Of evil mice and men: Can we blame crime on our genes?

This week, a number of newspapers announced an intriguing scientific discovery. The Telegraph reported the discovery of a psychological “root of all evil”, while The Express announced the possibility of a cure for said evil. Villainishness solved on a prescription: what a time to be alive!

If you haven’t already guessed, these headlines are a touch hyperbolic. For starters, we’re talking about evil MICE, and as Eddie Izzard might suggest, it’s quite hard to picture what a truly evil mouse looks like.

Whether or not the findings can be replicated in humans, what the research actually highlights is fascinating nonetheless. As a quick summary, male mice were trained to act like jerks, fighting and bullying smaller, weaker mice. The scientists tracked brain activity within their tiny mousey skulls, and discovered that the ventrolateral part of the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMHvl) activated before they committed a violent act – even when they were just travelling to another compartment to assault a fellow rodent, and before they could see or smell their victim. Their mouse crimes were, in other words, visibly premeditated in a small section of their brains. Activity would then increase as much as tenfold after the target mouse was spotted.

“The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence.” – A Clockwork Orange

The researchers from New York University believe that if this scales up from mouse to man, it might be possible to spot warning signs of human violence – bullying, stalking, sexual or violent assault, you name it. The study’s senior investigator gave the newspapers their dystopian hook by pointing out that theoretically violent behaviour could be controlled, even if it was “a distant possibility,” and only “if related ethical and legal issues could be resolved”.

So that’s the cure part – kind of – but the root of all evil? Hardly. Aside from anything else, to quote myself earlier: “male mice were trained to act like jerks, fighting and bullying smaller, weaker mice”. Trained: in other words, Nurture 1, Nature 0.evil_mouse_ethics_of_crime_and_punishment

The search for a criminal gene is centuries old, but any wish for a clear-cut solution – like phrenology, the belief that skull shape indicated a criminal mind – either doesn’t exist, or is so subtle that we’re yet to pick up on it.

It’s true there are some biological that many criminals share. A high level of testosterone is one, CDH13 and monoamine oxidase A genes are two others, and every now and then a study will add another layer to our evolving criminal efit – such as having a low resting heart rate. We also know that criminal behaviour can come as a direct result of changes in the brain – take the strange case of the loving father who developed a sudden interest in child pornography, triggered following a brain tumour – but as handy as it would be for our justice system, there’s nothing black-and-white that guarantees a criminal.clockwork_orange_criminal_gene

While all these extra indicators are interesting in isolation, perhaps a more puzzling question is what on Earth we’d do if we found the perfect answer. Culturally, the topic has had a fair airing in literature, from being able to pre-empt crimes in Minority Report, to reprogramming violent offenders in A Clockwork Orange. In practice, the moral dilemmas discussed within are just scratching the surface.

For starters, things could get pretty authoritarian pretty fast. Tested as an infant to see if you carry a likely criminal gene, and then – in a best-case scenario – monitored as high-risk. A worst-case scenario is instant incarceration or some kind of gene editing to prevent you from proving the science right. The absolute worst-case scenario would be some kind of eugenicist solution.

“If we prove that some people are genetically predisposed to have criminal tendencies, then to what degree are they culpable for their actions?”

That should trouble those of a liberal bent, but probably not as much as the dilemma it puts on our creaky criminal justice system, which already has known scientific issues. Currently, trial by jury assumes everyone has free will, and equal opportunity to operate within the law. If we prove that some people are genetically predisposed to have criminal tendencies, then to what degree are they culpable for their actions? There’s a strong case that their sentence should be more lenient than for someone without the extenuating genetic circumstances.criminal_gene_justice

Likewise, for those who believe that prison works, this should raise its own red flags. If a criminal can abdicate responsibility for their actions and legitimately blame their genetics or their brain, then crime and punishment ceases to be a disincentive: the crime was inevitable, so how could I fight it? Not only that, but what if the very fact that you, as a law-abiding person, haven’t committed a crime is nothing to do with your moral code, and everything to do with you getting a lucky roll of the genetic dice?

“These questions can’t be answered with laboratory mice, no matter how evil.”

And what would prisons be for? It would be perverse to punish someone for their actions if they’re not a choice, so it can’t be there for punishment. On the other hand, the very fact that there was no choice suggests it’s not a very effective deterrent. Rehabilitation, perhaps – but what would that look like, and how would it even work?

These questions can’t be answered with laboratory mice, no matter how evil. But if research continues to pull on this intriguing-looking thread, we’d better line up some decent answers, should the intertwined yarn ball of ethics, free will and crime start to unravel before our very eyes.

READ NEXT: The psychological problems of the courtroom

Images: KylaBorg, Anastasia Alen, Genista, Clyde Robinson and James Cridland used under Creative Commons  

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