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The Warrior Gene

Recently NPR reported a story on the advancing research behind monoamine oxidase-A, also known as the “warrior gene”.  The gene controls the levels of MAOA in the body. Those possessing  a specific form of MAOA have been linked with a predisposition to engage in, and commit violent acts.

In 2006 it was uncovered that Maori tribesmen from New Zealand often carry the gene. The New Zealand researchers claimed that roughly 60 per cent of Maori men appear to carry the necessary variant of the gene, while only 30 per cent of European men seem to carry it. The potentially racist implications of the discovery ignited a large controversy over the application of this research both at home and abroad. In the United States, as research continued and brain scans grew more accurate, the debate is beginning to shift into the justice system.

The Science Daily is reporting that a Florida State University study has discovered young men that carry the “warrior gene” have a greater tendency to join gangs, and to be one of the more dangerous members of that gang. A study done by King’s College in London mirrors thos results. The BBC reported that 12 per cent of the 442 young men in the study have the “warrior gene”, and that group committed 44 per cent of the violent crimes.

According to NPR reporter Barbara Hagerty, approximately 1,200 combined cases in civil and criminal courts in the US have admitted gene evidence on MAOA for consideration. While the general trend is that neuroscience studies are not admitted, there have been exceptions.

The end result of the increasing use of a not guilty by reasons of mental disease or insanity defense leads to a scary place for the justice system. Much of the US legal system is based on retributive punishment. People deserve the punishment they receive for their crimes against the community. What happens if science is able to prove that they are not actually responsible for their crimes?

Some experts are wary about the potential for MAOA to force the US to rethink is justice system. During NPR’s interview with Dr. Kent Kiehl, a neuroscience expert at the University of New Mexico, a youth treatment program in Wisconsin run by Michael Caldwell has been able to work around the “warrior gene” to some extent. Kiehl reports that Caldwell has been able to reduce violent recidivism by a rate of over 50 per cent. If MAOA can be worked around and overcome, then some responsibility will continue to rest with individual who commits the act.

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  1. July 18, 2010 at 12:20 am

    “What happens if science is able to prove that they are not actually responsible for their crimes?”

    Very interesting post, but even if the scientific world believed wholeheartedly in this concept, it’s very doubtful the general population would buy that as an excuse.

    • July 20, 2010 at 8:39 pm

      True, but the fact is it is already being used as a legal defense and working. Rarely I’ll grant you, but a little is more than none. NPR had a case where a multiple murder was dropped to manslaughter by a jury because evidence on genes was admitted. I think what is notable about that, is that it was still manslaughter and not guilty by reason of insanity. Even though the Jury saw that he wasn’t in complete control, (or at least there were hereditary reasons for his act) they still thought he deserved punishment.

  2. July 18, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    The idea about racism coming into play over this gene is controversial, but one must look into maybe why some people are more inclined to have the warrior gene than others. I went to New Zealand in 2006 actually, when the gene in the Maori tribesmen was discovered, and their cultural heritage very much revolves around warriors and the like. I think it makes sense that they would be more likely to have this gene over Europeans today, just because they still hold close to their traditions of tribal dance and passing along their warrior traditions, even if they aren’t for actual battle.
    However, I do understand where the racial implications come into play, but it seems that people may be jumping the gun on the justice system coming into play over this. Research has found that those in lower income families with lower education rates are more likely to land in jail, but if a lower income, high school drop out commits a crime, that isn’t a plausible defense, and neither should the warrior gene.

  3. July 20, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    well the racial controversy simply stemmed from the fact that anytime an entire ethnicity is implicated as being more violent, especially with the negative connotations that arise with the warrior gene, there will be some resentment.

    As for the difference between genes and lower income families, that is a good point and one the justice system hasn’t really addressed. Essentially that is the nature vs nurture argument, which rages on in the scientific community to this day.

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