794 Finnish prisoners taken between 2010-2011.

The findings of this study cannot be implemented for any prediction purposes, or brought into courthouses to be given any legal weight.

Of the 794 prisoners,  a full 568 screened positive for ASPD. By comparing that group's genetic material to a large control sample from the general population, the researchers identified a number of genes that may play a role in at least some ASPD cases.

The study's results are interesting in and of themselves — advancing our understanding of ASPD from Genetics seem to play a role to These genes seem to play a role. This seems to be the first time researchers have made this leap with a personality disorder.

But just as interesting are the concerns the researchers express about how their research might be misused. 

"The findings of this study cannot be implemented for any prediction purposes, or brought into courthouses to be given any legal weight," they write.

In the past, claims about specific genes and violence have been — in the researchers' words — "misused" by prosecutors as evidence that defendants are violent. And as more studies like this one link specific genes to the potential for violence, that danger only grows.

There are valid, important reasons for scientists to deepen their understandings of disorders like ASPD, but also real dangers of people's genes being used as evidence that they are criminals.


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I think there may be a genetic component to some conditions - in particular, ASD/Autism sometimes runs in families. But the reverse often isn't genetic. Anti-social behaviour can seem to run in families, but more often it's environmental. In young males, in particular, it's where they live that's more significant than genetics. If someone is poor or disadvantaged, that's how they can get labelled as troublemakers. The poor don't get respect (supposedly, it's their fault for not having much money) and they get angry about that. That attitude of disrespect is entrenched in officialdom. People who are black or noticeably mixed-heritage also get the same disrespect.

There was a post today on another forum. A member said a neighbour approached the member's husband, while he was unlocking a rather expensive car, questioning if the member's husband actually owned the car. The member didn't mention in her post that her husband was black, but we all guessed that. In many middle-class areas of the UK, black man + nice car = criminal. (Though that probably wouldn't have happened if the husband had been a dark-skinned Asian = good with computers.)

When studies are carried out on a prison population, trying to find any common features, the first question should always be: why are they here? What's the comparison of imprisonment between poor/blacks versus affluent/whites? Generations of people have been written off by society, and it's not surprising that they react in an anti-social way. Those attitudes will continue into the next generation and beyond unless social attitudes change.

So, no, studies like that won't tell us anything about criminality. A study of social prejudice might give a clue.

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I personally feel that they need a combination of the two studies to be more accurate.  Nowadays there's more of a variety of nationalities in prisons in just this country alone, but according to the statistics regarding only blacks and whites, there are 6 times more blacks in prison.  I've noticed through time that black people, and other nationalities, tend to stick together in groups more then whites, and are more supportive towards each other, especially in poorer neighborhoods, and then or course gangs begin.  Most whites tend to keep more to themselves, no matter what their class level.

It's a shame that man-kind has to make a distinction, when the elite sees us as either rich or poor, powerful and influential or weak.

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