Protesters attempt to halt crime, genetics conference Opposition fears research will fuel racist practices

September 24, 1995|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

QUEENSTOWN — An article in yesterday's editions about the genetics and crime conference in Queenstown inaccurately described a study cited by Dr. Irving Gottesman of the University of Virginia. The study, conducted by researchers in Minnesota, showed that identical twins reared apart tended to have similar scores in tests for anti-social personality disorder.

The Sun regrets the error.

QUEENSTOWN -- For a while yesterday, it looked as though a raucous group of protesters might give scientists at a conference on genes and crime a first-hand look at the aggression they typically study in labs and classrooms.

Shortly after noon more than 30 demonstrators toting signs and red flags marched into the University of Maryland's meeting shouting slogans and accusing researchers of "pushing genocide".

They invaded a wood-paneled meeting hall at the Aspen Institute's Wye Center here, seizing microphones and denouncing the gathering in a series of speeches.

Their protest ended peaceably two hours later. But tension remained in the air as researchers continued their 2 1/2 -day debate of this flammable, racially divisive issue.

Several conference speakers shared many of the protesters' fears about the potential perils of the research.

They warned that efforts to find a genetic basis for crime might fuel racism because African-Americans are arrested and incarcerated at higher rates than other groups.

Dr. Paul R. Billings, a physician and professor at Stanford University, said the conference should continue. But he welcomed the protest, saying it brought home to the researchers "the stark reality of people's experience" in inner-city neighborhoods.

The protest drew catcalls from a few members of the audience. (( But most of the biologists, lawyers, criminologists, and sociologists sat stone-faced through the unscheduled speeches. Demonstrators, many from the Washington and Philadelphia areas, called on organizers to halt the meeting and send everyone home.

"You do not see the eugenics in what you are doing!" shouted Adam Stevens of Newark, N.J., a senior at Columbia University.

Eugenics, practiced in Nazi Germany and, to some extent in the United States in the early 20th century, is the science of improving the human breeding stock through sterilization and other means.

When conference participants demanded the right to be heard, Mr. Stevens shouted: "No freedom of speech for racists!"

One outraged conferee, Harris Coulter of Washington, stood and shouted back: "You are the Nazis!" After he clashed with protesters, two security officers escorted him to a corner of the room.

No arrests were made.

After about 40 minutes, the demonstrators agreed to leave. They staged a brief news conference and marched outside the complex.

Dr. David Wasserman, a legal scholar at College Park's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, spent three years trying to stage the conference, despite political opposition. His planned 1992 meeting on genetics and crime was canceled after protests forced the National Institutes of Health to withdraw funding.

Yesterday, Dr. Wasserman tried to shout back at the protesters, saying some participants shared their concerns. But he was drowned out.

After the demonstrators left, Dr. Wasserman said he had expected uninvited people to come. "But we didn't expect them to gain such intimate access to the conference," he added.

One of the few African-American participants, philosopher Jorge Garcia of Rutgers University, agreed that the topic under debate is "dangerous" because it could "give intellectual credence to a new eugenics movement."

But Dr. Garcia said the conference could help clear the air of racial misconceptions.

"I suppose there's an element of calculated risk," he said.

One genetic researcher, Irving Gottesman, a University of Virginia scientist, presented data from Scandinavian studies showing that, even when reared apart, identical twins have highly similar arrest records. Twin studies form the basis for much of the research into human behavioral genetics.

Other scientists talked about the potential links between aggressive behavior and levels in the brain of certain neurotransmitters, chemicals brain cells use to communicate with each other.

Conference critics were particularly upset by the remarks of Dr. David Comings, who treats hyperactive children at the City of Hope Medical Center near Los Angeles. Dr. Comings pointed to research that purports to link mutations in three genes with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, ADHD.

About 50 percent of ADHD is inherited, he said. And he said that studies show the suspected ADHD mutations also are linked to autism, alcohol and drug abuse, and criminal behavior.

"I see thousands of these kids," he said. "They're failing in school. They can't concentrate. Teachers find them disruptive, aggressive, fighting, lying."

Dr. Comings treats children with a drug that, he said, turns their behavior around. Black children benefit as much as white children from the treatment, he said, but many poor families can't afford it.

Jerome G. Miller a Washington criminologist, called Dr. Comings' research "ominous." He called ADHD "a garbage diagnosis" that lets teachers and others wash their hands of troublesome children.

"It is a way of not dealing with the problems of African-American kids," he said.

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