It wasn’t me, it was my genes (pdf)

It wasn’t me, it was my genes
By Tova Ganz and Simi Hinden

As forensic science technology advances by leaps and bounds, the U.S. government is constantly faced with new possibilities to aid them in law enforcement. For example, in 1990 the FBI began a national DNA database called CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) of all sex offenders and other violent felons in order to correctly identify criminals and cross reference them with other crimes (http://www.fbi.gov/hq/lab/ codis/program.htm).

In continued study of criminal behavior, scientists are now searching for a genetic factor predisposing humans to aggressive behavior. As evidence that violence is indeed biologically based, an article printed in Science (Science, 297:851-4, 2002) links violent tendencies with a genetic deficiency in the neurotransmitter-metabolizing enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAOA).

In response to such data, it has been suggested that the United States analyze DNA samples of criminals to search for genetic markers predisposing them to violent behavior. With further research of MAOA deficiency and DNA sequencing of criminals, medications could be developed to treat individuals with a genetic predisposition to aggressive behavior at an early age, which could drastically reduce the nation’s crime rate.

However, the article in Science does not conclusively determine that MAOA by itself is a direct cause of violent behavior.

A s s u m i n g , however, that there is such a ‘violent gene’ yet to be discovered, it is unconstitutional to analyze a criminal’s DNA without their permission..[As] prisoners are unlikely to agree to donate their DNA to a research project that seeks to brand themselves and their relatives as biologically determined criminals.

One must also consider social ramifications in discovering a gene that may label someone as a biologically determined criminal. Children known to have a ‘violence gene’ would almost certainly suffer discrimination. In the 1960s, researchers mistakenly claimed that a disproportionate number of males in prison had an extra Y chromosome. After supposedly linking violence with a single biological factor, it was proposed that all boys be tested for the extra Y chromosome.

Just as parents in the 1960s opposed the law because they feared their children would suffer discrimination, testing children for MAOA deficiency (or any other genetic marker to violence) in today’s society would receive the same vehement opposition because it would create a social class of ‘genetically inferior’ citizens.

In short, research for a theoretical “violence gene” has far more drawbacks than benefits. With lack of evidence pointing to a single gene as cause for violence, as well as the violation of rights that would accompany the search for such a gene, there are far more effective ways allocate our time and resources in preventing crime.

Columbia University Journal of Bioethics
a Quest publication
Volume 3, Number 1 Fall 2004

In February of this year, Korean scientists reported in Nature1 the first steps to engage in human therapeutic cloning. They took an unfertilized egg from a woman and utilized nuclear transfer technology to generate a pre-implanted embryo. The scientists then used this pre-implanted embryo as the tissue source to produce an embryonic human stem cell line that was genetically identical to that of the woman volunteer. As with the continual mapping of the human genome, these discoveries serve as “road signs” on a route to human beings controlling their own biological destiny. With each new advance and discovery, there arises a plethora of ethical questions and dilemmas. For example, bioethical debates regarding the beginnings of human life or when a human embryo attains the moral status of a human being continue both in the Congress, among scientists, and among various religious organizations.

Topics in Biology: Frontiers in Bioethics is a course that addresses these bioethical dilemmas to Columbia University students interested in pursuing careers in sciencebased fields. These students are at the front line of scientific discovery. Their future innovative research and ability to communicate science to the public will elicit, or inspire bioethical debate. Furthermore, they will become essential players in helping society resolve bioethical dilemmas.

The main objectives of this course were: to analyze bioethical dilemmas from a scientific perspective, to increase the sensitivity to and appreciation of bioethical concerns surrounding scientific breakthroughs, and to develop guidelines that either resolve or manage the ethical challenges of scientific discoveries. The authors of these essays are all students at Columbia University, many of which were enrolled in this course. However, all the authors represent aspiring scientists, physicians, lawyers and philosophers whose thoughts and opinions are the heartbeat of this Journal.

Lowres_Bioethics_JOURNAL_2004.pdf (application/pdf Object)


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