Criminal genes

Experts come together to revisit the controversial field of genetics and criminology.

Jun 22, 2011
Cristina Luiggi


How genes influence a person’s risk for committing crimes has always been controversy-laden subject for experts, particularly criminologists and sociologists, who find it hard to disentangle it from notions of discrimination, racism, and eugenics. Yet as the general field of behavioral genetics gains momentum due to the recent explosion of genomic information, researchers are taking a hard, objective look at how inherited traits predispose people to violence and aggression.

This week for example, the National Institute of Justice’s annual conference devoted its opening session to the creation of databases of newly discovered forensic genetic markers, The New York Times reports. Such genetic markers include the serotonin-controlling monoamine oxidase A enzyme (MAO), certain variants of which have been linked to increased impulsivity and aggression. But experts are quick to stress that these genes merely predispose an individual to such behaviors and that additional environmental factors—such as stress, socio-economic background, and even marital status—are usually required for the negative manners to manifest. Therefore, the challenge going forward is not only to produce a list of genetic markers associated with criminal behavior, but to also identify the environmental factors with which they interact.