Sunday, December 30, 2012

Students Weigh In on Searching for a "Violence Gene"

I asked students in my Hot Topics English class, a class that has spent the fall semester debating myriad aspects of medical ethics, to read the following article:

Seeking Answers in Genome of Gunman

Then I asked students the following question, which they answered on our school wiki (The wiki is password-protected as students' full names are on it, so I cannot publicly share access to it):

Explain whether we as a society should pursue knowledge of the genomes of violent offenders. Using at least three facts you learned from the article and references to the eugenics programs of the early 20th century, answer in one paragraph on this post. 

Cite the article according to MLA standards.

I carefully showed students how to cite according to MLA Standards. As you can see, students are working out grammar and other errors, but the responses so far have been thoughtful and interesting. Here are two:

Student response #1:

I believe that society should study the genomes of violent offenders not in order to stigmatize them, but to shape their upbringing and environment in ways that could avoid the possible impact of their genetic predisposition. We are moving into a future where it is possible that newborns will have their DNA analyzed at birth, and their parents will be giving a list of suggested ways to create an environment that avoids potential problem areas. For example, if a baby is found to have a genetic predisposition to diabetes, the parents might be told to avoid sugar in the child’s diet. The article quotes scientists who are opposed to studying the DNA of violent mass murderers such as Adam Lanza, who recently killed 27 people in Newton, Ct., including 20 young children, as this would be the first time researchers study the DNA of a mass killer. Yet people are worried that there might be a repeat of the eugenics programs of the early 20th century, where because of the belief that criminal behavior was inherited, men with a extra Y chromosome were sterilized, but because of a lack or proof the program was stopped. Therefore, this information, if a genetic link to criminal violence is found, does not mean that it would be used against a child, but rather as a way of helping the child. Furthermore, if people are found to be genetically at risk for violence, it could be used at parole hearings, as noted in the article. Just this week a man who had been in jail for killing his own grandmother and eventually paroled, set a trap to purposely murder volunteer firefighters, who rushed to help put out the fire that this man had purposely set to kill. If the parole hearing knew he had a violent gene, they might have not released him. 

Student response #2:

After reading this article, my personal opinion on weather society should research and look into the genes of violent criminals is that I do not think we should pursue that idea. Having listened to both sides of the argument, I firmly believe that It is, for lack of a better term, a waste of time. One example that swayed me in this direction is in the article where the skeptics say: “there are likely to be hundreds of genes involved in extreme violent behavior, not to mention a variety of environmental influences, and that all of these factors can interact in complex and unpredictable ways.”(Kolata). This totally contradicts the argument that it is a genetic illness/disorder. Also Dr. Robert C. Green, a geneticist and neurologist at Harvard Medical School says: “It is almost inconceivable that there is a common genetic factor” and “I think it says more about us that we wish there was something like this. We wish there was an explanation.”(Kolata). I think there is a lot of truth to this statement. The whole reason for science is to explain things; it is human nature to want to understand why something happens or how something works. I also think that this is a purpose that religion also serves. When people cannot look to science to explain something, they use religion as a coping mechanism to “explain the unexplainable” if you will. One last idea that arose for me, which I found compelling, was that even if—hypothetically—we do find some significant gene mutation that leads to violence; what would we be able to do about it? If someone has a 2 percent, or ten percent, or even a twenty percent chance to be violent; what would we do with that information? We certainly cannot jump to any conclusions because the person has not done anything wrong yet. The only way is to take out that gene mutation and we are not at a point yet in science that we can do that yet. 

To add to the discussion about how society should deal with crime and punishment, I also recommend having students read the following three articles, all from the New York Times Magazine:

Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?

Greg Ousley is Sorry for Killing His Parents. Is That Enough?

Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?

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