Some of you, like me, are old enough to remember Flip Wilson and his comic assertion, “The devil made me do it.” Now there seems to be research that backs up this claim. Well, maybe not the devil, exactly, but a genetic predisposition to evil. According to German scientist, Dr. Gerhard Roth, a neurologist and professor at the University of Bremen, he has discovered a dark mass near the front of the brain in scans of people with criminal records.
“When you look at the brain scans of hardened criminals, there are almost always severe shortcomings in the lower forehead part of the brain,” Roth told London’s Daily Mail. “There are cases where someone becomes criminal as a result of a tumor or an injury in that area, and after an operation to remove the tumor, that person was completely normal again.”
He added, “This is definitely the region of the brain where evil is formed and where it lurks.”
Before you write him off, you should know that some other scientists agree, among them Kent Kiehl, associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, who conducted brain scans on 2,000 prison inmates in Wisconsin and New Mexico. Kiehl found similar patterns in their brain scans noting the presence and suspected role of the MAOA gene in violent behavior. Interestingly, in women this gene has been linked to happiness!
The notion that the behavior of psychopaths has genetic causes and can even be used to predict crimes for which the criminal feels no remorse seems to be gaining momentum, although it is far from universal.
Mark Dadds, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales, told the New York Times, “No one is comfortable labeling a 5-year-old a psychopath. [But] the research showing that this temperament exists and can be identified in young children is quite strong.”
It comes as no surprise to anyone that I am not qualified to comment on whether Roth, Kiehl and Dadds are correct, but if they are, ethicists and biblicists will be confronted with an interesting dilemma. To what degree is behavior predisposed genetically? We have been told for decades that alcoholism has genetic roots. The way some people are wired, genetically, creates a likelihood that they will become alcoholics given the right circumstances (like if they drink alcohol!).
Many gay rights activists have also pointed to genetics in an attempt to explain why being gay is not simply a choice people make, but who they are. Although social and behavioral scientists have not reached consensus, a growing body of evidence seems to support this claim. In a blog, even Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, felt it necessary to address the subject, at one point saying that if homosexuality does have genetic roots perhaps a way can still be found to correct it genetically in utero.
He was popularly derided for the presumption that homosexual orientation needs fixing even if it is something a child is born with.
If genetics, however, is shown to create psychopathic behavior we will clearly have to rethink any assumption that genetics is sacrosanct. In fact, one of the hopes scientists have voiced in their work with psychopaths is that the awareness of genetic origins to criminal behavior will enable them to discover new ways to counteract the effects!
What is being very uncomfortably suggested is that everybody has mysterious reasons for acting or reacting as we do. So what is the answer? Accept everybody’s differences? Today’s deviance is tomorrow’s diversity? Fix everybody? If we could just find a way to eliminate choices, perhaps the Stepford wives experiment could be expanded to cover the entire race! We could keep those genetically generated sins to a minimum, then!
Maybe I am getting carried away.
The science behind why people do things is, admittedly, quite complex because factors going into decision-making are almost limitless. It is apparent that most of us are relatively free from dark internal genetic or psychological forces that drive us demonically, almost against our wills into destructive actions. Instead, we can relate more to the temptations that draw us alluringly into bad behavior.
But it is equally apparent that some do wrestle with demons — at least figuratively — that seem to take over at times. Remember the old days when judging our neighbors was easy?
So, if a person is genetically wired to do something, can he or she be blamed for doing it? One widely-held opinion is, “No, of course not. How can a person be responsible for something she can’t control?” But if that is true, a psychopath, (a child abductor and molester, for example), should, of all people, elicit our sympathy because they are simply doing what they are predisposed to do. Oddly, this isn’t the way it works.
Should a person be blamed for following internal impulses? The question really isn’t a new one. Biblical references to Judas would argue, “Yes, we are accountable!” as in John 13:2, “The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus,” (NIV). Whether Judas’s problem was genetic, or quite literally demon possession is immaterial in the end from the biblical perspective. He was guilty. However strong or weak the temptation, we have a choice.
Is it fair that some people struggle with addiction while others sail through life enjoying the fruits of moderation? Perhaps not. Is it fair that some people will never be free from the internal demons with which they do battle almost daily? Certainly not! Is it fair that a child may be born with a genetic package that creates a cold-blooded murderer? Who could possibly believe so? Or, it is fair for a beautiful little girl to be born with a genetic heart defect? No, bless her heart!
Perhaps we ultimately get back to the question of sin, but whose? I often have no answers about why things are as they are, but I am confident of this. There will come a time when genetic flaws will be a thing of the past. There will be a place where nothing happens that shouldn’t and where everything that should happen, does. But that time is not now, and that place is not here. Until then, we live in a real world in which we partner in God’s creative wonder by bringing help and hope and healing to the extent we can. Genetic research, anyone?
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.