29 December 2006

It's in the Genes - An Insight into Irresponsibility

Yesterday, I read something in the print edition of The Economist (link here) that really disturbed me. The article refers to a case of a man who suddenly turned into a pedophile, was later diagnosed as having a brain tumor which, when removed, relieved his pedophilia. However, when the tumor came back, so did the tendency. The article closed with the observation that the “shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.”

Indeed.

While the case cited above is remarkable, I fear that there may be an attempt to leap from measurable diseases and afflictions to underlying tendencies in genetics. What I mean here is that a disease, like the tumor case, can be measured and sensed; we are far less certain about the effects of genetics on behavior, or that genetics alone causes behavior.

Additionally, it seems rather odd to me that the author of the article is concerned more about state surveillance of people with genetic tendencies (wouldn’t that be everyone?) than the effect of relegating personal responsibility to binding genetic predispositions.

Who is to blame for a person committing a crime to which he is “genetically predisposed”? Is it mommy and daddy’s fault for creating a flawed being? Who would decide what “genetically predisposed” means, what threshold must be reached before becoming incapable of personal responsibility?

Lastly, how would we teach our children to be responsible for their own actions, their own behaviors, if we decided that genetic predispositions lead to some kind of, even limited, behavioral predestination?

“It’s ok, Johnny. I know that you can’t control your temper as a five-year-old because the genetics passed along to you make you behave this way. There’s no way you can get around it. Don’t grow up, don’t take responsibility for yourself…you really don’t have any choice, anyway.”

Disturbing, to say the least.

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