Crime and genes

Arthur Caplan

September 30, 1992|By Arthur Caplan

I GOT the announcement about the conference in the mail last January. I was just about to give the innocuous-looking little brochure the customary three-point heave into the recycling bin when the conference title caught my eye -- "Genetic Factors in Crime: Findings, Uses and Implications."

I did a double take. The Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy of the University of Maryland College Park, with the financial support of the National Institutes of Health, was going to hold a three-day conference in the second week of October to discuss whether or not criminal behavior had a biological or genetic source.

I read further only to learn that the 46 professors, government officials, doctors, lawyers and police officials who had agreed to speak were not only going to ponder current evidence for a biological role in criminal conduct. They also were doing to discuss what it would mean to be able to identify criminals before they committed crimes or to be able to treat people with certain genetically caused behavioral predispositions with drugs or other therapies before they did anything bad.

While I doubted that any scientist could say anything coherent about the genetics of crime -- given the field's current inability to say much of use about the genetics of such relatively simple creatures as the viruses that cause AIDS, colds and warts or the bacteria that cause TB and syphilis -- I quickly yanked out my calendar. "This," I thought to myself, "is a meeting I have to attend."

But I will not be going to the conference. Neither will any of the 46 confirmed speakers. Nor will anybody else. The director of the National Institutes of Health, Bernadine P. Healy, has decided to pull the institutes' financial support for the conference.

Well over a year ago, the organizers of the conference had applied for an NIH grant. A peer review panel of scientists had deemed the conference worthy of funding for a pretty good chunk of change, $78,000. The grants committee felt that the organizers had done "a superb job of assessing the underlying scientific, legal, ethical and public policy issues and organizing them in a thoughtful fashion."

So why did the NIH get cold feet? Dr. Healy pulled the plug on the affair when signs of controversy began to swirl. She told the conference organizer, Prof. David Wasserman, that funds were being withdrawn because of "unanticipated sensitivity and validity issues." In plain English, she yanked the funds because some people told her the topic of the genetics of crime is politically incorrect.

During the summer, the NIH began to get a few complaints about the meeting. A group at Howard University in Washington expressed concerns that the conference might be biased against blacks.

One critic, former Howard professor Samuel Yette, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, "I think the conference would use public funds for unconstitutional purposes. It is clear racism."

After a few blasts like that, Dr. Healy decided she did not need this aggravation and euthanized the meeting.

The decision to withdraw funding from the conference is a moral outrage. Not because there is some new knowledge about the genetics of crime. On the contrary, the reason for holding the meeting is to provide a chance for critics to debunk the idea that behavior as complex and as environmentally sensitive as committing a crime could have a simple biological or genetic cause.

Many people think criminals are simply born that way. Lots more think that some races or ethnic groups are disposed by heredity to be criminals. This is baloney, but it is baloney that merits a public slicing. The College Park conference would have done that.

The program would have given many people who believe that there are genetic or biological origins to crime a chance to speak. But it was also chock full of critics. Of the 46 scheduled speakers, I can identify more than a dozen whom I personally know to be skeptics about claims that crime is genetic.

The only excuse for killing this conference was that it was unpopular. Dr. Healy gave no plausible rationale for her decision other than to say concerns about the conference had been brought to her attention. That is a pathetic reason to muzzle speech and stamp out free inquiry.

I would have been one of the first in the audience to question the premise that crime is hereditary. But I will not have that chance, and neither will anyone else. And that is the real tragedy about the Bush administration's continued willingness to let politics dictate the agenda of American science.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota. (A University of Maryland official said this week that he hopes the conference can be rescheduled for early next year.)

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