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gene meme

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 28-Jul-2011

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 986

Fairness, fault and the killer instinct



‘So you’re telling me the mother cuttlefish is a eugenicist?” The 11-year-old’s fulsome scorn is directed at David Attenborough, who is buoyantly whispering to us of the female cephalopod’s evident preference for alpha males. To find the strongest, the female must defend herself vigorously, producing a no-means-yes scenario that only the most virile can, well, penetrate. But this in turn inspires the smaller, beta male to come over all Justin Bieber and slip through the female’s defences, getting in first.

“Well, yes,” we say as one. All nature is eugenicist; constantly striving to improve and cleanse the gene pool. Which makes our outrage at Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage the more intriguing. The urge to ethnically cleanse may be natural and tribal, but clearly we expect those troubled by such impulses to keep them seriously buttoned down.

But what if Breivik’s disinhibition in this regard turned out not to be his fault? He may yet plead insanity; what if some physical abnormality – some gene or growth or endocrine imbalance – “made” him do it? Would we still hold him responsible? Would we still want to punish him, lock him away, bring back the noose?

“It’s not my fault!” is the child’s automatic response to accusation, voicing our intuitive sense that responsibility needs volition. With Breivik, our outrage is clearly magnified – more die every day in landslides and train wrecks – by the extraordinary level of volition. The planning, the calculation, the targeting; the will to kill.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist whose new book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, argues both that behaviour is largely biological, driven by factors other than volition, and that this does not absolve us at all.

This sounds contradictory but Eagleman offers examples such as 25-year-old Charles Whitman, who on August 1, 1966, killed his mother, stabbed his sleeping wife five times and then, with an arsenal of weapons, climbed the University of Texas Tower, bashing-in the receptionist’s skull before positioning himself as campus sniper, killing a further 13 and injuring 32.

Whitman had earlier recorded his “tremendous” headaches, his concern over his increasingly violent urges and a request that his brain be autopsied. The subsequent dissection, after police shot him dead, showed a small but aggressive tumour impinging on the amygdala, the brain structure that regulates emotion.

Eagleman cites other cases. The normal 40-year-old man who suddenly developed a sexual interest in children, was found with a stash of child porn and convicted of paedophilia before being diagnosed with a massive frontal-lobe tumour. When the tumour was removed the child molestation stopped, returning when the tumour regrew and only ending when the tumour was removed completely.

Such cases, of which Eagleman says there are many, are normally thought to absolve or at least diminish responsibility – just as Tourette’s, say, is seen to absolve your responsibility for barking in church, or frontal-lobe dementia for taking off your clothes on the bus.

It’s clear that you can act without volition. But how far should we take this reasoning? Perhaps all action is actually predestined, not by God but by nature or nurture, illness or accident; stuff that’s not our fault. Perhaps free will is illusory.

As Eagleman notes, there is “a particular set of genes” that “most prisoners carry” which makes carriers eight times more likely to be arrested for murder.

What to do? Is eugenics after all the answer? Should we sterilise these people, preventing reproduction?

Before endorsing such a plan, you may wish to know the name of this gene-set. It’s called the Y chromosome. Carriers are called “males”.

The point is, surely, that there’s a sense in which nothing is ever anyone’s fault. My kids gladly blame me for every mistake or failure. Either it’s their genes, which makes it my fault (yes, yes, or their father’s). Or their upbringing, which, ditto.

But then, I have the same recourse. I can blame my parents, and they theirs, back to Adam or the single-cell amoeba, whichever you prefer. We all have excuses but excuses are irrelevant. They don’t let you off the hook. We are all – with the possible exception of Rupert Murdoch – constantly required to take responsibility for things that are not our fault.

It’s not your fault your mother gives you foetal alcohol syndrome, like people around the streets here in Redfern. It probably wasn’t her fault that she, like most serial killers, was abused as a child.

Perhaps Amy Winehouse had some gene or imbalance that drove her self-destruction. Perhaps the same gene or imbalance produced her remarkable, broken-hearted talent. None of it was her fault, but it was certainly her responsibility.

A Sydney grandmother, Pat Galea, took dopamine agonist for her restless legs; now it seems the drugs may have caused her gambling addiction but she, not the manufacturer, spent the month in jail.

This question of who should pay goes to the old question of punishment theory. Should it be utilitarian and forward-looking, or retributive? Although emotion always wants revenge, our enlightened selves generally tend the utilitarian way, punishing only for rehabilitation, prevention or protection. Certainly this is Eagleman’s argument: that where genes or circumstance make recidivism likely, sentences should increase to protect future victims.

A study of 23,000 sex offenders shows the strongest predictors of recidivism are not, as expected, childhood abuse or low remorse, but prior history and sexual interest in children. US courtrooms, says Eagleman, now use these “actuarial tests” to guide sentencing. But this amounts to punishment for crimes uncommitted, directly contradicting our deep, intuitive need for fairness – which we share with other primates and which requires that punishment fit crime, regardless. Life for life, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Children, too, need this. Children’s punishments must always embody both education and prevention. But retribution, too, is necessary, giving confidence that this crime inevitably brings that punishment. Otherwise, it’s not just not my fault, but profoundly not fair.


Drawing: By Edd Aragon


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