Criminal Genes?

Can genes predispose a person to crime? Some American lawyers are now using such a “genetic defense” as mitigation for convicted murderers. Are there genes for alcoholism? Or genes that make you gay, religious, prone to divorce, or even genes that determine how you vote? If you believe the claims of some of the scientists who call themselves “behavior geneticists”, many aspects of human behavior are in some way laid down by our genes.

Claims of this type have a long, discredited history, stretching back through the eugenics movement of the early 20th century to its acknowledged ‘father,’ Francis Galton, in Victorian England. But whatever the eugenics movement’s extravagant claims and social crimes, including the forced sterilization of thousands (mainly women) in Europe and the US, today it is supposed to be different. Today, the claims are supposedly backed by advances in real molecular science, in genetics.

Of course, many social problems run in families; our societies are not egalitarian; people living in poverty tend to rear children who live in poverty. This doesn’t, however, make poverty genetic. Similarly the children of rich parents may inherit wealth, but this is social, not genetic inheritance.