The warrior gene: Epigenetic considerations

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DOI: 10.1080/14636778.2011.597982
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Abstract
The discovery of a gene variant linked to aggression and impulsivity in young males led to the term “warrior gene” being coined. A New Zealand researcher linked the slightly higher incidence of this variant in Māori people to the traits that led to criminality and tendencies identified in violent offenders. The net result was to medicalize or individualize the higher incidence of criminal activity in indigenous groups and shift the focus away from the gene–environment interaction that underlies all genetically based psychological traits. The result was to further marginalize groups in society already subject to disadvantage and to undermine attempts to relate the expression of genetic tendencies to the epigenetic influences that govern gene expression. In the warrior gene case the neurological correlates of violent and criminal behavior only added fuel to the fire distracting attention from the real basis of antisocial behavior and resulting ethnic injustice.
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The warrior gene: epigenetic
considerations
Grant Gillett a & Armon J. Tamatea b
a Otago Bioethics Centre , University of Otago Medical School ,
New Zealand
b Psychological Research, Department of Corrections , New
Zealand
Published online: 21 Nov 2011.
To cite this article: Grant Gillett & Armon J. Tamatea (2012) The warrior gene: epigenetic
considerations, New Genetics and Society, 31:1, 41-53, DOI: 10.1080/14636778.2011.597982
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14636778.2011.597982
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The warrior gene: epigenetic considerations
Grant Gillett
a
and Armon J. Tamatea
b
a
Otago Bioethics Centre, University of Otago Medical School, New Zealand;
b
Psychological Research, Department of Corrections, New Zealand
The discovery of a gene variant linked to aggression and impulsivity in young
males led to the term “warrior gene” being coined. A New Zealand researcher
linked the slightly higher incidence of this variant in Ma
¯ori people to the traits
that led to criminality and tendencies identified in violent offenders. The net
result was to medicalize or individualize the higher incidence of criminal
activity in indigenous groups and shift the focus away from the gene
environment interaction that underlies all genetically based psychological
traits. The result was to further marginalize groups in society already subject
to disadvantage and to undermine attempts to relate the expression of genetic
tendencies to the epigenetic influences that govern gene expression. In the
warrior gene case the neurological correlates of violent and criminal
behavior only added fuel to the fire distracting attention from the real basis
of antisocial behavior and resulting ethnic injustice.
Keywords: epigenetics; criminality; socialization
We were a bunch of guys who shared the same experiences ... We rejected a system
that abused and rejected us ...I used to get into fights .. . I loved fighting ... I’ve been
stabbed, cut, had bones broken, I’ve broken heads, I’ve punched out eyes ...I love it!
(A “retired” New Zealand gang member)
1
The controversy
The warrior gene controversy involves the alleged predisposition towards violence
and crime arising from a variant of the normal MAOA gene and thought to be more
prevalent in some ethnic groups, and particularly NZ Ma
¯ori and Pacific Islanders.
The “finding” became the basis of a view that criminality and violence in those
groups expressed intrinsic genetic and neurological factors in their young male
members.
The genetics emerged from an investigation into the observation that whereas
childhood abuse and maltreatment are very strongly associated with antisocial
New Genetics and Society
Vol. 31, No. 1, March 2012, 41 53
Corresponding author. Email: grant.gillett@otago.ac.nz
ISSN 1463-6778 print/ISSN 1469-9915 online
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behavior not all children who experience “erratic, coercive and punitive parenting
... are at risk of developing conduct disorder, antisocial personality symptoms and
of becoming violent offenders” (Caspi et al. 2002, p. 851). A genetic variation was
also found in the gene coding for MonoAmine Oxidase A (MAOA), found on the
X chromosome. Higher MAOA levels lead to lower levels of dopamine and ser-
otonin in the brain predisposing the individual to violent behavior, aggression,
and risk taking in animals and humans, a combination referred to as a “warrior”
type of mentality (Gibbons 2004). Note that this medicalized concept of
“warrior” is at variance with more traditional notions in that the original
concept suggests:
(1) discipline (rather than impulsive and reckless conduct with little consider-
ation for consequences); and
(2) behavior guided by broader, goal-directed (rather than entitlement and self-
interest) motives.
Caspi et al. (2002, p. 852) drew several conclusions from their study:
.Circumstantial evidence suggests the hypothesis that childhood maltreatment
predisposes most strongly to adult violence among children whose MAOA is
insufficient to constrain maltreatment-induced changes to neurotransmitter
systems.
.Deficient MAOA activity may dispose the organism toward neural hyper-
reactivity to threat. These findings provide initial evidence that a functional
polymorphism in the MAOA gene moderates the impact of early childhood
maltreatment on the development of antisocial behavior in males.
The announcement of an association between a variant of the MAOA gene related
to low MonoAmine Oxidase (and therefore higher dopamine and serotonin levels
in the brain) provoked a great deal of interest in forensic psychiatry. Studies of pat-
terns in the incidence of the genetic variant soon followed.
One such study looked at ethnic variations in the gene variant and disclosed a
significantly higher rate in Chinese, African, and Polynesian samples. The
authors came to a cautious but nevertheless controversial conclusion about
“warrior” tendencies. The suggestion was soon taken up by interested parties to
explain the disproportionate crime rate in young Polynesian men, a move echoed
elsewhere in the world where similar ethnic differences are observed even
though the scientists involved have warned against such incautious interpretations
(Lea and Chambers 2007). The findings in Ma
¯ori men and the simple “scientific
story” of a differential racial distribution of a genetic predisposition to violence
and crime was soon attacked from a scientific perspective.
There is no direct evidence to support the claim that the MAOA gene confers
“warrior” qualities on Ma
¯ori males, either modern or ancestral. Furthermore, the
assumption that a genetic association in Caucasians applies in Ma
¯ori; the use of
the “warrior gene” label in the context of human MAOA aggression studies;
42 G. Gillett and A.J. Tamatea
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generalizing from a sample of 17 individuals not representative of the general
Ma
¯ori population; and the lack of scientific investigative journalism have combined
to do science and Ma
¯ori a disservice (Merriman and Cameron 2007).
A further critique stressed the need for balanced reporting of scientific findings:
when the researchers ventured to explain the impact of the monoamine oxidase gene
on antisocial behaviours without reference to other contributing social, cultural and
environmental influences, they failed to provide “socially robust” knowledge.
(Wensley and King 2008, p. 508)
That critique needs to be deepened and extended if we are adequately to address a
widespread phenomenon in contemporary research in behavioral genetics and its
use in forensic psychology and psychiatry. The critique is especially needed in
post-colonial societies and it begins with the metaphysics of genotypes and
phenotypes.
The metaphysics of phenotype
Consider, for a moment, the fact that in any one of us the genetic information in
retinal cells is exactly the same as that found in the cells of our big toes. The
tissue in the eye is, however, profoundly different from that in the big toe, provok-
ing questions that require a deep understanding of the ways in which inheritance
and genetic information contribute to the formation of traits in a living human
being.
Metaphysics, at least in contemporary philosophy, encompasses a developed
view of how something is formed and functions as a part of the natural world.
On that reading, our approach to genetics and metaphysics shifts from an obsession
with the “molecules of life” to something akin to what a Ma
¯ori thinker would call
whakapapa a complex structure of knowledge about the thing and its place in the
world (Roberts et al. 2004). DNA sequences have a place in this body of knowl-
edge but so do factors attributable to contextual expression and repression. The
more complex story begins with intracellular transcription and gene expression,
processes that are under a diverse set of epigenetic influences, only some of
which we understand, and it carries on in the same vein (Copland and Gillett
2003). What a gene codes for in a given individual at a given time seems to
have a great deal to do with the place of the gene in the complex totality that is
the living human body and its adaptation to a particular context. The integrated
whole organism and the place of any cell within it influence how a gene is
expressed. We could use the philosophical term “formal causation” the way in
which an organ or part is shaped by mechanisms that fit it for its role in an
entity with a certain form (e.g. that of a living human being). The formally
shaped place in the working body is most often understood to dictate why the
heart or any other organ has developed through phylogeny and ontogeny so that
it functions as it does and can be seen as analogous to the way that the human
body and human psychology are shaped by the need for an individual to adapt
New Genetics and Society 43
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to a particular environmental or ecological niche formed by its context of life. In
fact we could say that any biological feature of a human being has a story of
genetic inheritance and a story of (ontogenetic) development and there are
certain transgenerational features attributable, in part at least, to genetic tendencies
and in part to context or cultural and familial factors. A radical conclusion follows:
the gene is an abstraction from this complex interactive reality. That conclusion is
highly relevant to the science, ethics and politics of the “warrior gene” and anti-
social or criminal behavior.
The neuropsychology and biopsychology of the warrior
Antisocial and violent behavior may or may not be associated with psychological
measures that indicate an underlying personality disorder. Those who seem to have
the latter are more likely to show a persistent pattern of violence towards others and
an emotional impairment in their personal relationships whereas most young
people who fall foul of the criminal justice system do not have these features
and do not go on to have criminal careers (Hemphill et al. 1998). The work of
Moffitt and others indicated that those children whose neurological problems inter-
acted within criminogenic environments over time (and developmental stages)
developed significant personality pathology (so-called “life-course-persistent” anti-
social behavior), whereas another identified group with fewer neurological impair-
ments and more flexible capacity for social adjustment may experience relatively
brief periods of antisocial behavior as part of normal development. Those
periods of traumatic change reflect among other things susceptibility to peer
role-modeling during adolescence so that the phenomenon has been called “adoles-
cent-limited” antisocial behavior (Moffitt 1993, Moffitt et al. 2001). However,
youth offenders in New Zealand have the highest rate of recidivism (compared
with adult offenders) with nearly 25% being re-imprisoned within six months of
release, and approximately 72% being re-imprisoned within five years, with 70%
(of a sample of 69) having received sentences for serious violence/sexual offend-
ing (Wilson and Rolleston 2004). It is tempting to combine this statistic with the
ethnic mix in prison populations to confirm the “warrior gene” story but a
deeper inquiry reveals something else going on.
Current research suggests that the personality disorder most often associated
with criminal violence is produced by a malignant confluence of biological (includ-
ing genetic) and socialization factors “that interactively predispose to antisocial be-
haviour” (Raine 2002, p. 311). Current clinical and psychiatric exemplars of the
complex relationship between biological and environmental contributions to resul-
tant criminal behavior are referred to as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) pat-
terns (Millon and Davis 1996, Millon and Grossman 2007). For instance,
individuals who present with traits consistent with ASPD may engage in seemingly
impulsive acts that reflect an irresponsible (and even deviant) interactive and cog-
nitive style, and the effects of corrupt or degraded social relationships that justify
44 G. Gillett and A.J. Tamatea
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externalized behavior with minimal remorse or consideration for the (violated)
rights of others. But such expectations should immediately ring alarm bells
about socialization and learning history. Such presentations can be further compli-
cated with paranoid or even sadistic impulses (which entail their own complex pat-
terns of production).
The interaction of hereditability (or nature) and upbringing (nurture) seems to be
crucial in producing the full-blown disorder so that socio-political contexts in
which upbringing is conducive to the learning of socially appropriate habits of
action and relationship have a marked protective effect on individuals who other-
wise evince the biological risk factors for violence, aggression, and antisocial ten-
dencies. It seems that the natural human propensity for empathy and sensitivity to
the suffering or negative emotions of others (indicated by psycho-physiological
tests and biological measures of brain structure and function) is defective in
some people especially males but does not seriously affect those who may
have the behavioral dispositions blunted by a benign upbringing (Raine 2002).
Lykken’s (1995, 2006) typology of antisocial personality types recognizes that a
definable sub-population of antisocial individuals can be distinguished from the
“common garden variety criminal” by (1) marked persistence in their antisociality,
and (2) a different level of susceptibility to behavior modification. The differences
lead him to distinguish sociopaths, identified by primarily significant environ-
mental precursors (e.g. childhood abuse and neglect) and relatively greater amen-
ability to therapeutic rehabilitation, from psychopaths, identified by a (probable)
genetic predisposition to engage in antisocial acts regardless of the apparent
quality of their social developmental background. The latter are, despite the
absence of clear-cut scientific evidence, often considered “untreatable” (Salekin
2002, Harris and Rice 2006). The interactive effects of gene and environment
may imply, however, that the malignant confluence produces enduring behavioral
problems during a critical period of childhood development.
The factors statistically associated with a tendency to crime and violence in some
young men have been investigated by neuroscientific studies (both physiological
and fMRI) that show some characteristic findings:
(1) criminal psychopaths have defective responses to fear-based or aversive
conditioning (Lykken 1957), particularly in the “limbic prefrontal circuit
(amygdala, orbito-frontal cortex, insula, and anterior cingulate)” areas of
the brain (Birbaumer et al. 2005, p. 803);
(2) criminals with severe social deprivation or abuse in their developmental
history have relatively intact brain function whereas those with no such
history showed significant defects in the areas involved in executive and
emotional intelligence (Raine 2002);
(3) men with psychopathic personality disorder are relatively impaired by “a
disturbance that sets in at the level of secondary emotions, such as embar-
rassment and guilt” (Damasio 2000, p. 129);
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(4) amygdala dysfunction, associated with psychopathy, is found in responses
of criminal psychopaths in an emotional memory task involving words of
“negative valence” (Kiehl et al. 2000; see also Blair 2006)
(5) “empathy ... our ability to share the feelings (emotions and sensations) of
others ... relies on sensorimotor cortices as well as limbic and para-limbic
structures” concerned with emotive factors to do with interpersonal
exchanges (Singer 2006, p. 855; see also Deeley et al. 2006) and
(6) psychopaths have a much less developed response to facial expressions
associated with distress or negative emotions than other people have
(Marsh and Blair 2008).
These findings support the view that our natural tendencies to adjust to others
and learn from them how to treat each other are vulnerable to contextual factors
in our socialization (as illustrated by the quotation at the beginning of this
article). They can be misinterpreted as confirming biological essentialist claims
but in fact show that the natural tendencies to react to harm or obtain what we
want by being aggressive are transformed by transactions with powerful forces
in our social environment (i.e. “socialization”). We learn to moderate our natural
tendencies by instruction and correction, both of which are heavily dependent on
registering the reactions of others (particularly their approval and disapproval). It
seems that the varieties of “pain” that normally signal that an action is undesirable
or inappropriate cause a responsive shame in oneself (thereby configuring one’s
“habits of the heart” so that they reflect the realities of the human life-world and
“what in personal and social life counts as something” (Williams 1985, p. 201).
This pain, it seems, is not felt by a person predisposed to psychopathy in the
same way as it is felt by others. But this is an impairment not “total blindness”
and, what is more, it might be expected to impede the development of other-con-
sidering virtues or an appreciation of the moral incentive to be considerate
towards others but it can hardly be said to derail completely the ability to register,
or to take account of, the effects of one’s actions on others. More is required to get
us to criminal violence and aggression.
More is found in Aristotle’s account of moral training where he argues that we
learn through pain to avoid what is immoral or vicious and cultivate in ourselves
habits of virtuous action and reaction (1925, esp. Bk II). However the relevant
pain may not come from “the rod” so much as from a nurtured sensitivity to the
distress of others a personality characteristic that many who commit violent
crimes or show antisocial tendencies in childhood conspicuously lack. Indeed
emotional competence, the result of a certain kind of parental engagement with
the child, is considered to be a significant lack in the developmental histories of
individuals with noted callous and unemotional traits in childhood and adolescence
(Frick et al. 2000, Frick 2007).
The relevant training (or “induction” of a prosocial conscience) produces a suite
of behaviors adapted to living among others without being engaged in constant
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hostility, suspicion, self-protection and counter-aggression. The habits of the heart
and action conducive to trusting and peaceable living among others are, of course,
not easily accessible in a context where deprivation, resentment, injustice and mar-
ginalization are prevalent because there the relatively powerful (parents and adult
role-models) are themselves in hostile defensive mode and so those who are less
powerful experience the backlash. Impulsivity, a problem that is exaggerated in
the adolescent male developing brain, combines with this malignant context to
create a climate of violence and a lack of emotionally nurturing and life-enhancing
engagement with others. This is the cycle of violence and abuse to which the
“warrior gene” or genetic variant makes its bearer less than resilient.
Being sensitive to others (or rightly affected by the lives of others) is not fostered
in a context where one must be on guard against hostility and exploitation but that is
the socio-political niche in which many ethnic minority and marginalized children
live their lives. The lessons of survival in such an environment do not encourage
interpersonal good will and warranted trust in others; such attitudes are likely to
lead to repeated disappointment and betrayal, both intentional and unintentional,
often fueled by the effects of substance abuse and the deceptions of addiction.
Beyond interpersonal sensitivity is the step of building regard for others into
one’s motivational set. If a young person somehow does learn to understand and
respond to the vulnerabilities and emotional nuances of the lives of others, then
it is a further attainment to allow those to become part of a motivational framework
primarily oriented towards one’s own satisfactions. Only when that development
occurs, as it naturally does in those who appreciate the fragility of others and
our mutual engagement with them, do we find human beings who evince a
natural sense of responsibility and consideration of the type fundamental to a
caring and sustaining human life-world. For some of our at-risk young people,
whatever their genetic predispositions, that is a dream world. For those inclined
to be impulsive and less than fully moved by the distress of others (Blair 1999)
these contextual factors would predictably result in callous and self-serving
social strategies. Anger and desperation might then add cruelty and enjoyment of
violence into the mix.
The genesis of violence
If antisocial personality and behavior result from a malignant confluence of biologi-
cal (including genetic) and socialization factors “that interactively predispose to
antisocial behaviour” (Raine 2002, p. 311), then we need to look at the contexts
of “socialization” that we have gestured at already to understand the developmental
trajectory of violence in young offenders. As soon as we do so, we find a sorry
picture that details the injustice of certain disadvantageous and, particularly post-
colonial, socio-political contexts.
The socio-politico-cultural contexts where a child is likely to experience poverty,
crowded homes, poorly developed educational and cultural resources, demoralized
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adults, suspicion and resentment, and anger and violence are those in which we find
the marginalized, the oppressed, and the alienated. These are particularly prevalent
in post-colonial contexts where indigenous people fare worse, on almost all socio-
economic indicators, than the colonizers. It is easy to generalize the attribution error
of the warrior gene and conclude that this is because indigenous or displaced ethnic
groups are constitutionally less capable of adapting to “a level playing field” of
modern opportunity. But this is a fiction perpetrated by those who occupy privi-
leged strata in such mixed contexts. It is not a message that retains any credibility
for those who live in ghettos where attitudes of injustice are fostered because they
track the political reality. Indeed, the causes of antisociality are complex and, as has
been emphasized already, are likely to be best explained by interactive approaches
that recognize the interplay of developmental, biological, social, and situational
variables.
Genotypes and phenotypes
The conclusion of the discussion so far is that a phenotype is a contextually elabo-
rated lived human identity that manifests in certain ways the genotype it is based on
but is not fully determined by that genotype. Other aspects that might be particu-
larly important in the psychological characteristics that form an important part of
a person’s identity are the social, cultural (or subcultural) and political forces
that a person is surrounded by. These constitute what Foucault (1984) refers to
as a set of technologies that have exerted power over the body. He goes so far as
to say that the human psyche/soul is “the present correlative of a certain technology
of power over the body” (Foucault 1984, p. 176) leaving it open to further inquiry
what the relevant and complex “technology of power” might be.
We might include within the technology of power a number of elements: (1)
technologies of culture and (2) technologies of colonization. The former are
evident to commentators on ghetto and youth culture in urban and disadvantaged
settings. They are discordant songs of experience (often expressed as rap music)
where the relevant experience is often resentful at inequities and injustices, politi-
cally dissenting, anti-establishment, and violent. The technologies of colonization
are pervasive and difficult to quantify but very real throughout the new world (or
worlds). They are evident when statistics about education, socio-economic
status, forensic profiles, health indicators, and real political effectiveness are exam-
ined. Colonized people fare badly on all of these counts and the children of the
colonized notice the inequities. When we consider the oft cited epigenetic factors
in gene expression, we often narrow our gaze to cellular or tissue environments
or their immediate correlates such as nutritional data, and epidemiological
factors biomedically associated with adverse health outcomes but the wider epige-
netic context is the target of our remarks and, in the area of forensic variations, that
context is far more likely to be important than the other factors mentioned (although
many of them have knock-on effects on mental health and general fitness for
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functioning in wider society). The relevant epigenetic knowledge shifts the expla-
nation from a focus on variables likely to be included in a health based model to
those which are inextricable from arguments about social justice and the mitigation
of political harms, often completely neglected in biomedical discussions. When we
broaden the focus in that way we find ourselves confronted with the many complex
and interwoven layers of discourse that reveal important facets of the influences and
formative events in the lives of those who run headlong up against the forensic and
criminal justice systems.
Understanding a phenomenon
Any event investigated as part of the scientific enterprise can be seen to have many
layers of meaning; think, for instance of my action of rapidly contracting the extensors
of my elbow and the pronators of my forearm and flexors of my fingers so that my
clenched hand travels to a point 75 cm in front of my face, a point at which your
face is located. This could be described in other terms, for instance, as an aggressive
or violent action punching you, it could be described as an act done in anger or the
heat of the moment or as an act with the calculated effect of warning you off doing any-
thing to harm a friend of mine. All these descriptions may be true but they cast the act in
very different lights and are likely to be relevant when different questions are asked.
Foucault, deeply interested in complex historico-socio-politico-cultural phenom-
ena (such as my punching somebody), notes that our enquiries aim, “to distinguish
among events, to differentiate the networks and levels to which they belong, and to
reconstitute the lines along which they are connected and engender one another”
(Foucault 1984, p. 56).
The necessary multiplicity of such an inquiry has moved Bas van Fraassen, a
contemporary philosopher of science, to coin the term “constructive empiricism”
(also known as “empiricist structuralism”) in an attempt to capture the idea that
we assemble evidence, including scientific evidence, according to different net-
works of explanation which bring out different facets of the events and objects
we are trying to understand (van Fraassen 2008). In Foucault’s terms, a multi-
faceted understanding engages different “regimes of truth” each with its own
preferred methods and ways of demonstrating the nature of the phenomenon inves-
tigated. Some of these ways of characterizing the object of interest link to certain
types of thinking and others lead to quite other modes of understanding. We could
think of the different images of the world and what is going on in it as reflections in
a mirror highlighting particular aspects of the complex reality we are caught up in.
But the mirror can also produce distortions making certain things stand out very
clearly and others diminish in their apparent importance.
The post-colonial context foregrounds what we might call a Pa
¯keha
¯mirror of the
world where ways of knowing are focused on the scientific ethos of the enlighten-
ment and its image of human beings. In this epistemology there is a hidden
agenda of forensic and economic individualism whereby each human being is a
New Genetics and Society 49
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self-contained and self-directing individual able, in principle, to be isolated from
others and from their context and to carry the merit or blame for whatever s/he
does. When a human being creates problems in society so as to come into
contact with the criminal justice system, this mode of understanding focuses on
the individual, implicitly normalizing or backgrounding the context or conditions
of his or her life, and leaves us only two ways of proceeding: either (1) there is
an inner dysfunction or (2) there is a moral failing. The former leads to attributions
of mental disorder (and medicalization) and the latter to the machinery of criminal
justice and social stigmatization. In both responses, personal agency is effectively
diminished (either through diagnosis and treatment or through coercion) despite
being theoretically foregrounded (by the whole criminal justice system) and the
scope for an individual to “negotiate” their identity is negated so that s/he
becomes vulnerable to an “imposed” (and more acceptable) identity.
It is into this (western individualist) regime of truth that the forensic saga of attri-
buting antisocial behavior to the individual strikes a concordant note. What is
obscured from view is the fragment of the human life-world that the person (who
was, like all of us, a child before an adult) has entered. That missing (contextual)
truth and the patterns of behavior resulting from adaptation to a context of the crim-
inogenic kind must however be confronted if we take the science seriously. The real
science behind “the warrior gene” tells us that some children have weakened resili-
ence when they are placed in a context that causes hostility, aggression, self-loathing,
exaggerated tendencies to see the world as a threatening place, and heightened reac-
tions to threat and perceived threat. But that is the life-world of the marginalized, stig-
matized, and disadvantaged of the world who are neglected, abused, and exploited. It
is very understandable that a world of that kind should result in a type of relational
embodiment or being-with-others that is antisocial or criminally violent.
A neuroethical diagnosis and deconstruction
The idea of “the warrior gene” crystallizes a western individualist way of looking at
human behavior, social structure, and crime. It is based on the idea of defective indi-
viduals who carry within them the seeds of badness (moral or constitutional or dys-
functional or some combination of all three). This political “regime of truth” is often
aided and abetted by reductive biomedical science and popular genetics. There are
very sound reasons to worry about the resulting view of crime and human nature
whenever it occurs. It results in an attribution error that perpetuates injustice and dis-
crimination and that intensifies social unrest, so as to make everybody worse off
especially when we formulate reactive (and often punitively focused) public policies
such as “boot camps,” “three-strikes” laws, and “sensible sentencing” (a spin on the
vengeful cry for increased non-parole prison sentences). A deepened analysis of the
problem illustrated by the warrior gene controversy reveals that the real science
should cause misgivings about such reactions and the further problems they engen-
der. In fact. these misgivings have a wider relevance to genetics and society than just
50 G. Gillett and A.J. Tamatea
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the issues discussed in post-colonial settings even if those settings cast the debate in
terms which demand attention by scientists, social commentators, legislators, and
policymakers because the inherent assumptions and uncritical thinking are intoler-
able in an enlightened and caring community.
The role of the mirror world of the Pa
¯keha
¯, and the politics of “the free world”
with its focus on individuals, their tendencies (including pathological tendencies)
and their personal responsibility within a system of documentation and individual
accountability, is important in the creation of the warrior gene myth and its effect in
our thinking. The warrior gene myth is a symptom of our modern malaise and the
failure of our quest for a sustainable moral framework within which to discuss iden-
tity, psychology, socio-cultural issues, and political conflict. We can, in fact,
describe a “warrior gene effect” as being an artifact of a social system that deals
with human beings on the basis of the myth of liberal individuality. Perhaps by
extension, it may be further asked: does acceptance of a “warrior gene” encourage
observers to be less critical of the underlying causal factors of an individual’s
destructive behavior and of the causal effects of the subsequent penalty so that
we become trapped in a cycle of criminality that our society is helping to create?
Perhaps a way forward is to go back to “first principles” and unpack what the
“warrior gene” means in real world contexts. Although there is little argument
with the claim that interpersonal (and moral) conduct is influenced by genetic
factors, to allocate a categorical descriptor, particularly one as dramatic as
“warrior gene,” effectively reifies an otherwise complicated set of interacting
variables. Furthermore, such “branding” serves only to distort reality and create
misleading findings reflecting scientific and political convenience and a media-
friendly package of poorly understood concepts conducive to moral panic. The pre-
dictable consequence is that such a view impedes “new thinking” about what is, in
reality, a manifestation of a complex constellation of psychological and behavioral
attributes mediated by novel and ongoing environmental interactions and social
experiences. The solution lies not in less scholarship and science but in more; it
requires that our scholarship be as sophisticated in its ethics and its insights into
humanity as it is in its technology and scientific ingenuity. In that way we can
move towards truths about ourselves concerning matters of the psyche or soul
that the tools of bio-medical science could never hope adequately to investigate.
Note
1. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of
the Department of Corrections (New Zealand).
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