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Study: Lifelong criminality may arise from genes

Jan. 26, 2012
Courtesy of 
and World Science staff

Your genes could strongly pre­dict of wheth­er you stray in­to a life of crime, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

Pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Crim­i­nol­o­gy, the work fo­cused on wheth­er genes are likely to cause some­one to be­come a “life-course per­sist­ent of­fend­er”—some­one with an­ti­ so­cial be­hav­ior dur­ing child­hood that can prog­ress to vi­o­lent or se­ri­ous crim­i­nal acts lat­er in life.

Shown is the per­cent­age that ge­net­ic fac­tors were found to have in­flu­enced wheth­er peo­ple be­came “life course per­sis­tent” of­fend­ers, “adolescent-limited” of­fend­ers, or con­sis­tent non-of­fend­ers, or “ab­stain­ers.”


The re­search drew on a sys­tem of clas­si­fy­ing an­ti-so­cial be­hav­ior de­vel­oped by re­searcher Ter­rie Mof­fitt of Duke Uni­vers­ity in Dur­ham, NC. Mof­fitt iden­ti­fied three groups, or path­ways, of crime found in the popul­a­t­ion: life-course per­sist­ent of­fend­ers, adolescent-limited of­fend­ers and ab­stain­ers. Mof­fitt sug­gested that en­vi­ron­men­tal, bi­o­log­i­cal and, per­haps, ge­net­ic fac­tors could cause a per­son to fall in­to one of the paths.

Mof­fitt “seems to high­light and sug­gest that ge­net­ic fac­tors will play a larg­er role for the life-course per­sist­ent of­fend­er path­way as com­pared to the ad­o­les­cence-lim­ited path­way,” said Uni­vers­ity of Tex­as Dal­las crim­i­nol­o­gist J.C. Barnes, a col­la­bo­ra­tor in the new stu­dy. His group of re­search­ers backed this up.

“Ad­o­les­cent-limited” of­fend­ers are de­fined as those that show be­hav­iors such as al­co­hol and drug use and mi­nor prop­er­ty crime dur­ing ad­o­les­cence, but don’t get in­to se­ri­ous trou­ble as adults. “Ab­stain­ers” rep­re­sent a smaller num­ber of peo­ple who don’t en­gage in any de­vi­ant be­hav­ior.

Barnes and col­leagues re­lied on da­ta from 4,000 peo­ple drawn from the U.S. Na­t­ional Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Study of Ad­o­les­cent Health to iden­ti­fy how peo­ple fell in­to each of the three groups. The re­search­ers then com­pared the in­form­a­t­ion us­ing what is known as the twin meth­od­ol­o­gy, a study de­sign that an­a­lyzed to what ex­tent ge­net­ic and en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors in­flu­enced a trait.

“The over­ar­ch­ing con­clu­sions were that ge­net­ic in­flu­ences in life-course per­sist­ent of­fend­ing were larg­er than en­vi­ron­men­tal in­flu­ences,” he said. “For ab­stain­ers, it was rough­ly an equal split: ge­net­ic fac­tors played a large role and so too did the en­vi­ronment. For adolescent-limited of­fend­ers, the en­vi­ronment ap­peared to be most im­por­tan­t.”

The anal­y­sis does­n’t iden­ti­fy the spe­cif­ic genes that un­der­lie the dif­fer­ent path­ways, which Barnes said would be an in­ter­est­ing ar­ea for fur­ther re­search. “If we’re show­ing that genes have an over­whelm­ing in­flu­ence on who gets put on­to the life-course per­sist­ent path­way, then that would sug­gest we need to know which genes are in­volved and at the same time, how they’re in­ter­act­ing with the en­vi­ronment so we can tai­lor in­ter­ven­tions,” he said.

Barnes said there is no sin­gle gene for crim­i­nal be­hav­ior, and the ac­tu­al steps in com­mit­ting a crime are learn­ed. “But there are likely to be hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of genes that [each] will incremen­tally in­crease your like­li­hood of be­ing in­volved in a crime even if it only ratch­ets that prob­a­bil­ity by one per­cent,” he said. “It still is a ge­net­ic ef­fect. And it’s still im­por­tant.”

The link be­tween genes and crime is a di­vi­sive is­sue in the crim­i­nol­o­gy field, which has mainly fo­cused on en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial fac­tors that cause or in­flu­ence de­vi­ant be­hav­ior, he added. “Hon­estly, I hope peo­ple when they read this, take is­sue and start to de­bate it and raise crit­i­cisms be­cause that means peo­ple are con­sid­er­ing it and peo­ple are think­ing about it.”


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Your genes could be a strong predictor of whether you stray into a life of crime, according to a new study. Published in the research journal Criminology, the work focused on whether genes are like ly to cause someone to become a “life-course persistent offender”—someone with anti social behavior during childhood that can later progress to violent or serious criminal acts later in life. The research drew on a system of classifying anti -social behavior developed by researcher Terrie Moffitt of Duke Un ivers ity in Durham, NC. Moffitt identified three groups, or pathways, of crime found in the popul ation: life-course persistent offenders, adolescent-limited offenders and abstainers. Moffitt suggested that environ mental, biological and, perhaps, genetic factors could cause a person to fall into one of the paths. In Moffitt’s theory, “she seems to highlight and suggest that genetic factors will play a larger role for the life-course persistent offender pathway as compared to the adolescence-limited pathway,” said Un ivers ity of Texas Dallas criminologist J.C. Barnes, a collabo rator in the new study. His team of researchers backed this up. “Adolescent-limited” offenders are defined as those that show behaviors such as alcohol and drug use and minor property crime during adolescence, but don’t get into serious trouble as adults. “Abstainers” represent a smaller number of people who don’t engage in any deviant behavior. Barnes and colleagues relied on data from 4,000 people drawn from the N ational Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to identify how people fell into each of the three groups. The researchers then compared the inform ation using what is known as the twin methodology, a study design that analyzed to what extent genetic and environ mental factors influenced a trait. “The overarching conclusions were that genetic influences in life-course persistent offending were larger than environ mental influences,” he said. “For abstainers, it was rough ly an equal split: genetic factors played a large role and so too did the environment. For adolescent-limited offenders, the environment appeared to be most important.” The analysis doesn’t identify the specific genes that un derlie the different pathways, which Barnes said would be an interesting area for further research. “If we’re showing that genes have an overwhelming influence on who gets put onto the life-course persistent pathway, then that would suggest we need to know which genes are involved and at the same time, how they’re interacting with the environment so we can tailor interventions,” he said. Barnes said there is no single gene for criminal behavior, and the actual process of committing a crime is learned. “But there are like ly to be hundreds, if not thousands, of genes that [each] will incremental ly increase your likelihood of being involved in a crime even if it on ly ratchets that probabil ity by one percent,” he said. “It still is a genetic effect. And it’s still important.” The link between genes and crime is a divisive issue in the criminology field, which has main ly focused on environ mental and social factors that cause or influence deviant behavior, he added. “Honestly, I hope people when they read this, take issue and start to debate it and raise criticisms because that means people are considering it and people are thinking about it.”