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Desperately Seeking DNA: The Whodunit surrounding Crime, Genes and Adoption
This article explores genetic predispositions to criminal behavior.
Maybe the recent Connecticut home invasion didn’t mesmerize us for months like the cable news soap operas I affectionately call “The Guiding Light of Anna Nicole Smith” and “As the World Turns around Natalee Holloway,” but it still got entangled in the media’s “news flash” net and held our collective attention for a full 48 hours. In the end, two men were arrested and charged with robbing, raping, and killing a suburban family as well as torching their home.
I was not overly surprised by the villainous events of that day. A 2005 U.S. Department of Justice report reveals there is one rape for every 1,000 Americans per year and six murders for every 100,000.
I was also not shocked when the story became the centerpiece on the marketplace of ideas dinner table that night. A review conducted by the Project for Excellence found that media outlets tend to replay the same select news pieces. This gives the stories a life of their own.
What perked my ears about the home invasion crime was the media’s obsession with a particular, seemingly out-of-place detail: one of the alleged perpetrators, Joshua Komisarjevsky, had been adopted. One newspaper went so far as to title its story, “Alleged Connecticut Killer Adopted as Baby.”
Why not title the story “Alleged Connecticut Killer Ate Lima Beans for Lunch?” Is it because lima beans rarely cause an average Joe to explode into a lawless rampage? Can “defective” genes be a precursor to crime?
Clearly, the adoptive family, the press, or both, accepted the premise that biological factors can trigger violence. It’s possible the family, hoping to distance themselves from the heinous act and convey that they have “good DNA,” pitched the “he’s not related to us” angle to reporters. It’s equally possible that members of the press decided this detail was somehow meaningful. Whatever the case, the idea was embedded in multiple articles, although there was no outward mention of a possible link between hereditary factors and criminal behavior.
Newspaper pieces and Internet blogs revealed how Komisarjevsky’s family struggled for years to straighten out the wayward boy, who became a burglar at the age of 14. Attempts to make him feel like part of the family were futile.
This reminded me of a disturbingly similar story from a 1999 60 Minutes segment, which described the case of Jeff Landrigan, a young man who was adopted at birth by a law-abiding family, but who now sits on death row for murder. Landrigan’s adoptive sister speculated that her brother had bad genes, adding, “I personally think that the day by brother was born, his fate was probably sealed…”
While on death row, Landrigan found out his birthfather was imprisoned on death row in another state and that his family tree was peppered with felons. He told 60 Minutes he believed crime was passed down in his family “like cancer or heart disease.”
A body of evidence supports Landrigan’s theory, although environmental influences are likewise powerful and should not be discounted. In Change Your Brain /Change Your Life, psychiatrist Daniel Amen states that the cingulate gyrus, curving through the center of the brain is hyperactive in murderers. Other researchers have determined that violent males have low levels of serotonin, a condition that has a high rate of heritability. The National Institute of Health conducted a study on the serotonin levels of prison inmates and determined with an 84 percent accuracy which ones would return to crime upon their release.
Dr. Sarnoff A. Mednick’s study of 14,427 adopted children, as discussed in the New York Times, reveals how a propensity to chronic criminal behavior may be passed through the genes. Although Mednick does not believe criminal behavior is directly passed down, he holds that certain biological factors that might be associated with crime can be inherited. He cites a biological predisposition towards substance abuse as an example.
What does this theory mean for the person looking to adopt? And what are the chances a newly acquired child will have gene-related difficulties? Although there do not seem to be any studies on this topic, it is possible there are a greater percentage of adoptees today with problematic tendencies. In the more puritanical past, a woman was more likely to give up her child simply to avoid stigma and social ostracism. She may have become pregnant while unmarried or involved in an affair, but beyond that was law-abiding and well adjusted. A woman who puts a child up for adoption today is arguably more likely to do so for pressing reasons, i.e. due to problems with illegal substances, imprisonment or family abuse, factors that could be hereditable. In addition, celebrities, such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie, make it fashionable and more common to adopt infants from foreign lands whose biological predispositions are unscreened and unknown.
On the other hand, it is possible there are a smaller number of adoptees today with so-called genetic flaws. Abortion is now an option for “troubled” women. In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner say crime has declined over the past twenty years because “the pool of potential criminals (has) dramatically shrunk,” a fact they attribute to Roe vs. Wade. Although these authors are not arguing for biological connections to crime, they say women in adverse family environments are more likely to have children who grow up to be criminals, and these are typically the women who get the abortions.
In addition, adoptions have become more open and cooperative. According to the LA Times, adoptive and natural parents meet at least once in 90% of all infant adoptions, and 25% of these adoptions are completely open. This means an increasing number of birth parents and adoptive parents come together in some way, review each other’s physical and personal history and stay in contact. Genetic secrets are less likely to be locked away in bureaucratic clinics; problems can be confronted and resolved to some degree through positive environmental reinforcement.
Most scientists and psychologists will tell you the nature vs. nurture debate is complex and by no means resolved. Landrigan promoted the “my genes made me do it” argument in several court appeals. In the end, he lost. The US Supreme Court made the final ruling against him three months ago, and he is likely to be executed soon.
Komisarjevsky’s case is next and inquiring minds want to know: Will he desperately seek his DNA, or do what most defendants do and blame it on his “nurture” resume?
Unfortunately, the “lima beans defense” rarely works.
Charlotte Laws, Ph.D. is an author and Los Angeles Commissioner. She is also an adopted child. Her website is http://www.CharlotteLaws.org
This article appeared in the Santa Monica Daily Press on August 10, 2007.