Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The End of Evil?

Tracy Hampton in the new JAMA (subscription only)* reports on a February conference called Resilience in Children, sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences. She discusses work presented at the conference along with earlier published research, in particular work by Caspi and colleagues (relevant abstract here) which finds that of people who are maltreated as children, those who have a certain genotype that confers high levels of the enzyme Monoamine Oxidase A, which regulates the level of a neurotransmitter, were less likely to develop antisocial behavior. Other work by Caspi and colleagues has found an additional effect of a genotype affecting serotonin levels. (Hampton goes on to discuss similar research in animals which finds that variant genotypes can protect against the behavioral effects of deprivation of maternal nurturing. Such animal studies are suggestive, at best, about human social psychology, but do constitute a proof of principle, at least.)

Now, it is well known that mistreated children are at elevated risk of addiction, failure in school and work, criminality and even severe antisocial behavior. The criminal justice system may take a history of child abuse and neglect into account as a mitigating factor in sentencing, but not as an excuse for criminal behavior. And indeed, while it is usually present in the worst criminals, including most candidates for the death penalty, in the case of truly heinous crimes it seems to have little effect on juries.

The most important argument for why being mistreated as a child does not relieve one of moral responsibility for later crimes is that most people who are mistreated do not go on to depravity. But what if this too is just a roll of the dice, attributable to the random substitution of adenine for guanine in a single gene, or in any case some combination of genetic polymorphisms? Even without this knowledge, of course, thoughtful people have already recognized that there must be an additional element of luck involved, such as encountering a caring, effective adult at a crucial time.

There are also some sociopaths, such as Michael Ross (whose case I have discussed before) who do not have any known history of maltreatment. The gene variants that fail to protect abused children do not, apparently, cause any elevated risk of antisocial behavior for children who are well nurtured, but no doubt there are other explanations, in genes or environment, for the Michael Rosses and Ted Bundys of this world. Functionalist arguments can still be made that there is a social need for punishment, stigmatization and retribution, but a complete science of the mind renders these actions ethically suspect. In effect, everyone is innocent, and the commission of evil is merely a misfortune for the perpetrator as well as the victim. What then, is the morally defensible response to intolerable behavior?

* I will have more to say soon about open access publishing, and will link more to PLoS Medicine as well.

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