Genetic Testing of Innate Violence

Genetic Testing of Innate Violence


by Ramona Bledea  The success of this year’s Boston Marathon was inevitably marred by the memory of the devastation that occurred only one year ago. When two bombs went off near the finish line, three people were killed. Two hundred and sixty-four more were badly injured.

The rate of violent crime in the United States is on the rise. Results from the latest National Crime Victimization Survey, performed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2012, indicate a sharp 15% increase in the number of reported violent crimes since 2011.[i] The consequences of these statistics on our society beg for measures to be taken. If tragedies such as the Boston bombing could be prevented with merely a sample of the perpetrators’ DNA, the cost to the criminal would inarguably be worth the resulting benefit to the public.

Recent technological and biological advances would allow us to do just that. The existence of “violence” genes, such as MAOA, that code for a tendency towards aggression is supported by recent research.[ii] Cases such as the Boston Marathon bombing, in which the accused test positive for the genes when screened for their trial, have led to proposals that the tests be performed long beforehand. Telltale behavioral signs, evident from childhood, are linked with the genes’ expression. According to sociologist Nikolas Rose, author of “Screen and Intervene: Governing Risky Brains,” there is a valuable opportunity to perform genetic testing in children who symptoms of aggression, as a means of identifying predispositions to violence before the damage is done.[iii]

Much of the criticism surrounding such social genetic testing is based on the potential for harm to individuals possessing the genes. Genetic discrimination, for example, is a reasonable fear, but also one that can be addressed by privacy regulations surrounding genetic data. Legislation already rightfully limits the accessibility of our health records. For information as sensitive as genetic data, even more restrictions should be imposed. With maximized privacy, the power to disclose information beyond the doctor’s office is in the individual’s hands.

However, addressing discrimination of any kind based on genetic information is also a matter of changing societal views towards the issue. Changing the societal view will also rely upon the strength of the scientific data behind the theory. Indeed, critics argue that the process as it stands today is not perfectly predictive. As with any predictive science, there will be a percentage of people who possess the gene who would not have turned to violence. There is certainly violence that occurs without genetic bases, and there are certainly other factors, aside from genetics, that contribute to violent behavior. I am not advocating that we ignore these issues. Rather, it should motivate further research into the field. This is about taking a turn in the right direction, about realistically seeking progress by hopefully reducing (not curing), the rate of violent criminal acts.

Presently, the risk factors in children with the gene primarily include antisocial, impulsive, violent or aggressive behavior, and other mental illneses.[iii] But once a child is tested for violence, how should intervention be sought? Ethics and minimizing interference with quality of life should be held as the highest priorities. Institutionalization and/or separation from peers are probably far too extreme. Rather, the best current approaches would likely take the form of recommendations for certain psychological interventions, such as long-term psychotherapy, and stricter behavioral observation.[ii] This would also allow for the autonomy of the individual or their parents to remain intact.

Support for these methods lies in epigenetics, a field with a growing body of evidence suggesting that our genes are not fixed. While we cannot change what we inherit, we do have control over what is expressed, which gives us the key to our own fates, and that of future generations. With further research, the details of what lifestyle choices influence which genes, and how, are becoming clearer.

The social implications of testing are beneficial to the public, and to screened individuals. A life spent in prison is not a pleasant one, and no parent wishes to see his or her child face the possibility of such an outcome. Thus, if treatment for the predisposition exists, it is a moral responsibility to offer it. It is crucial, also, to keep in mind that the diagnosis of being high risk for aggression, and violence in adulthood is a malleable one that can change over time with proper treatment. It is not necessarily a lifelong burden. Thus, since treatment for the predisposition exists, it is our moral responsibility to offer it.

The justice system that is currently in place allows for a variety of genetic testing to be done on the accused once a crime has been committed, as was seen in the Boston Marathon bombing case. While an effective means for gaining evidence, this is not treating the source of the problem. It is addressing a symptom after it is too late. Genetic testing may thus be the next logical and moral step towards reducing the rate of violent crime. Further research must be supported to minimize the flaws in the science behind the process, and to expand its enormous potential for saving lives.


[i] "Data Collection: National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)." Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). (accessed May 6, 2014).

[ii] Wasserman, David. "Is There Value in Identifying Individual Genetic Predispositions to violence?." The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 32, no. 1 (2004): 24-33.

[iii] Rose, N.. "'Screen And Intervene': Governing Risky Brains." History of the Human Sciences 23, no.1 (2010): 79-105.

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