When I first got into HBD back in 2012, one of the first things I came across—along with the research on racial IQs from Rushton, Lynn, Jensen et al—was that the races differed in a gene called MAOA-L, which has a frequency in Caucasians at .1 percent (Beaver et al, 2013), 54 percent in Chinese people (Lu et al, 2013; as well as 77 percent for the 3r MAOA allele; Lea and Chambers, 2007), 56 percent in Maoris (Lea and Chambers 2007) while about 60-65 percent of Japanese people have the low-frequency version of this gene (Way and Lieberman, 2007).
So if these ethnies have a higher rate of this polymorphism and it is true that this gene causes crime, then the Chinese and Japanese should have the highest rates of crime in the world, since even apparently the effect of MAOA and violence and antisocial behavior is seen even without child abuse (Ficks and Waldman, 2014). Except East Asian countries have lower rates of crime (Rushton, 1995; Rushton and Whytney, 2002). Though, Japan’s low crime rate is relatively recent, and when compared with other countries on certain measures “Japan fares the same or worse when compared to other nations” (Barberet 2009, 198). This goes against a lot of HBD theory, and I will save that for another day. (Japan has a 99 percent prosecution rate, which could be due to low prosecutorial budgets; Ramseyer and Rasmusen, 2001. I will cover this in the future.)
The media fervor—as usual—gave the MAOA gene the nickname “the warrior gene“, which is extremely simplistic (I will have much more to say on ‘genes for’ any trait towards the end of the article). I will show how this is a very simplistic view.
The MAOA gene was first discovered in 1993 in a Dutch family who had a history of extreme violence going as far back as the 1890s. Since the discovery of this gene, it has been invoked as an ultimate cause of crime. However, as some hereditarians do note, MAOA only ’causes’ violence if one has a specific MAOA genotype and if they have been abused as a child (Caspi et al, 2002; Cohen et al, 2006; Beaver et al, 2009; Ferguson et al, 2011; Cicchetti, Rogosch, Thibodeau, 2012;). People have invoked these gene variants as ultimate causes of crime—that is, people who have the low-expressing MAOA variants are more likely to commit more crime—but the relationship is not so simple.
Maoris are more four times more likely to have the low-expressing gene variant than Europeans, the same holding for African Americans and Europeans (Lea and Chambers, 2007).
There is, however, a protective effect that protects whites (and not non-whites in certain cases) against antisocial behavior/violent attitudes if one has a certain genotype (Widom and Brzustowicz, 2006), though the authors write on page 688: “For non-whites, the effect of child abuse and neglect on the juvenile VASB was not significant (beta .08, SE .11, t 1.19, ns), whereas the effect of child maltreatment on lifetime VASB composite approached significance (beta .13, SE .12, t 1.86, p .06). For non-whites (see Figure 2), neither gene (MAOA) environment (child abuse and neglect) interaction was significant: juvenile VASB (beta .06, SE .28, t .67, ns) and lifetime VASB (beta .01, SE .29, t .14, ns).” So as you can see, there are mixed results. Whites seem to be protected against the effect of antisocial behavior and violence but only if they have a certain genotype (which implies that if they have the other genotype, then if abused they will show violent and antisocial behavior). So, we can see that the relationship between MAOA and criminal behavior is not as simple as some would make it out to be.
MAOA, like other genetic variants, of course, has been linked to numerous other traits. Steven J. Heine, author of the book DNA is Not Destiny: The Remarkable and Completely Misunderstood Relationship Between You and Your Genes:
However, any labels like “the warrior gene” are highly problematic because they suggest that the this gene is specifically associated with violence. It’s not, just as alleles from other genes do not only have one outcome. Pleiotropy is the term for how a single genetic variant can influence multiple different phenotypes. MAOA is highly pleiotropic: the traits and conditions potientially connected to the MAOA gene invlude Alzheimer’s. anoerxia, autism, body mass index, bone mineral density, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, extraversion, hypertension, individualism, insomnia, intelligence, memory, neuroticism, obesity, openness to experience, persistence, restless leg syndrome, schizophrenia, social phobia, sudden infant death syndrome, time perception and voting behavior. (59) Perhaps it would be more fitting to call MAOA “the everything but the kitchen sink gene. (Heine, 2017: 195)
Something that I have not seen brought up when discussions of race, crime, and MAOA come up is that Japanese people have the highest chance—even higher than blacks, Maoris, and whites—to have the low repeat MAOA variant (Way and Lieberman) yet have lower rates of crime. So MAOA cannot possibly be a ‘main cause’ of crime. It is way more complex than that. “However intuitively satisfying it may be to explain cultural differences in violence in terms of genes“, Heine writes, “as of yet there is no direct evidence for this” (Heine, 2017: 196).
Numerous people have used ‘their genes’ in an attempt to get out of criminal acts that they have committed. A judge even knocked off one year off of a murder’s sentence since he found the evidence for the MAOA gene’s link to violence “particularly compelling.” I find it “particularly ridiculous” that the man got less time in jail than someone who ‘had a choice’ in his actions to murder someone. Doesn’t it seem ridiculous to you that someone gets less time in jail than someone else, all because he may have the ‘crime/warrior gene’?
Aspinwall, Brown, and Tabery (2012) showed that when evidence of a ‘biomechanic’ cause of violence/psychopathy was shown to the judges (n=191), that they reduced their sentences by almost one year if they were reading a story in which the accused was found to have the low-repeat MAOA allele (13.93 to 12.83 years). So, as you can see, this can sway judges’ perception into giving one a lighter sentence since they believe that the evidence shows that one ‘can not control themselves’, which results in the judge giving assailants lighter sentences because ‘it’s in their genes’.
Further, people would be more lenient on sentences for criminals who are found to have these ‘criminal genes’ than those who were found to not have them (Cheung and Heine, 2015). Monterosso, Royzman, and Schwartz (2010) also write: “Physiologically explained behavior was more likely to be characterized as “automatic,” and willpower and character were less likely to be cited as relevant to the behavior. Physiological explanations of undesirable behavior may mitigate blame by inviting nonteleological causal attributions.” So, clearly, most college students would give a lighter sentence if the individual in question were found to have ‘criminal genes’. But, if these genes really did ’cause’ crime, shouldn’t they be given heavier sentences to keep them on the inside more so those with the ‘non-criminal genes’ don’t have to suffer from the ‘genetically induced’ crime?
Heine (2017: 198-199) also writes:
But is someone really less any responsible for their actions if his or her genes are implicated? A problem with this argument is that we would be hard-pressed to find any actions that we engage in where our genes are not involved—our behaviors do not occur in any gene-free zones. Or, consider this: there actually is a particular genetic variant that, if you possess it, makes you about 40 times more likely to engage in same-sex homicides than those who possess a different variant. (66) It’s known as the Y chromosome—that is, people who possess it are biologically male. Given this, should we infer that Y chromosomes cause murders, and thus give a reduced sentence to anyone who is the carrier of such a chromosome because he is really not responsible for his actions? The philosopher Stephen Morse calls the tendency to excuse a crime because of a biological basis the “fundamental psycholegal error.” (67) The problem with this tendency is that it involves separating yout genes from yourself. Saying “my genes made me do it” doesn’t make sense because there is no “I” that is independent of your genetic makeup. But curiously, once genes are implicaed, people see, to feel that the accused is no longer fully in control of his or her actions.
Further, in the case of a child pornographer, one named Gary Cossey, the court said:
The court predicted that some fifty years from now Cossey’s offense conduct would likely be discovered to be caused by “a gene you were born with. And it’s not a gene you can get rid of.” The court expressed its belief that although Cossey was in therapy, it “can only lead, in my view, to a sincere effort on your part to control, but you can’t get rid of it. You are what you’re born with. And that’s the only explanation for what I see here.”
However, this judge punished Cossey more severely due to the ‘possibility’ that scientists may find ‘genes for’ child pornography use in 50 years. Cossey was then given another, unbiased judge, and was given a ‘more lenient’ sentence than the genetic determinist judge did.
Sean Last over at The Alternative Hypothesis is also a big believer in this so-called MAOA-race difference that explains racial differences in crime. However, as reviewed above (and as he writes), MAOA can be called the “everything but the kitchen sink gene” (Heine, 2017: 195), as I will touch on briefly below, to attribute ’causes’ to genes is not the right way to look at them. It’s not so easy to say that since one ‘has the warrior gene’ that they’d automatically be violent. Last cites a study saying that even those who have the MAOA allele who were not abused showed higher rates of violent behavior (Ficks and Waldman, 2014). They write (pg. 429):
The frequency of the ‘‘risk’’ allele in nonclinical samples of European ancestry ranges from 0.3 to 0.4, although the frequency of this allele in individuals of Asian and African ancestry appears to be substantially higher (*0.6 in both groups; Sabol et al. 1998).
So, why don’t Asians have higher rates of crime—along with blacks—if MAOA on its own causes violent and antisocial behavior? Next I know that someone would claim that “AHA! TESTOSTERONE ALSO MEDIATES THIS RELATIONSHIP!!” However, as I’ve talked about countless times (until I’m blue in the face), blacks do not have/have lower levels of testosterone than whites (Richards et al, 1992; Gapstur et al, 2002; Rohrmann et al, 2007; Mazur, 2009; Lopez et al, 2013; Hu et al, 2014; Richard et al, 2014). Though young black males have higher levels of testosterone due to the environment (honor culture) (Mazur, 2016). So that canard cannot be trotted out.
All in all, these simplistic and reductionist approaches to ‘figuring out’ the ’causes’ of crime do not make any sense. To point at one gene and say that this is ‘the cause’ of that do not make sense.
One last point on ‘genes as causes’ for behavior. This is something that deserves a piece of its own, but I will just provide a quote from Eva Jablonska and Marion Lamb’s book Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Jablonska and Lamb, 2014: 17; read chapter one of the book here; I have the nook version so the page number may be different):
Although many psychiatrists, biochemists, and other scientists who are not geneticists (yet express themselves with remarkable facility on genetic issues) still use the language of genes as simple causal agents, and promise their audience rapid solutions to all sorts of problems, they are no more than propagandists whose knowledge or motives must be suspect. The geneticists themselves now think and talk (most of the time) in terms of genetic networks composed of tens or hundreds of genes and gene products, which interact with each other and together affect the development of a particular trait. They recognize that whether or not a trait (a sexual preference, for example) develops does not depend, in the majority of cases, on a difference in a single gene. It involves interactions among many genes, many proteins and other types of molecule, and the environment in which an individual develops.
So to say that those who have low-functioning MAOA variants have an ‘excuse’ as to why they commit crime is incorrect. I know that most people know this, but when you read some people’s writings on things like this it’s like they think that these singular genes/polymorphisms/etc cause these things on their own. In actuality, you need to look at how the whole system interacts with these things, and not reduce whole complex physiological systems to a sum of its parts. This is why implicating singular genes/polymorphisms as explanations for racial differences in crime does not make sense (as can be seen with the Japanese example).
To reduce behaviors simply to gene X and not look at the whole system does not make any sense. There are no ‘genes for’ anything, except a few Mendelian diseases (Ropers, 2010). Stating that certain genes ’cause’ X, as I have shown does not make sense and, wrongly, in my opinion, gives criminals less of a sentencing since judges find stuff like this ‘very compelling’. If that’s the case, why implicate any murderer? ‘Their genes made them do it’, right? Though, things are not that simple to implicate one gene as a cause for crime or any other complex behavior; in this sense—like for most things to do with the human body—holism makes way more sense and not reductionism. We need to look at how these genes that are ‘implicated’ in criminal behavior interact with the whole system. Only then can we understand the causes of criminal behavior. Looking at singular genes impedes us from figuring out the true underlying reasons why people commit crime.
Remember: we can’t blame “warrior genes” for violent crime. If someone does have a ‘genetic predisposition to crime’ from the MAOA gene, then wouldn’t it make more sense to give them more time? Though, the relationship is not so simple as I have covered. So to close, there is no ‘simple relationship’ between race, crime and MAOA. Not in the way that other hereditarians would like you to believe. Because if this relationship were so simple, then East Asians (Chinese, Japanese) would have the highest rates of crime, and they do not.