For the first time ever, researchers will conduct a detailed study of the DNA of a mass killer. By taking a closer look at Adam Lanza's genomic data, scientists are hoping to discover the potential biological underpinnings for extreme violence. But given the diverse nature of mental illness and the complex interplay between genes and the environment, what do the scientists really hope to discover that we don't know already? And is this really a sensible approach to preventing similar attacks?
As Gina Kolata reports in the New York Times, researchers from the University of Connecticut have very quietly announced their plans to conduct the analysis. Speaking through a spokeswoman, the university provided very few details. But it's assumed that the research team will be looking for genetic configurations that might be associated with mental illness — especially the ones that could increase the risk for extreme violence.
The announcement has already been met with controversy. The primary concern is that the work could stigmatize people who have never committed a crime — but who have the same genetic profile as a mass killer.
Everything known about mental illness, these skeptics say, argues that there are likely to be hundreds of genes involved in extreme violent behavior, not to mention a variety of environmental influences, and that all of these factors can interact in complex and unpredictable ways.
"It is almost inconceivable that there is a common genetic factor" to be found in mass murders, said Dr. Robert C. Green, a geneticist and neurologist at Harvard Medical School. "I think it says more about us that we wish there was something like this. We wish there was an explanation."
Also writing in the New York Times, geneticist Paul Steinberg agrees — but his concern is that too much attention is being paid to the wrong factors, and it's undercutting our appreciation of the mental health issues involved. It's blazingly clear, Steinberg argues, that Lanza and other mass killers have deep psychological problems — problems that are misunderstood, under-diagnosed, and completely ignored. He writes:
Too many pendulums have swung in the wrong directions in the United States. I am not referring only to the bizarre all-or-nothing rhetoric around gun control, but to the swing in mental health care over the past 50 years: too little institutionalizing of teenagers and young adults (particularly men, generally more prone to violence) who have had a recent onset of schizophrenia; too little education about the public health impact of untreated mental illness; too few psychiatrists to talk about and treat severe mental disorders — even though the medications available in the past 15 to 20 years can be remarkably effective.
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."
Moreover, Steinberg's argument points to the potential absurdity of sequencing Lanza's DNA. The risk factors for extreme violence are already well documented. The problem is that there is very little being done to prevent people from falling through the cracks.
The University of Connecticut's DNA study is a good idea, make no mistake. The results could be quite revealing, and may in fact demonstrate that mass killers do in fact have identifiable genetic profiles. But there are limits to how far scientists can take this information without regressing into all-out genetic determinism. Failure to recognize this could result in a Minority Report-like world in which people will be accused of crimes they've never committed.
And at the same time, it certainly won't resolve the problem of neglecting mental illnesses and those who require treatment. We already know how to diagnose and treat many of the psychoses surrounding acts of violence — psychologists don't need a genetic analysis to tell them that. The problem is that there's very little being done to identify and treat these potentially dangerous individuals.