Is evil inherent in the human gnome?
Is there a predisposition to evil behaviour based on environment, culture, or sex? Are people who commit violent, evil acts against members of their own species with no remorse really ‘human’ at all? Why are we the only known species on the planet who can kill just for the sport of it? Is there evidence of an “evil gene” in our DNA? Can real “monsters” be living among us?
Criminal history is overrun with examples of murderous people. From Jack the Ripper to the Sandy Hook mass murderer Adam Lanza, we marvel at the chilling depths of depravity humans are capable of.
We often call such acts “beastial”, inferring the behaviour of our pre-evolutionary cousins from the animal kingdom. But, this turns out to be more of an insult to four-legged creatures everywhere, as research conducted by biologists have concluded that animals — who can and do kill each other from time to time during fights over food, females or territory — often do not resort to lethal force against each other as we do.
So are we genetically predisposed to the wholesale slaughtering of our own kind?
In the early 1990s, geneticist Dr. Han Brunner studied a Dutch family whose male relatives were prone to violence. He discovered that the MAO-A gene, a gene crucial to managing anger, was inactive in the male relations.
The MAO-A gene controls the production of monoamine oxidases (MAOs) enzymes that break down neurotransmitters; serotonin (affects appetite, sexual behavior, and suppresses pain perception), dopamine (affects memory, general mood, and cognition) and adrenalin (affects the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight-or-flight response” to situations that are high-stress, dangerous and/or physically exhilarating). These neurotransmitters in excess are capable of affecting our moods in a negative manner. The MAO-A gene acts as a mop to clean up the serotonin, dopamine and adrenalin, bringing us back to normal. A mutation in this gene, as seen in the males in the Dutch family, cannot control neurotransmitter levels, which can result in violent behaviour.
Hard evidence for such links have long been established for such inherited disorders as schizophrenia–once thought to be entirely environmentally based–and evidence tying other disruptive mental, neurological and hormonal problems to genetic origins is mounting.
The MAO-A gene is present in all of us, carried on the X chromosome, giving women two copies and men one. The second copy in women is believed to result in increased happiness, but the one copy in men has very different results.
The genetic mutation is surprisingly common – 1 in 3 men carry a shortened, less active version of the gene, considered as the cause of anti-social behaviour in a particular study of Caucasian men who have suffered childhood abuse.
In a related sense, this finding renders moot the infamous, best-selling book The Bell Curve (1994) by the late Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which ticked off academics and social activists alike by implying that black men are more prone to crime and violence due to a “genetic disadvantage”. Seems to me that all men in general have a propensity to exhibit monstrous behaviour. And its apparent that some women can be short-changed by the gene too, which is evidenced by the true crime series “Snapped”, but present studies seem to focus primarily on males for, I guess, the obvious reason.
Scientists have been asked to study the DNA of Newtown school killer Adam Lanza to see if it was an ‘evil’ gene that led him to carry out the massacre. The study, which will look at any abnormalities or mutations in his individual DNA, is believed to be the first of its kind ever carried out on a mass murderer. Lanza slaughtered 20 children and six adults in one of America’s worst ever school shootings on December 14, 2012.
Now, MAO-A is only one of thousands of genes produced by the brain with the potential to affect behavior. Researches say that the gene is not an explanation for violence, but it does move us closer to understanding what drives violence in some men, the belief being that one day scientists will be able to reliably create tailor-made rehabilitation programs for affected individuals.
To answer my own question then: yes, there are monsters among us, and they — inescapably — are us.