Evidence for a genetic basis of antisocial behavior stems from several different lines of research.
First, behavioral genetic studies of twins and adoptees have demonstrated that heredity plays a vital role in antisocial behavior, including various forms of deviance, aggression and criminality, by finding greater concordance for such behavior in genetically-related individuals compared to non-relatives living in the same environment.
Second, various correlates of antisocial behavior, including personality factors such as impulsivity, sensation-seeking, risk-taking, and callous-unemotional traits, are known to be at least partly genetically influenced.
Third, psychiatric outcomes related to antisocial behavior, including antisocial personality disorder, prostitution, substance use and abuse etc. have also been investigated in genetically informative designs, and each has demonstrated significant genetic influence.
I would like to start off with a quotidian adage which states that ‘the apple does not fall far from the tree.’ This means that a child usually portrays analogous physiognomies, characteristics or qualities to that of his or her parents. In other words, we should not expect that a child will behave differently from his parents. Another term which shares a comparable meaning reads ‘like father like son.’ These idioms can be used in situations where it’s apparent that the parents of certain individuals are classified as either good or bad in society, and you anticipate that their children’s behavior would be either similar or partial to theirs.
Pondering and contemplating on these two phrases gives me mixed emotions which leads to this follow up question: If we can possess some of our parent’s moral physiognomies, is it also possible for us to possess their immoral physiognomies? Having said this, let me exhibit three stories which I have personally experienced during my tenure as a police officer.
Firstly: I have always been fascinated by the popularity of a particular chronic criminal whom had gained such unique status quo throughout the country. It wasn’t just the fact that he was a criminal throughout his lifespan, but the fact that he had over 20 children with many different women, and among his children both sexes alike had also displayed deviant behaviors throughout their lives as well. Of course, the males displayed more violent and recidivistic behaviors as compared to their female counterparts. The females committed minor offenses such as illegal drug smuggling, stealing, prostitution etc. What’s even more fascinating is that his grandchildren also started displaying deviant behavior from an early age. Here we can see that the first and second generation of this criminal had displayed similar behavioral patterns to that of his behavior.
In our local folklore, we describe this as malediction or a curse/spell which was put on this man’s future generations because of the bad things he has done to people during his lifespan. In as much as there might be some truth to a curse being placed on the future generations of individuals so to speak, however, with the dawn of modern science and technology, research has also attested that there is without a doubt some scientific evidence to not only corroborate the reason why criminal behavior is inherited through genes, but a range of behaviors, habits and even illnesses from our parents or ancestors such as: mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction etc.
Secondly: I wish to relate of a couple from the USA who upon retirement, adopted a young boy about two or three years of age and migrated to Saint Lucia where they live in their retirement home. What his adopted parents weren’t aware of was that an insidious shadow from the past was cast over this baby that was to effectively seal his fate. By the age of seven he was already throwing temper tantrums and emotional dyscontrol which quickly escalated. His deviant behavior became eminent through minor fights with his adopted parents, school peers and teachers alike. Interviews with his adopted parents revealed that his biological parents were drug addicts and his dad was a convicted criminal.
Is deviant behavior embedded within our DNA? If not, ‘there are multiple genes that are either on their own or are in an intricate conspiracy with the environment’ (Raine, 2013) that shape future criminals. This boy was adopted and has been raised in a safe and nurturing environment, yet despite all the love that his adopted parents gave him, he could not be salvaged.
According to Raine (2013), this is a fascinating natural experiment, in which a baby with a violent heritage was transferred from a life of poverty and squalor into a loving, caring, successful family, yet still displayed deviant behavior. This proposes that there really is a genetic predisposition to violence.
Raine (2013) also purports that there are studies in which babies whose biological fathers were criminals, were adopted away into noncriminal homes and that such babies were much more likely to become adult criminals than were babies who were also adopted but whose biological fathers were not criminals.
Lastly: It will be remiss of me if I complete this report and not outline this third experience, this example being that of three kids: one boy and twin girls from England whom at an early age were adopted by a Saint Lucian couple. They had just retired after years of working in England and they decided to return to their country of birth.
Similar to the previous story, these adopted parents weren’t aware that an insidious shadow from the past was cast over these three kids that was to effectively seal their fate. By the ages of about 10 years the two girls (who were older than the boy) were showing symptoms of deviant behavior and emotional dyscontrol which quickly escalated (Raine, 2013).
The girls would frequently run away from their home and spend days at houses with different men, engaging in underage sex for money, using illicit drugs and consuming alcohol until they were apprehended by the police and taken back to their adopted parents. The boy however, had not shown any signs of deviant behavior.
Interviews with the adopted parents stated that the biological parents of these kids were drug addicts, and the mother a prostitute. The boy and one of the girls returned to England when they completed their high school studies and the other girl decided to remain in the country where she is presently a drug and alcohol addict.
Genetic influences are clearly important in antisocial behavior, including criminality. Numerous classical twin and adoption studies, as well as more recent studies of specific genes, support this conclusion. Heritability estimates suggest as much as one-half of the variation in propensity toward antisocial behavior can be explained by genetic differences among individuals.
Moreover, various traits correlated with antisocial behavior appear heritable, including impulsivity, autonomic arousal, and attention and other cognitive deficits. Although some specific genes for antisocial behavior have been suggested by qualitative studies, the global genetic influence indicated by the moderate heritability estimate remains largely unspecified.
Several biological risk factors have also been identified, although the extent to which their relationships to antisocial behavior may be genetically mediated remains unknown.
About the author
Montelle Felix, a police constable attached to the RSLPF, hails from the quaint western community of Soufriere. He holds a B.Sc in criminal justice, M.Sc in management, specialization in criminal justice management, and currently pursuing a PhD in crime prevention and corrections at the Central Police University in Taiwan (ROC).