Flipping from Genetics

Kevin Sharpe

Interdisciplinarity column for The Union Institute's Network

I raise a study in behavioral genetics that raises several wider questions. Are the violent men of a particular family in the Netherlands prone to a genetic abnormality responsible for their violence? Should the Dutch courts have held the rapist family member fully responsible for his actions, tried him for them, and sentenced him to the maximum term the law provides? Genetics leads to the lens, following Minnie Bruce Pratt’s image of interdisciplinarity, of legal studies, then to that of philosophy, moral studies, theology, and so on.

Think of interdisciplinarity as the heavy diagnostic glasses an ophthalmologist puts on a patient during an eye exam. The disciplines are the different lenses that are flipped down and over each other in multiple combinations. What set of disciplines, and in what combinations, will yield a piercing new insight in the area of study?

Minnie Bruce Pratt, Core Faculty, The Graduate College, The Union Institute.

A schoolteacher in Holland traced a pattern of violence in the male members of his kin to a marriage in 1780. The aggressive outbursts by the men include two arsons, a rape, and an attempted murder where the relative tried to drive his car over his boss after a negative assessment at work. The teacher decided that his family suffers from an inherited trait that produces mental volatility. That study occurred 35 years ago. Grandnieces of the teacher approached Dr Han G. Brunner, a geneticist at University Hospital in Nijmegen, in 1978 for help in understanding why many of their male relatives suffered mentally disability.

Other men of the family, twelve of them, act normally and don’t carry the mutation. One man who does carry it hasn’t undergone a violent outburst for a long time, while his brother who also carries it continues to undergo them. This suggests that the men’s environment and social situation play a role along with the genetic predisposition. “There is not a very simple cause-and-effect relationship here,” Brunner says.

It also leads to the lens of philosophy. How much can we control our behavior and be held accountable as individuals? Does free will exist? If it does, how much free will? Certain men in the Dutch family appear not to enjoy total freedom of choice. Most if not all of us experience the same in our everyday lives. If a person’s blood sugar drops below a critical level and they become crotchety without knowing it, are they responsible for their mood? What is the cut off between (biological) determinism and free will?

Primate and genetic studies lead to the lens of ethics. This in turn begs us to peer through the lens of theology.

Arnhart also suggests that the God who legislated the natural “good” for us through the evolutionary laws of nature is the God of nature. The choice to follow the “good” is to follow God. This “good”--caring for our young, belonging to a group, attaining a high status, and so on--needn’t coincide with what religious traditions teach. Are we talking about the same god, then?

The grandnieces of the Dutch schoolteacher approached Brunner in 1978 about their family’s history. They wanted to know if they carried the abnormality. Brunner thought that a recessive gene in the female X chromosome must cause the problem because only males undergo the violent tendencies. If a woman had a flaw in a gene in an X chromosome, the healthy gene in their other X chromosome would cancel out the bad effects. While women carry two X chromosomes, men carry only one and the defect could show. Brunner’s study found two women who carried the mutation, but neither behaved violently. Then I must ask, are no women who carry this awry gene violent? This leads to another question. Do men in general carry in their genes a greater tendency toward violence than women?