When I first heard that the medical examiner for the Sandy Hook shooting had asked for a genetic profile of the apparent shooter, Adam Lanza, I suggested on Twitter that this would end badly: The results will almost certainly be close to meaningless, but any variants formerly associated with particular behaviors, rightly or wrongly, will get blown horrifically out of proportion. (Prepare yourself for “The Shooter Gene.”) This has the potential to set back popular understanding of both genetics and psychopathy for years. A fine editorial today in Nature sees it likewise, saying the effort is “misguided and could lead to dangerous stigmatization.”
Over at Mind Hacks, writer and psychiatrist Vaughan Bell digs in a bit more, tracing other efforts to find answers in the genes of famous killers, all of those efforts fruitless. This is a bad way to try to understand a particular killing and a bad way to think about genetics. As Bell puts it,
There is a valuable science of understanding how genetics influences violent behaviour but analysis of individual killers will tell us very little about their motivations.
It does, however, reflect a desire to find something different in people who commit appalling crimes. Something that is comprehensible but distinct, alien but identifiable.
This may give us comfort, but it does little to provide answers. In the midst of tragedy, however, the two can easily be confused.
No easy answer : Editorial at Nature
The search for a genetic killer « Mind Hacks, by Vaughan Bell
Image: Spirea in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. by Dougtone. Some rights reserved