Thursday, October 30, 2008

Just a shade shy of true wickedness...

What can I say? Halloween makes me think of two things... candy and evil... haha... I heard a song say "I’m just a shade shy of true wickedness" and that made me think about whether we are just a gene shy of true wickedness... in other words is there an "evil gene" that could make humans murderous or overly aggressive or violent. The short answer is no... but there certainly seems to be a tremendous amount of effort attempting to discover a potential genetic basis for social behaviors like aggression or a predisposition to criminal behavior. It is a little scary to think that a monster could be lurking in the human gene pool. But given the complexity of the human behavior and interactions of genes, it seems unlikely that a mutation in a single gene sequence (say adenine to cytosine) during development is going to turn normal humans into serial killers... although it might be a cool movie. During my somewhat futile search for the evil gene I did come across some interesting stuff:
  • In the book Hard-Wired (here), author William Clark points out that in the laboratory, rats and mice have been selectively bred for many generations to create strains that are docile or fearful or aggressive with these traits being passed on to each generation each time they breed.
  • Creating transgenic knockout mice, scientists showed that disrupting a single gene encoding the vassopressin 1B receptor created mice with "reduced levels of social forms of aggression"(here). Genetically introducing a related receptor (vassopressin 1A receptor) into the brain of promiscuous rodents (mating with many partners) transformed them into monogamous (one mating partner), pair-bonding animals (here). Does this mean will will be getting an actual"chill" pill in the future or a monogamy pill for all the cheaters out there? Interesting...
  • A few years ago, scientists created so called "daredevil mice" by altering one single gene that is highly expressed in the amygdala of the brain. These transgenic mice were more fearless and displayed risk taking behavior not normally seen in mice.
  • According to an expert commentary in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (here), "any attempt to study violent or deviant behavior under the rubric of evil will be fraught with bias and moralistic judgments. Embracing the term evil as though it were a legitimate scientific concept will contribute to the stigma of mental illness, diminish the credibility of forensic psychiatry, and corrupt forensic treatment efforts." Well okay then... deviant behavior gene.
  • People that carve scary or "evil"pumpkins are 3.5X more likely to commit crimes such as shoplifting, illegal parking, and littering... just kidding. That isn't true. Just my hypothesis.
Take home message? There seems to be no evil gene... maybe we shouldn't even use the term evil in the scientific realm. But certainly, studies of rodents and other species prove overwhelmingly that genes influence social behaviors... and there is likely a cohort or group of genes that influence and/or predispose humans to deviant or bad behaviors. Who knows, someday they might even have a genetic test that will determine if you have an increased risk to commit murder!?

Happy Halloween! Be good.


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