Just because you’ve decided to carry your child to term doesn’t mean there aren’t other tests you can avail yourself of just to make sure you haven’t erred terribly in bringing the little
creep urchin into the world.
For example, what if he grows up to be another Charles Manson? What if she grows up to be another Aileen Wuornos? Worse, what if they grow up to be ruthlessly rich and successful and leave you fending for yourself, miserable ingrates that they are?
Well worry no more! You can scan those brains!
We are now reaching a critical juncture where scientific developments in both genetics and neuroscience may soon be able to identify children with a greatly increased risk of engaging in future violent activity. In the genetics field, mutations in the MAOA gene, in combination with an abusive upbringing in the early years of life, substantially increase the risk of future antisocial and violent conduct. In the original study by Avshalom Caspi and colleagues, 85 percent of males who had the mutated form of the MAOA gene, combined with severe mistreatment in the early years of life, engaged in some form of antisocial behavior, whereas fewer than 20 percent of children with the normal MAOA allele and the same abusive environment engaged in such behavior. This type of study with the MAOA gene has been repeated many times now, with most (although not all) of the follow-up studies replicating the original findings.
To date, the genetic risk associated with MAOA mutations has been used in the legal system primarily as mitigating evidence (with only limited success to date) to reduce the sentence of a criminal with the genetic predisposition. Obviously, in these cases, the crime has already been committed. But perhaps we could look for that genetic marker before any crime is committed—and there are other potential red flags we can look for as well. For instance, Dr. Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania found that a brain abnormality (called cavum septum pellucidum) detected in the fetus was associated with subsequent antisocial behaviors. Another study found that poor fear conditioning (which is the anxiety most of us learn to feel when we do something antisocial) at age 3, indicative of amygdala dysfunction, predisposes individuals to crime at age 23. Yet another study used functional MRI to identify brain patterns correlated with increased impulsivity in incarcerated juveniles. This is just a small sampling of a growing body of experimental findings linking neurological traits with criminal propensity in children.
Such tests are never likely to be deterministic or completely accurate. They will identify only increased probabilities of violent behaviors, not certainties. But before we get much further down this road, we need to start thinking about whether and how we want to use this capability to identify at-risk children.
Now before you reactionaries and nervous Nellies get your pantaloons in a bunch, I for one think this is great news. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been sitting in Starbucks and in will walk some miscreant just reeking of amydala dysfunction.
Sure, you don’t want to reduce kiddies to their brain patterns. There’s also their eating habits and parents’ voting patterns.
Once we can get this information into their permanent files (and thank goodness for the digital age, when such information can be accessed at a moment’s notice with just a password), we’ll have a deeper personality profile that will follow those deformed craniums right to the grave. Sure there are false positives, but the science is new, and mistakes will be made. In fact, they’re made right in the womb, which is the larger point.
This idea is by no means new. Back in the 19th century, Cesare Lombroso was breaking new
skulls ground with his revolutionary theories of criminality:
Lombroso’s general theory suggested that criminals are distinguished from noncriminals by multiple physical anomalies. He postulated that criminals represented a reversion to a primitive or subhuman type of man characterized by physical features reminiscent of apes, lower primates, and early man and to some extent preserved, he said, in modern “savages.” The behavior of these biological “throwbacks” will inevitably be contrary to the rules and expectations of modern civilized society.
Through years of postmortem examinations and anthropometric studies of criminals, the insane, and normal individuals, Lombroso became convinced that the “born criminal” (reo nato, a term given by Ferri) could be anatomically identified by such items as a sloping forehead, ears of unusual size, asymmetry of the face, prognathism, excessive length of arms, asymmetry of the cranium, and other “physical stigmata.” Specific criminals, such as thieves, rapists, and murderers, could be distinguished by specific characteristics, he believed. Lombroso also maintained that criminals had less sensibility to pain and touch; more acute sight; a lack of moral sense, including an absence of remorse; more vanity, impulsiveness, vindictiveness, and cruelty; and other manifestations, such as a special criminal argot and the excessive use of tattooing.
Besides the “born criminal, ” Lombroso also described “criminaloids, ” or occasional criminals, criminals by passion, moral imbeciles, and criminal epileptics. He recognized the diminished role of organic factors in many habitual offenders and referred to the delicate balance between predisposing factors (organic, genetic) and precipitating factors (environment, opportunity, poverty).
Now who would want a “criminaloid” at their Thanksgiving table, or a “throwback” under their Christmas tree? There’s always Uncle Ralph, but once he’s thrown back a few, he’s as tame as a mongoose at a Missouri dead-mongoose fair.
It’s time to face facts. There’s no way we can avoid this subject of the born criminal any longer. We have the technology. It would be a sin not to put it to good use.
Penn’s Raine has put it: “[I]f I could tell you, as a parent, that your child has a 75 percent chance of becoming a criminal, wouldn’t you want to know and maybe have the chance to do something about it? … We have to start having this conversation now … so we understand the risks and the benefits. It’s easy to get on your moral high horse about stigma and civil liberties, but are you going to have blood on your hands in the future because you’ve blocked an approach that could lead to lives being saved?”
Think about that: 75 percent! What crummy odds! I think these scans should be performed at the time of conception, and then marketed to hotels. And should the results prove unsatisfactory by societal standards, and the parents in question didn’t intervene in their child’s life — whether with drugs, aversion therapy, electro-shock, preemptive incarceration, or post-birth abortion — well, they’re probably suffering from some kind of deformation of the amygdala themselves.
But we have a scan for that…