National Geographic

The MAOA guide to misusing genetics

MAOAI’ve got a feature in the latest issue of New Scientist. It’s sort of a four-step guide to interpreting studies looking at genes and behaviour, using one particular gene as a case study. The piece is out today, but it harkens back to lines of thinking that began over a century ago.

Italy, 1876. The criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso has just published L’uomo delinquente (The Criminal Man), a work that will define European understanding of criminal behaviour for several decades. Lombroso believed that some people were born criminals, whose penchant for crime was set from birth and who had diminished responsibility for their own misdeeds.

Skip forward 133 years, and Lombroso’s theories seem antiquated, even distasteful. Our modern understanding of biology has put paid to simplistic ideas about the origins of criminality and violence. Discoveries from the growing field of ‘behavioural genetics’ show us how nature and nurture conspire to influence our actions. But because of these same discoveries, the idea of the born criminal has resurfaced in modern Italy under a different guise, a century after Lombroso’s death.

Last year, Italian courts cut the sentence of a convicted murderer by one year, on the basis that his genetic make-up supposedly predisposed him to violence. The man, Abdelmalek Bayout, carried a version of a gene called monoamine oxidase A, or MAOA, which has been linked to aggression and violence. The gene has a history of controversy. It has been linked to gang membership and psychological disorders, and it has been used to define an entire ethnic group as warriors.

The story of MAOA is the perfect case study for how gradual revelations about the tango between genes and environment can be translated into unconvincing applications and overplayed interpretations. There is no better example of the dangerous state of modern behavioural genetics, no better poster child for how to miscommunicate, misinterpret and misuse genetic discoveries.

The feature takes the form of four lessons, each covering a different area of research or controversy around MAOA:

  1. A catchy name is bound to be misleading
  2. Nature and nurture are inextricably linked
  3. Beware of reinforcing stereotypes
  4. Genes do not dictate behaviour

Go read the article to find out more.

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There are 6 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Michael Meadon
    April 9, 2010

    Excellent, excellent, piece Ed.

    By the way, have you read Dobzhansky take on nature-vs-nurture? I came across it in Dawkins’ Modern Science Writing. Last word on it, it seems to me.

  2. gillt
    April 10, 2010

    Currently, it is hard to say for sure how much any gene or cluster dictate any complex human behavior, especially since there is disagreement in definition (e.g., bipolar disorder). Additionally, trying to use absolutist terms like dictate when what’s being measured is in percentages seems problematic.

    As a geneticist I may be biased.

  3. Captain Skellett
    April 12, 2010

    Congrats on getting a feature in New Scientist! I’m just starting out at freelancing, and that’s pretty much the same as someone telling me they found buried treasure and inside was a winning lottery ticket. You must be super excited!

  4. Aurora
    April 14, 2010

    A(nother) piece of fine writing, introduced by a great teaser – congratulations! Seriously, after reading the post there was no way I could NOT click on the link to the article… and it definitely did not disappoint!

  5. nooffensebut
    July 1, 2010

    I would not state this lightly, but your writing is frankly incredibly stupid. You have no evidence to dispute the contention that Brunner syndrome is “deterministic” and “dictates” violent behavior. The evidence that does exist would suggest that it is deterministic. I should know because I have read all of the MAOA violence research. You conveniently group the 3-repeat allele with the 2-repeat allele. Many studies did the same thing, but not all, and the more violent 2-repeat allele seems to be about an order of magnitude more common in blacks than whites. If people want the truth about this gene and other violence genes, they should read my blog.

  6. frank
    February 11, 2011

    Nice link to a 100 word teaser article. When you try to register their procedure doesn’t work. I guess you have to subscibe (pay money) to read it. No thanks, there print magazine is my least favorite science mag.
    Frank

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