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Violence, Genes, and Prejudice

Can genes make one person more likely to act violently than another? Can the question even be asked in a country where violence--in many people's eyes--has come to wear a young black face?

By Juan Williams
Nov 1, 1994 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:38 AM


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As scientific debates go, the war of words over the genetic roots of violence has itself been marked by unusual violence. It has damaged careers, provoked comparisons with Nazi pogroms, and prompted bitter talk of science being corrupted by political correctness. It has also sparked passionate statements about racists, Luddites, and monkey sex. This is the stuff of great fiction.

But it's true. And the arguments are only likely to get fiercer as violence in America continues to rise.

Let's leave aside for the moment the question of whether a convincing connection can yet be made between certain genes and violent behavior. Even without conclusive evidence that it can, heated questions are being raised. Will the government try to screen people to see if they have genes that incline them to violence? If people do have such a gene, can they be forced into medical therapy? What if tests are used selectively to screen minority children, on the grounds that a growing number of American prison inmates are black or Hispanic? "Research into genetic factors has tremendous impact, and it is likely to yield controversial findings that are highly susceptible to abuse and misunderstanding," says David Wasserman, who teaches philosophy of law, medicine, and social science at the University of Maryland's Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy.

Wasserman knows what he is talking about; he has already been burned by the debate. A 1992 conference he planned on "genetic factors in crime" had its federal funding yanked after it was denounced for fostering racial prejudice and promoting a "modern-day version of eugenics." Research presented at the conference, its more vehement opponents protested to the New York Times, "would inevitably target minority children in the inner city in the guise of preventing future crime."

Wasserman adamantly denies those charges. "Scientists were brought to this subject by legitimate curiosity," he says. "They did not wake up one day having been mugged and say, 'Let's see if there is a gene responsible for crime.' Scientists see themselves as increasing understanding of human behavior--though they may be naive about the implications of their research and the political agendas it might further."

Ironically, current efforts to assess what role biology and genetics might play in violent human behavior started out with the best of intentions, at least from the point of view of the people behind them.

One of those people was Louis Sullivan, the Bush administration's secretary of health and human services from 1989 to 1993. Sullivan was appalled by the epidemic of violence he saw taking place in American cities. In 1992 more than 26,000 Americans were murdered, and 6 million violent crimes were committed, with young men and minorities falling victim most frequently. One in every 27 black men, compared with one in 205 white men, died violently; one in 117 black women met the same fate, as compared with one in 496 white women. And a disproportionate amount of the violence to blacks was being done by blacks, in poor, underserved urban neighborhoods. Black Americans, who constitute about 12 percent of the population, were arrested for 45 percent of the nation's violent crimes.

Sullivan, a black physician who is now president of Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, wanted to try addressing violence as a public health issue. "The rationale for this was the high incidence of violence and homicide in young black people and particularly young black males," he explained last July in the first interview he has given on the controversy since leaving office. "The hope was that we could diagnose the likelihood of violence occurring and learn how we might intervene, in terms of counseling families and individuals."

To that end, Sullivan began organizing his department's research resources under the banner of the "Violence Initiative." "At the time we got into this," he says, "the predominant thought was to look at unemployment, poverty, use of illicit drugs--a whole range of factors that might contribute to the likelihood of violence. I wanted to bring together the various components that could help us address the question of violent behavior, primarily from the psychological and sociological point of view." Some of this research had biological aspects, of course, including studies that looked at people's brain chemistry and even their genes. But these studies, largely done at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), formed only a fraction of the initiative, accounting for .5 percent of its budget. They were hardly uppermost in Sullivan's mind--he saw the overriding problems as social--yet it was precisely these studies that came to haunt him.

Among them were some exploring the link between aggressive behavior and disturbances in levels of a chemical called serotonin. Gerald L. Brown, a psychiatrist who is clinical director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, explains that serotonin transmits nerve signals in the brain and is important in regulating sleep, sexual behavior, appetite, and impulsivity. In 1979 Brown was part of the team that first suggested an association between low levels of serotonin and out-of-control aggressive behavior in a group of U.S. military men. Serotonin depletion appears to have a disinhibiting effect, says Brown, and studies have repeatedly implicated it in explosive, destructive, impulsive behavior, including suicide. "A more familiar word might be violent," he adds, "but violent is not a scientific term; it's descriptive."

Many things can apparently influence serotonin production, though race isn't one of them. Serotonin levels are 20 to 30 percent lower in men than in women. They are high in newborns, low in adolescents, then rise again with age--a pattern that seems to fit with the stereotype of the impulsive teenager. A diet high in L-tryptophan, an amino acid needed to make serotonin, can boost levels of the neurotransmitter in animals. Some studies tentatively suggest that animals subjected to stressful environments make less serotonin, raising the possibility that the same might happen in humans living under the gun, whether on the battlefield or in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

But there's a suspicion that genes, too, influence serotonin metabolism and behavior, making certain people more susceptible to impulsivity, especially under stress. So some researchers have begun to hunt for signs of gene defects or genetic variants associated with abnormal serotonin metabolism. Last year, for the first time, a mutation that apparently leads to serotonin disturbances was found in male members of a Dutch family with low IQ and a history of violence--though whether the defect is vanishingly rare or will turn up in other impulsive, aggressive people isn't yet known. Since then another study has turned up a genetic variant in violent, suicidal Finnish men. That's not to say that the case for linking genes to violence has by any means been proved--this research is still in its infancy. "What's more," points out Evan Balaban, a neurobiologist at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, "serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects many behaviors, not just aggression. So to specify that serotonin affects one type of behavior more than any other is very difficult." Nevertheless, some mental health specialists have already raised the possibility that doctors might one day use genetic markers to screen patients with behavioral disorders and treat serotonin abnormalities with drugs.

When Sullivan was formulating his ideas on the Violence Initiative, however, he gave only a passing nod to studies linking violent behavior to genes. "My focus was on situational factors," he recalls, with the tone of a man reconstructing how his car ended up in a ditch. "I was looking at drug use, absence of male role models, job loss, any factor other than genetic." But just as Sullivan's program was coming to life as the centerpiece of a Republican administration's expression of concern over violence in the ghetto, it was buried.

The killing blow was struck by a friend. One of the scientists Sullivan had consulted about the Violence Initiative was Frederick Goodwin, then director of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration. "Lou Sullivan had turned to me and said this epidemic of violence concerned him," recalls Goodwin, who, like Sullivan, has avoided interviews since the controversy left him feeling misunderstood and unfairly hounded by race baiters. "We had a 1992 national survey of young offenders," he says. "And we found that when we looked at youth offenses involving some form of violence, 80 percent of the offenses were committed by 7 percent of the population. It was an incredible concentration. So the first thing we looked for was correlation--an association between this 7 percent and some other factor. And I want to make clear there was no correlation between violence and race at all, when you took socioeconomic status out of it--in fact, black middle-class kids, we'd previously found, were less likely to abuse drugs than white middle-class kids and were more socially responsible. There was, however, a strong association of violence with low socioeconomic class. Nevertheless, there were a lot more people of low socioeconomic status who were not violent than who were violent, so class was not deterministic. There had to be something else influencing violent behavior."

In February 1992, Goodwin made some casual remarks at a meeting of the Mental Health Advisory Council, reflecting on violence as a public health concern. He drew an analogy between the behavior of male rhesus monkeys in the wild and violent young men in tough city neighborhoods. Although he did not specify young black men, some people in the audience clearly thought that's who he was referring to. "If you look, for example, at male monkeys, especially in the wild, roughly half of them survive to adulthood," Goodwin said. "The other half die by violence. That is the natural way of it for males, to knock each other off--and, in fact, there are some interesting evolutionary implications of that because the same hyperaggressive monkeys that kill each other are also hypersexual, so they copulate more."

Incensed, Delores Parron, associate director for special populations at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), walked out on his talk. But Goodwin had no idea he was going down in flames. On the contrary, he went on to throw fat on the fire. "Now, one could say that some of the loss of social structure in this society, and particularly within the high-impact inner-city areas, has removed some of the civilizing evolutionary things that we have built up, and that maybe it isn't just careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities 'jungles.' We may have gone back to what might be more natural, without all of the social controls that we have imposed upon ourselves as a civilization over thousands of years in our evolution." Along the way Goodwin mentioned that NIMH-funded scientists were also looking for biological and genetic factors underlying violence, though he concluded, "The loss of structure in society is probably why we are seeing the doubling incidence of violence among the young over the last 20 years."

Goodwin's remarks set off a political explosion. His talk of monkeys and jungles in the context of violence in the inner cities came too close to long-standing racist suggestions that blacks are genetic throwbacks, to be treated as animals, or as chattel to be enslaved. A headline in the Washington Post portrayed Goodwin as comparing violent youths in inner city to aggressive primates in "jungles." Sullivan reprimanded Goodwin, who publicly apologized for his "insensitivity" and the "inappropriateness" of his comments. In the spring of 1992 Goodwin was moved from overseeing the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration to become head of the NIMH.

Today Goodwin is no longer a government official--he is director of the Center on Neuroscience, Behavior, and Society at George Washington University. But he is still pained by the hail of censure. "Basically, even mentioning genetic issues with blacks is difficult," he says. "People are understandably sensitive. They immediately start thinking 'eugenics' because of the terrible history of genetic slurring of blacks as inferior."

Goodwin kept a low profile after his public apology. Meanwhile his boss, Sullivan, was working hard to stay afloat in a sea of criticism. The genetics of behavior is always a touchy subject; the fact that Goodwin raised it in his remarks about the Violence Initiative, with its stated mission of curing inner-city ills, was unfortunate, to say the least. Rumors began to fly that the government was not so much interested in helping individuals with "genetic susceptibilities" as in looking for--and then exploiting--such susceptibilities in blacks. Sullivan, who had hoped to be a hero to a minority community bedeviled by violence, was now astounded to find himself painted as a villain. He was being pilloried as a black man who was collaborating with efforts to use science to deny black people their humanity--and his ordeal was not over. Less than three months after Goodwin's fateful comments, in May 1992, the fat was on the fire once again.

This time the blowup was prompted by the release of the program for David Wasserman's University of Maryland conference, entitled "Genetic Factors in Crime: Findings, Uses & Implications." "Researchers," the brochure began, "have already begun to study the genetic regulation of violent and impulsive behavior and to search for genetic markers associated with criminal conduct." It went on to point out that genetic research had gained impetus from "the apparent failure of environmental approaches to crime--deterrence, diversion, and rehabilitation--to affect the dramatic increases in crime" and that such research "holds out the prospect of identifying individuals who may be predisposed to certain kinds of criminal conduct, of isolating environmental features which trigger those predispositions, and of treating some predispositions with drugs and unintrusive therapies."

Sullivan, still bailing out a boat quickly sinking from sight, said his Violence Initiative had no connection with Wasserman's conference, even though the conference was funded by the NIH (an agency for which Sullivan, as secretary of health and human services, was ultimately responsible). But some critics immediately put the two together as evidence of a deepening conspiracy, with blacks and Hispanics as the likely targets. Children would be screened for genes that made them prone to crime, they warned, and given sedating drugs.

Among the more enraged critics was Samuel Yette, an author and former Howard University journalism professor. Yette, who is black, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the conference would encourage the impression that blacks are born criminals. "It is an effort," he said, "to use public money for a genocidal effort against African Americans." White critics also invoked the specter of eugenics. In a letter to the New York Times, Norman Finkelstein of New York University pointed out that earlier this century eugenicists' theories linking criminality to genes--in this case to genes for "feeblemindedness" and "moral degeneracy"--had resulted in up to 30 states adopting forced-sterilization laws. "In 1927," wrote Finkelstein, "the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sterilization, with Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declaring 'it is far better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime . . . society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.' " According to Finkelstein, more than 35,000 Americans were sterilized before World War II. "Germany," he noted, "did not pass such a law until 1933, and German eugenicists then stated they owed a great debt to the American precedent."

But the most visible--some would say publicity-seeking--critic of the project was Peter Breggin, a white psychiatrist and activist well known for opposing the use of drugs to treat psychiatric problems. In a story headlined Plot to Sedate Black Youth, which ran in a small black newspaper in Washington, D.C., Breggin and fellow opponents implied that the gene studies slated for discussion at the conference formed the core of a massive social engineering scheme. A plan was afoot, they said, to identify potentially violent inner-city children on the basis of biological and genetic markers--paving the way for psychiatric intervention, including the widespread medication of black children. Breggin later repeated his views on a news show on Black Entertainment Television and led the attack against the conference through his organization, the Center for the Study of Psychiatry. In July 1992 the NIH, which had given Wasserman $78,400 to fund the conference the following October, withdrew its support.

But the fight was far from over. "This is political correctness," blasted Gary Stephenson, an official at the University of Maryland, where the conference was to be held. "Just having such a conference doesn't mean the university endorses racism or sexism," he told the New York Times. "The university provides an open forum for debate on controversial issues."

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wasserman pointed out that the language of the controversial brochure was taken straight from the proposal he'd submitted requesting NIH funds for the meeting, which the NIH had rated "superb." In fact, the proposed meeting was praised for the diversity of its speakers, who ranged from those who believed genes play a role in violence to those worried about the legitimization of a link that was as yet unproved.

Showing a steely will, Wasserman did not shrink in the face of accusations of racism. Scientists doing this work, he said, were interested in understanding individual susceptibility to violence, not in exploiting alleged racial traits. "Several researchers at the conference would have dismissed the claim that one racial group is more predisposed genetically to crime than another as unsupported and inherently implausible," Wasserman wrote in his Chronicle article. "They would have argued that racial differences in crime rates were explained by powerful environmental factors." Though some researchers (not invited to the conference) claim that such racial differences are genetic, he continued, "their research is regarded as flimsy, even by strong proponents of individual genetic predispositions."

Wasserman concluded: "In sponsoring a debate on individual, but not racial, differences in genetic predisposition to criminal behavior, I believe that I have drawn a defensible line." In another publication, Black Issues in Higher Education, he added that the decision to cancel the conference was "not formed out of concern for the black community" but for political reasons. "This is an election year, remember, and the Bush people are very sensitive."

The op-ed tide began to run the other way. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota, wrote in Baltimore's Evening Sun: "In plain English," NIH director Bernadine Healy "yanked the funds because some people told her the topic of the genetics of crime is politically incorrect." An editorial in the Journal of NIH Research accused health and human services officials of a "lack of political courage . . . at a time when violence and crime dominate American life." The editorial went on: "At the heart of the controversy is a deep-seated fear of discovering that human behaviors, even violent ones, have biological roots. . . .What would we do with such information? The canceled Maryland conference was to address issues such as this." Five months after the NIH pulled its support for the conference, its grant appeals board ruled 7-2 to reinstate it. The conference is now tentatively scheduled for next October.

And what of the Violence Initiative? Though the name itself was dropped as a political embarrassment, the research it embraced essentially continues. In 1992 the federal government spent $53.7 million on NIH-funded violence studies. This year a panel of scientists, ethicists, and attorneys recommended substantially increasing the current $58 million budget. "Violence," the panel wrote in its April report to Harold Varmus, present director of the NIH, "is one of the leading causes of death and disability in our Nation." Its consequences exact "an extraordinarily heavy toll on our Nation's youth and elderly, and . . . disproportionately affect minority populations."

Looking back on the furor, Sullivan expresses no anger but rather a battle-weary sadness. "The thing in the background that really contributed to suspicions was Tuskegee," he reflects, referring to "a horrendous, inappropriate study" that began in rural Alabama in the 1930s. The Tuskegee study was a travesty of American public-health research. For decades 400 black men with syphilis were given what amounted to sham treatment so doctors could track the disease's unchecked progress. The study, which was halted under protest in 1972, left a sour taste in the black community. "Some say that AIDS was a disease developed in the lab to harm black people," notes Sullivan. "There is that lingering fear that somehow the government is plotting against its citizens to do some evil thing, which is unfortunate. It has slowed things tremendously."

Who could disagree? Lots of people, and passionately.

There's good reason to be wary of the way genetic findings are applied to society, says Troy Duster, director of the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California at Berkeley. Duster, who is black, points out that past attempts to link inherited traits to criminal behavior have never held up. Recently, though, molecular biology has revolutionized genetics. "We can screen an individual's genes at the molecular level to see who's at risk for devastating medical disorders like Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia, and cystic fibrosis," says Duster. "And these breakthroughs have created an unjustified halo effect for geneticists trying to explain behavior." The success of medical genetics shouldn't dazzle us into being uncritical about the pitfalls of behavioral genetics, he points out. Unlike, say, Tay-Sachs, which can be blamed on a single aberrant gene, violent behavior is likely to be the result of a fantastically intricate web of interactions among many genes and varying environments.

In his book, Backdoor to Eugenics, Duster argues that there are dangers in the way the public debate about genetics tends to be framed. On the one hand there are "experts (geneticists, medical specialists, researchers, etc.)" and on the other hand there are "critics who have been portrayed as naysayers and know-nothings, Luddites who would put their heads in the sand or try to stop the machinery of progress." As a result, he says, the typical citizen will always go along with the experts, just as "good Germans" went along with Nazi policies because they couldn't believe their leaders would start "selective extermination" of Jews and the mentally ill. In a similar vein, Duster fears that if the public buys the idea of "susceptibility genes" for violence, doesn't think to question their predictive power, and doesn't look out for their potential for abuse, then these genes could be used as a rationalization for political oppression of blacks.

Breggin goes even further. "This so-called scientific focus on violence in America basically means a focus on African Americans," he states. "What people are frightened about is little black children who are seen as having the seeds of destruction in them. Researchers are not looking to see if George Bush and his ne'er-do-well sons have bad genes. White people are looking at the victims of racism and saying something is wrong with them. But as soon as you say something is scientific, people get fooled. The argument used to be that blacks were docile and hence biologically predisposed to slavery. Now, in a few generations, they're supposed to be genetically predisposed to rebellion. This is not science. Evolution can't possibly work that fast. This is the use of psychiatry and science in the interest of racist social policy."

In the summer of 1992 Breggin, who is Jewish, personally appealed to Wasserman, who is also Jewish, to understand the dangers of holding a conference exploring genetics and violence. As Breggin describes it, they met by accident in a Bethesda pizza parlor. Breggin asked Wasserman how he would feel about a conference on "Genetic Factors in Junk Bond Dealing" at a time of public concern over the misdeeds of Michael Milkin and Ivan Boesky, who also happen to be Jewish.

Wasserman now dismisses Breggin as a "zealot." He notes that Breggin was the first to raise the specter of government-condoned, wide- scale medication of minority children. "Peter Breggin has a lot of chutzpah," says Wasserman, referring to Breggin's jump from genetic research on individual susceptibility to the use of drugs in a whole group of kids. "He made the leap, then decried it as racist."

In the past year, taking heed of all the criticism, the NIH has set up panels to review and provide guidance for its research on aggressive and antisocial behavior. Breggin, though, wasn't invited to sit on them. That job has fallen to a growing number of minority academics who are not necessarily opposed to the research but who want to be sure they have some say about the direction of the inquiry and how its results are presented to the public.

"There are few black biomedical scientists doing research, let alone this kind of research," points out Willie Pearson, a black sociologist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; like Duster, he serves as an NIH reviewer. "So the first question becomes: Just who is doing the research, and how do you deal with the findings? What policy do you impose--and who is in on that policy? You can't assume that scientists are going to be objective. Science is not above being socialized, and people design research to fit their own paradigm. So I'm supportive of continuing gene research as long as it's reviewed by a more balanced group."

The second question that concerns Pearson is "whether this science is a rationalization for maintaining the status quo. Is it a legitimization for high arrest rates in black people? We don't need science that looks at America and says blacks and Hispanics have a high rate of homicide, so something must be biologically wrong with blacks and Hispanics."

That's a question that also concerns Richard Moran, a criminologist at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The idea that violent and criminal people are biologically flawed has a long history, he says. It extends back to Aristotle, "who believed that people came to look like particular animals and had that animal's traits--so sneaky people looked like weasels." In the late 1800s, inspired by Darwin, Italian physician Cesare Lombroso began measuring the heads, ears, feet, and jaws of convicts in an attempt to show that criminals were evolutionarily closer to animals than other humans. And at the turn of the century English physician Charles Goring--on the basis of his own measurements of convicts and university students--concluded that "in every class and occupation of life it is feeble mind and the inferior forms of physique which tend to be selected for a criminal career."

Moran thinks current research exploring genes and violence demonstrates the resilience of our fascination for studying criminals as a distinct biological subspecies. "The definition of the criminal offender has changed from someone who has done bad (morally guilty conduct) to someone who is bad or defective," he wrote in a set of essays called Deviance and Medicalization. His sentiment is shared by Jerry Miller, a leading criminologist who runs the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, Virginia. "We have given up looking to social and environmental causes; that is passé," claims Miller. "And we have given up trying social and environmental solutions; we have said rehabilitation does not work. So what's left? Flawed people--and many of those people in jail are black." Miller fears that conservatives are looking for a reason to ignore social issues so they can launch a war against a "dehumanized and demonized 'enemy,' who too often these days turns out to have a black face."

Are there any voices of consensus amid this cacophony?

Diana Fishbein, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore, is all too familiar with the fear of urban crime. But she is also, as she puts it, "an integrationist. I believe very much in an interaction between the environment and genetic susceptibilities. That is to say, nobody is predestined to be violent. Nobody is predestined to be a criminal. But given a certain environment and a certain genetic predisposition, then the risk of violence can increase."


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