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July 15, 2010

A few contrarian points related to this post (linked by Tree).

The post talks about a series of articles on the NPR website (start here) which discuss the influence of genetics and brain scan results on people’s behaviour and how they affect our (and juries’) views about their criminal actions.

Something about this whole thing rubs me the wrong way, mainly because in any of these types of “characteristic causes X” studies the actual causal mechanism is typically hidden. With mental processes the causal mechanism is totally hidden because nobody actually understands how the brain is connected to our thoughts at the deepest level.

Here’s a few of the things that occurred to me:

a. The scientist himself is proof that the scan result does not guarantee criminality/psychopathy. With a full-brain scan of a certain group (psychopaths) there are bound to be correlations, but how meaningful are they really? This is more of a question about the status of the actual research, which I could possibly find myself if I could be bothered. It isn’t really touched on by the articles other than a few cautious-sounding quotes from researchers.

b. Deciding the level of responsibility without knowing the probability of the genetic factors causing problems is impossible. And as long as the chance is not 100% how will you decide whether ‘genes made him do it’? What if other genes cause non-violence: wouldn’t we have to consider the entire genetic code and its total probability of producing an evil person?

c. Mind/brain issues: is it the psychopath’s crazy way of thinking (induced by childhood abuse/fluoridation/whatever) that causes the brain scan results or the psychopath’s brain that forces them to think that way? Here it is assumed that the link is brain structure –> thoughts/actions but I believe there are differences in the brain caused by eg. learning languages too. I think it’s too simplistic to say that the structure is innate and immutable and the result of genetics and causes the characteristics of the mind.

d. Re: different levels of punishment for different genotypes – I’d say that basing punishment on socioeconomic/racial characteristics is required for consistency if you allow genes to affect punishment. The circumstances one grows up in are well-known to be very strongly correlated with criminal activity. Should we start be giving the poor and minorities different sentences because they were influenced by factors they couldn’t control? I sense that people like eg. Michael Laws and the Sensible Sentencing Trust would call that “PC nonsense” or otherwise ridicule it, but would probably have a lot of time for the more “scientific” genetic factors. The question of differential punishment is not a new spectre raised by futuristic-sounding genetic testing, it arises equally for family income at birth vs. crime or any number of other things.

e. Why do I feel such a need to be skeptical of this type of thing? I find myself reflexively looking for reasons why this whole concept must be wrong. Maybe it is because I have a deep belief that while each of us are affected in ways we cannot control by our genes, experiences, and circumstances, the idea that what my life will be like can be more or less figured out based only on the past and the present makes me feel helpless. For some reason, I feel certain that no matter what has led up to this point I do have at least some control over my future and what I will do in it. And I have an even stronger objection to the idea that someone could test me and say “nope, you’ll never be any good at that, but you’d make a great ___” (Call it The Gattaca Objection). But perhaps all of this is just a defensive gesture that has no deep basis and I should embrace determinism?

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