Thursday, February 11, 2010


It was, I recall, over a decade ago that policemen turned up at the prison to take everyone's DNA. It was made clear that this would be done "one way or another", including by force. And so there is a little bag in a fridge somewhere, full of my hair.

Government being as it is, "mission creep" has the potential to cause some problems as a result. Keeping my DNA as a crime detection tool is one thing (and one set of arguments). But what about when it is used for basic research?

The Government is quite happy to have various boffins prodding these genomes, seeking answers to questions that are laden with potential dilemmas.

For example, what if it is asserted that a particular set of genetic markers correlates, on the database, with an increased disposition to violence?

The popular media will, undoubtedly, scream that science can predict future murderers. The political pressure to make use of such information will be immense.

Already people who have committed crimes are detained longer solely on the basis of what they may do in future. A society willing to endorse that is only a short step away from detaining those who have yet to commit a crime, but who seem to have an increased disposition to do so.

Of course, as some wag long ago mooted, the way to slash the crime rate is to imprison everybody with an XY chromosome...


  1. This 'gene' theory is such bad science, even scientist agree, there is a good book on the subject by scientist Stephen Rose called 'Not in our genes', although I have not read it, I went to one of his lectures about his book, here follows a very brief summary...

    Whereas popular scientific theory was claiming to be able to find and isolate genes for things like schizophrenia, homosexuality and even homelessness, Stephen Rose points out that it is a *combination* of genes that will only indicate something like whether the person will have blue eyes or not.

    Therefore those who claim that a social condition such as schizophrenia, homosexuality or homelessness can be reduced to the biology or genetic theory are manipulating science for their own ends; like social control, spreading fear and further stigmatising these groups of people.

  2. I'm not entirely sure where I stand on this one. I am frightened by the prospect of huge databases containing everyone's DNA sequence and the potential for its misuse is staggering. But. The potential for that information to be used to benefit everyone is just as great, so it isn't clear to me what the best course of action is.

    While it is true that you cannot reduce every disease or behaviour down to a person's genes, the key words in this debate are "increased disposition". There is not much debate in scientific circles that there are sets of genes that make a person more likely to react violently under certain circumstances; however, not everyone with those genes does, so there must be a layer of experience on top that ultimately decides whether the person acts on them or not.

    What if, instead of locking up someone with the dangerous gene combinations, we made sure they got the sort of education that enabled them to cope better with situations that made them dangerous?

    Ben, if you could go back in time, and receive such an intervention would you chose it? Or would the invasion of your privacy be too great?

    I would certainly be opposed to such a scheme until I was happy there were sufficient legal safe guards in place to prevent its abuse. As that's almost certainly never going to happen, I guess I have to decide against, for now.

  3. I would also include violent behaviour within the social and not biological category.

    Violence and extreme violence is innate in all of us, it is part of the human condition, but it is social factors and the environment that will bring out this part of us.

    For the vast majority of human beings, it takes a lot for this side to come out, we really have to feel that our backs our against the wall before any strike.

    Look at babies and the new born, they are almost entirely and simply full of love; that is what we are born with. The social world that we grow up in compromises this nature.

    I sat on a National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) board on managing violence on in-patient ward settings (mental health) and was very surprised that the motivation of the other people on the board was primarily to learn and teach new methods of pain compliance, I got into many arguments there, eventually the people with the violence on violence perspective left when I argued that patients who were being violent should have access to and be directed towards the garden at these times.

    We also discussed the alarm system, (something that Ben talked about on a different post), some of the board members were horrified when I suggested an alarm system for patients and replied that they should have only 'silent alarms'! But I am glad to hear that they have been introduced in some places, even with all the fun and games that can come with them.

  4. The pre-emptive arrest has always been attractive. Before the gene theorists came the phrenologists and the physiognomists who claimed that our heads and bodies give all the clues about our real character. Cesare Lombroso reckoned real criminals look like this (thank you, Wikipedia):

    large jaws, forward projection of jaw, low sloping foreheads, high cheekbones, flattened or upturned nose, handle-shaped ears, large chins very prominent in appearance,
    hawk-like noses or fleshy lips,
    hard shifty eyes, scanty beard or baldness, insensitivity to pain, long arms.

    Does this describe the clientele of your nick, Ben?


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