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Marc My Words - 11 August 2006

Marc My Words - 11 August 2006

Political comment By Marc Alexander

The 'worrier' gene

Science is a wonderful thing. It can offer powerful insights into how things work. But so too is critical thinking. Unfortunately when good science meets lax reasoning we end up with ridiculous ancillary conclusions advanced as 'new thinking'. It is anything but.

We now have the specter of the warrior gene, Monoamine oxidase A gene (MAO-A), which, taken to its illogical extreme has been served up as an explanation of why Maori are over-represented in crime and violence. Actually, it's touted not so much as an explanation but as forming the basis of an 'excuse' for crime and violence. I can just imagine defense lawyers up and down the country drawing lots to see who gets to use genetic predisposition as an argument of why some nasty rapist cum murderer should be found not guilty due to an overactive ADH gene cluster on chromosome 4.

Blaming genetic inheritance will be right up there with blaming parents, employers, girlfriends...or society. Or anyone but the architect of the misdeed itself. We really shouldn't be surprised because we've trodden the path of 'treatment' models to cure criminality for decades. We have grown insensitive to the old approach whereby the hand that commits the crime is attached to the person responsible. We now dispense excuses to minimize culpability like a lolly scramble. But how fair is that to the victim?

Victims of crime have been treated increasingly shabbily by virtue of our primary focus shifting to the so-called needs of criminals. Scores of white-coated psychologists concern themselves with the self-esteem issues of burglars, pedophiles, wife or husband bashers and their ilk.

Our system has been built on such an edifice: one that absolves them the burdens of earning a living by providing them with comfortable accommodations, meals and sporting pursuits in correctional facilities so we can bestow anger management therapies we think they need. Never mind that these 'treatments' don't actually work, (86% recidivism within five years should be sufficient evidence to kick the stuffing out of these rose tinted hand-wringers), but they persist at great cost to the taxpayer because it makes decision-makers feel like we're a really nice civilized bunch of people who won't let reality intrude in our cozy daydream.

The trouble is, instead of being compassionate; we are doing no favors to law-abiding victims or, in the end, to the criminals themselves. Victims of crime seem to be seen more and more as a convenient catalyst for identifying people with criminally inclined behavioral problems (he scribes with tongue firmly in cheek).

The justice system wastes huge resources to defend persistent offenders with legal aid money that could, for example be alternatively used to help the law-abiding benefit with speedier access to needed medical interventions. Meanwhile kill someone, go to prison and get treated pretty much right away. What's the lesson here?

We expect no work from inmates yet they receive meals, entertainment and often marriage proposals from women wanting to change them. Oh, and if by chance they get their feelings hurt...lodge a complaint and get compensation. Victims on the other hand get sod all. Broken bones will get fixed but not broken lives. They have to fight for everything including ACC to get the support and counseling their offenders get for free. So, as if you had to ask: how is this unfair to the criminals?

For a start it teaches those who commit crimes that they are not responsible. That they have treatable problems no different, in principle, than a hernia excepting the outward symptoms - that of breaking the rules of society. We are no longer shamed by our falls from grace but think only of our rights and entitlements. Just witness the deplorable wall of silence surrounding the death of the Kahuia twins while a lawyer argued that it was their right! That irreverence for justice diminishes our sense of self and, in turn, that of others, making it easier to create more victims. It's like we're not even there.

Yes, we'll blame what we can because we can. There will be no shortage of people who misplace their sense of compassion by humanizing criminals who dehumanized their victims. It is an impossibly shallow empathy that only sees the person rather than what they have done or are capable of. The problem is that such myopia, when it translates into a legal consequence like early release, will overwhelmingly result in the creation of even more victims - more lives shattered. Giving hard-core criminals a second chance is sadly, an invitation to give them another shot at hurting more people. Those indulging their mislaid sympathy simply don't see the end result of what they do or advocate for. That's left for under-funded and under appreciated organizations like Victim Support and family members and friends. It is they who are left to pick up the pieces.

Still, it's healthy to debate these things. The warrior gene theory is, in the end, only a theory. Researchers from Otago University found, in 2002 that 85% of men who had this warrior gene, had a history of severe childhood abuse, and then developed antisocial behaviors including criminal violence. At first glance such evidence appears compelling but it's simply not enough. We might for example, find some of our best Maori entrepreneurs highly represented with this gene or sports stars or wherever the 'killer' instinct might be a plus rather than a minus trait. This is no different than trying to argue that the gene for tallness somehow compels a high proportion of those afflicted to become basketball players.

What we should always be mindful of is that were science to locate all the genetic permutations into a landscape of inherited potential, we should not be overly surprised at a whole range of correlations. More ballet dancers have gene 'this' while used car salesmen have gene 'that'. So what?

The point is that no-one becomes involuntarily a violent criminal. It is, and always has been a matter of choice. That choice doesn't downplay potential any more than it downplays nurture. They all matter, but in the end we can channel our combined nature/nurture energies into what we choose.

That is in spite of the growth industry of psychological labeling of new and obtuse syndromes which feed into the interests and wallets of those who profess cures. What is dangerous about the warrior gene issue is not the science behind it but the quackery of interpretation. The provision of a greater understanding of the human condition is one thing but to provide another set of excuses to minimize the culpability of evil choices is something else.

I worry about these things. I worry about them a lot. Perhaps some scientist probing my DNA will find that I too have a worrier gene but of a slightly different kind. Then I can blame my parents too.


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