When senseless tragedy strikes, whether it is a natural disaster or an event caused by mankind, it is instinct to search for reasons as to how it happened. Humans feel compelled to understand the processes that lead to these events so that preventative measures can be developed and lives can be saved.
Researchers are asking if it is possible to reduce evil to a genetic code. This process is being further studied to identify an “evil gene” in people like 20 year old, Adam Lanza. He is responsible for shooting his own mother and killing 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut.
Scientific understanding of genetics has come far since Gregor Mendel began working with his pea plants in the 1850s. DNA can be used to map ancestry and as evidence in criminal trials. However, the idea that a gene can be identified to predict and prevent violent crimes is complicated by deeper questions.
Does an Evil Gene Exist?
The existence of a gene that indicates criminally violent tendencies will be difficult to prove—if for no other reason than the small sample size. Thankfully, serial and spree killers make up a very small fraction of the world’s population. If scientists look only at those known to have committed violent crimes instead of conducting random sampling, then they may miss other factors that contribute to the behavior.
If an Evil Gene Exists, How Does it Work?
Scientists already know certain genes increase risk for diseases such as cancer and heart disease. They are also aware that a risk does not equate to a guarantee. A gene which indicates a predisposition to violent behavior might work the same way. It could be a dominant or a recessive trait. It might affect one person more severely than another, causing one person to mercilessly squash every insect they see while another makes headlines for their violent actions. Another possibility is that the gene could be inhibited, or turned off by medication. Identifying the gene, is only the first step of the process. Scientists will need a clear understanding of how it interacts with the rest of the body and whether or not it is a hereditary trait.
If Scientists Discover an Evil Gene, What Can Be Done?
The discovery of a gene that predisposes people to violent behavior could lead to a debate about compulsory screening. It could also add a layer of complexity to legal systems. If the Adam Lanza’s of the world are acting on the whims of a gene, something that cannot be controlled, then punishment for crimes enters the same ethical arena as insanity or intellectual disabilities. Researchers will be called upon to discuss the degree of nature versus nurture when deciding whether or not a violent criminal can be held accountable for their actions.