Friday, October 22, 2010
A 'Genetic Predisposition' to Violence?: The Dangers of Misconstruing the Gene-Brain-Behavior Relationship
Cases of gene-environment interaction (or 'GxE') refer to cases where different genetic groups respond differently to the same array of environments. A number of cases of GxE in humans have been discovered, but one case in particular has received the most attention: In 2002, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie Moffit, and their colleagues announced the discovery of a GxE linking a gene controlling neuroenzymatic activity (high vs. low MAOA), environmental exposure to childhood maltreatment, and the development of antisocial personality disorder (which is highly correlated with criminal violence). Cases of GxE are generally conceptualized as displaying a 'genetic predisposition' to the trait under investigation. For instance, individuals in the low-MAOA group were characterized as having a 'genetic predisposition' to violence. This conceptualization has then defined the neuroethical questions arising from the empirical results. Scientists, legal scholars, physicians, and bioethicists have asked, should parents be screening their embryos or fetuses for the genetic predisposition to violence so as to decide whether or not to bring such a child into the world? Should the state mandate newborn screening for the genetic predisposition to violence so as to monitor these individuals or implement a pharmaceutical intervention to combat the predisposition? I will argue the very concept of a 'genetic predisposition' fundamentally misconstrues the results of the case and, in turn, has corrupted the neuroethical questions about the case. Rather than a 'genetic predisposition', Caspi and Moffitt in fact discovered a case of what I call an 'interactive predisposition'. Recognizing the case as one of an interactive predisposition significantly reconfigures the neuroethical issues arising from it.
James Tabery, PhD, MA
James Tabery, PhD MA, is an assistant professor of Philosophy and a member of the Division of Medical Ethics and Humanities at the University of Utah. He received his PhD from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science as well as his MA from the Center for Bioethics in 2007 at the University of Pittsburgh. His interests lie at the intersection of philosophy of science and bioethics: debates over causation in the nature-nurture debate and the ethical implications of those debates, scientific explanations of psychopathy and the legal implications of understanding the causes of bad behavior when it comes to attributions of responsibility and punishment, epistemological considerations in the design of human experiments and the implications for the ethical oversight of research on humans. He has published articles in a range of scientific, philosophy of science, and bioethics journals, such as Philosophy of Science, Biology and Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Journal of the History of Biology, International Journal of Epidemiology, and Development and Psychopathology.
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