Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The bad gene theory: Is it bunk?

All I have to do is say Jeffrey Dahmer and you instantly call up thoughts and knowledge about this killer. There are scientific diagnoses for this kind of person like socio-path or anti-social personality disorder, but these labels do little to explain a person of extreme violence. Someone acting so far off the bell curve of normalcy is a mystery to us all.

What’s perhaps most interesting to me about these cases is the quest to understand the person’s background and childhood. Sure, the natural rolling of the eyes happens here when I put forth the “bad childhood” excuse. Okay, I’ll say it for you (because I agree with you): How many people emerge from bad, abusive childhoods and become wonderful, compassionate people? In reverse, how many people emerge from loving and privileged backgrounds and choose a dark, violent path?

This paradox is incredibly fascinating. There is no guaranteed predictability on what course a life will take no matter what kind of start he or she was given.

Let’s go back to the Dahmer example. He was raised by hardworking middle-class parents in Ohio. His mother stayed at home to raise the children and his father worked as an analytical chemist. Typical America, right? And then add to this equation that his parents admit to having many high-pitched fights in the company of their son. Okay. Still, not an uncommon experience.

But then you look deeper into the family. In a Dateline interview, where NBC’s Stone Phillips asked Dahmer’s mother and father about events in his childhood that may have led to the murders, Lionel Dahmer said that he often awoke from sleep and felt as if he had harmed someone, even murdered someone, and then realized it was just a dream. Is there a natural connection?

Dahmer accepted complete responsibility for his actions, unlike many socio-paths who lack a conscience or sense of remorse. In that same Dateline interview, the infamous killer declared that anything other than pointing the blame on himself was an excuse. He said he took full responsibility and there was nothing his parents ever did to influence him. There’s the light in the darkness. A tiny bit, at least.

Still, this example begs the question: Can one inherit a predisposition to violence?

Maybe most people want to answer “no” to this question. As quick as we might be to dismiss “bad gene” theory, we are just as quick to embrace “inherited talent or disease” theory.

I give you the following examples from math, religion, sports, music and politics.

Nobel-winning mathematician John Nash suffered from schizophrenia. His son, who displayed a talent in mathematics, also developed schizophrenia.

Evangelist Billy Graham has now passed the torch to his son, Franklin Graham.

Los Angeles Lakers' star guard Kobe Bryant can look to his father, Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant, who was an NBA and Italian League player.

Grammy-winner Natalie Cole is the daughter of Nat King Cole. Many of her fans argue she is virtually channeling the style and sound of her famous father.

Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark – both women are best-selling authors.

Henry Fonda is the father of Jane and Peter Fonda: all three actors have had acclaimed careers in their own right.

And whatever your opinion about politics, any discussion about nature/nurture influence being passed down is not complete without mention of the 41st and 43nd presidents – father and son.

So I ask you, if these qualities run in the family, is it a stretch to consider that predisposition to violence might also trickle down the gene pool? Many researchers don’t think so, citing evidence from brain scans that suggest some are predisposed to violence.

This is THE pivot point around which my novel JANEOLOGY turns. Do we inherit the natures of our ancestors? And if you are like me – fascinated by genetic inheritance theories – you will be intrigued by the exploration of Jane Nelson’s family tree as her own husband searches for an explanation to her unthinkable snap that will let him sleep at night.

Visit to read an excerpt.

Or visit Amazon to read the full story.

1 comment:

Linda Merlino said...

...and Jeffrey's mamma loved him through the whole mess..
We are our history, can't deny it!!!