Towards the end of last year, a few of the AXON London team decided to take a break from their normal evening routines and attend an educational lecture at the Royal Institution in the heart of London. Titled ‘The good, the bad and the genetically predetermined’, the lecture examined the influence that our genes could have on our behavior and ultimately, the implications they could have on the judicial system.

Three speakers from varied backgrounds presented on the somewhat controversial topic: geneticist Dr. Jonathan Pettitt, Professor of Law Robin Mackenzie and Philosophy Professor Thomas Baldwin. Each discipline supported a reasoned case for why we should approach arguments in favor of diminished responsibility on the grounds of our genetic make-up with a sense of caution. Most notably, each speaker highlighted the benchmarking influence that previous case rulings hold within the structure of our legal system.

The implications of previous legal rulings in future cases could mean that if an acquittal based on claims of behavioral genetics was granted, we could see a rapid change in the proceedings of criminal trials. It could end up that a trial becomes the arena to continuously debate the biological predetermination of action. This could ultimately lead to a legal precedent that reduces the responsibility of human action and questions whether we have free will at all – not only for our violent and aggressive outburst, but for all our actions. A very scary thought! As such, all the speakers concluded that until we have substantial evidence and testing in place, it is unlikely that a defense claim based on genetic composition will ever be a winning argument in a court of law.

Interestingly, however, each of the speakers did make reference to particular scientific research into the monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) gene. According to a study in 2002, males with mutations in the MAO-A can be linked to aggressive and violent behavior. The gene has since been dubbed the ‘warrior gene’ due to its reported link to aggression. Whilst each of the speakers acknowledged the findings relating to the mutated MAO-A genes, it was again agreed that it would not be appropriate to review and reduce sentences for violent crimes for those who carry the mutation.

So the next time you hear the words, “it wasn’t my fault s/he made me to it” – perhaps consider that there is more to blame than it would seem?!

Laura Glover