Sunday, December 30, 2012

What Will We Get From Analyzing Adam Lanza's DNA?

What Will We Get From Analyzing Adam Lanza's DNA?:
noted in Reason 24/7
 yesterday, scientists intend
to analyze Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza's DNA.
Local CTV News notes
not everyone thinks
this is an important thing to do:

Geneticists at the University of Connecticut have been asked to
study the DNA of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam
The study is expected to look at abnormalities in Lanza’s DNA
that could increase the risk of aggression. However, some health
experts are warning of the ethical repercussions in linking generic
mutations to violent behaviour.
University of Connecticut spokesperson Tom Green told ABC News
that the state’s medical examiner has asked for help from the
school’s genetic department.....
While few details have been released about the study, some
mental health experts worry that the findings could lead to an
unfair stigmatization against others with similar genetic
abnormalities to Lanza’s.
“To date there’s no known gene to going postal,” said Dr. John
Vincent, head of molecular neuropsychiatry at the Centre for
Addiction and Mental Health.
Vincent told on Thursday that there have been very
few studies on the genetics of aggression in humans.
“If you were trying to find a gene, I’m pretty sure this would
not be the way to do it. You would need to study a population in
the order of tens of thousands.”
Atlantic Wire at Business Insider
sums up some of the concerns
, including the best modern source
of insight into anything, a string of Tweets:

The New York Times's Gina Kolata reports
 that this
undertaking is thought to be the first time scientists have studied
the genome of a mass killer. Baylor College of Medicine's
genetics professor Arthur Beaudet endorses the
research, saying,
"By studying genetic abnormalities we can learn more about
conditions better and who is at risk."
But the ethical implications of singling out genetic mutations
to explain violent behavior trouble many other scientists, who
worry that such research might be held against innocent people
who happen to share some of Lanza's genetic features.
Harvard Medical School's Dr. Harold Bursztajn told
ABC News
 that he's not sure what the U. Conn
geneticists will "even be looking for at this point,"
considering how thorny and full of false positives the link between
genetic markers and violence is.

My Reason colleague Ronald Bailey has written
enthusiastically about the scientific and personal benefits of our
increasing ability to map our genome and gain detailed
understanding of our genetic makeup, most extensively in
this January 2011 feature
. A relevant section:
What if future research turns up genes associated with criminal
behavior, for instance? I have two copies of the “warrior” version
of the catechol-O-methyltransferase gene, which correlates
with higher functioning in a crisis, possibly because it confers
some protection against anxiety and pain susceptibility. The
alternate “worrier” version of the same gene is associated with
better memory and more focused attention, but individuals carrying
it may crack under pressure. In addition, research published in the
April 2010 issue of Neurologysuggests that the
warrior gene helps prevent cognitive decline as people age. Then
again, some studies associate it with higher levels of aggression
and greater risk of schizophrenia.
For the record, I haven’t been in a physical fight since the
eighth grade and have not been arrested so far. And late-onset
schizophrenia is quite rare. But right now, an employer naively
using the results of my, or anyone else’s, genetic tests to make
hiring and firing decisions is likely to be misled by the very
preliminary information that gene screening currently makes
available. It would be like deciding to pass over first baseman
Albert Pujols if his gene scan indicated that he might have a
slightly higher risk of alcoholism, or turning away physicist
Richard Feynman because he had an SNP combination suggesting a
tendency toward aggression.
After all, genes are not destiny, especially genes for
relatively common complex traits and diseases. Even while having my
share of hangovers, I have managed to support myself and more or
less satisfy my employers since the age of 18.
Bailey in 2009 saw some early
signs of possible promise
in aiming counseling at people with
certain genetic markets for behavior, and in 2010 gently
mocked using genetic predispositions
as excuses or explanations
for behavior.
The sci-fi/science blog
Io9 weighs in
, quoting a geneticist, Paul Steinberg
making the case for more psychiatric imperialism and lamenting that
more psych professionals don't weight in with their professional
judgments on "patients" they've never met:
Steinberg points to the so-called Goldwater Rule, an ethical
standard the American Psychiatric Association adopted in the 1970s
that discourages psychiatrists from commenting on someone's mental
state if they have not been examined.
"It has had a chilling effect," he says. "After mass murders,
our airwaves are filled with unfounded speculations about video
games, our culture of hedonism and our loss of religious faith,
while psychiatrists, the ones who know the most about severe mental
illness, are largely marginalized."
I mocked the use of literary criticism as scientific
explanatory expertise
when applied to Columbine's killers back
in 2004.
I am tempermentally, intellectually, and of course perhaps
dead-wrongly, very skeptical about solid links between physical
facts about DNAs and brains and understanding, predicting, or
certainly trying to manage (absent your own choice) behavior. So I
come at the Lanza DNA story thinking that not only will it not
produce knowledge that is of particular value outside the tautology
of "these are Lanza's genes" but that it's politically dangerous to
even begin imagining that government or law has any particular
reason to care or to make any presumptions or judgments based on
what they might find.
I wrote for Reason back in July 2007 on
how little neuroscience has to contribute
to legal issues of
culpability and blame. I wrote on database
mission creep for DNA
back in 2006.