Crime and genetics pondered at meeting Topic raises controversy on many sides

September 23, 1995|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

QUEENSTOWN -- Scientific meetings rarely get people's blood boiling, but this weekend's Aspen Institute conference is no ordinary colloquium: It puts a Bunsen burner under the simmering issue of the genetics of crime.

For three years, David Wasserman, a College Park legal scholar, has been trying to stage his conference, titled "Research in Genetics and Criminal Behavior: Scientific Issues, Social and Political Implications," despite denunciations, anger and anguish. The conference runs through tomorrow.

Critics have fired fresh salvos recently, he said yesterday. Protesters threatened to disrupt the gathering, but none had shown up yesterday evening.

Dr. Wasserman has been preoccupied with other concerns.

"Mainly, there's been a stampede to a facility that can only accommodate a limited number of people," the beleaguered academic said. "The most belligerent and insistent have been lTC the media," mostly television networks demanding access.

"We hope to preserve the civility of this event, to keep it from becoming a circus," he added.

More than 30 scientists gathered here late yesterday afternoon at Aspen's Wye Center campus to debate whether aggression and risk-taking is an inherited trait.

During the 2 1/2 -day conference, sponsored by the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, participants will consider the dark history of efforts to "improve" the human species through selective breeding.

They'll ponder the possibility of treating crime as a medical or public health problem, and whether it might one day be possible to spot children in danger of growing up to be thugs.

They'll debate whether even raising the issue of a potential link between genes and criminal behavior betrays a bias based on class or race. And, they're expected to ask, are some scientists too eager to blame society's failings on our biological heritage?

In 1992, Dr. Wasserman received a $78,000 grant from the National Institute of Health to gather 46 professors, government officials, doctors, lawyers and police officials to talk about the issue.

But some African-American scholars protested, fearing that blacks would be singled out as potential crime-gene carriers. They said the conference agenda implied that genetics, not racism and other social factors, might explain the disproportionate number of blacks in jails and prisons. And they said the findings of the conference would likely be used to justify racist attitudes and policies.

Critics of alleged psychiatric abuses such as the overuse of medication denounced the meeting as an extension of mind-control efforts. The clamor came at an awkward moment for the meeting's sponsor, the federal government: President Bush was up for re-election. Bernadine P. Healy, then director of the NIH, withdrew the grant, scuttling the conference.

Supporters of the conference lashed back. Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania, a prominent medical ethicist, called the cancellation "a moral outrage."

Others regarded it as an attack on academic freedom.

Dr. Wasserman persisted. The new, scaled-back conference, scheduled to run through tomorrow night, is the result.

Among those expected at the conference are Evan S. Balaban, of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, a prominent critic of research into crime and genetics, and Diana Fishbein of the Federal Department of Justice, who thinks there are "biological" approaches to fighting crime.

Precisely what the event will produce is anybody's guess. There may be ringing declarations of platitudes or discussion of startling new research findings.

A few things seem certain, though.

Participants will raise a lot of questions and reach few hard and fast conclusions. Little is known about the genes that govern the construction and operation of the lowly paramecium, much less the constellation of genes that may influence the emotional and intellectual workings of the human brain, one of nature's most complex creations.

No one is likely to assert that humans are robots driven to pillage and burn by rogue genes. No one expects to someday find a gene for, say, bank robbery.

On the other hand, most scientists don't believe that the human mind operates with utter independence of the genetic blueprint that guided its construction.

Most scientists at the conference are expected to stake out a middle ground: that our behavior, for better or worse, is likely influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Some believe, for example, that being brought up in an atmosphere of violence may switch on genes that predispose us to risk taking or aggression.

And the potentially explosive conference may also answer another question: whether American society can or should explore these issues at all.

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