Declaring War on the “Warrior Gene”

Particularly when science uses ‘hot sauce’ to oversimplify culturally, legally, socially and politically sensitive genetics

Apparently, the historical fascination with attempting to explain human behaviour through genetics is still contemporary practice. Since the gene monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), controversially named “the warrior gene”, was identified in the 90s there has been a significant amount of unnecessary hype and miscommunication of the science. Society, the media and even the legal system have fallen victim to the belief that our genes control our behaviour and the public alarm has now been commercially exploited.

In 2009, Rose McDermott and colleagues published psychological research on the MAOA gene which linked the gene to aggressive behaviour in provocative situations. These findings are consistent with science’s current understanding of the gene’s role in breaking down mood-controlling neurotransmitters. Low activity levels of MAOA can therefore lead to aggressive or anti-social behaviour. However, such controversial research can hardly be considered reliable when McDermott and colleagues have used “hot sauce” as a means of testing their hypothesis.  The study’s 78 male participants were given the opportunity to pay money to punish another individual – by allocating a shot of spicy sauce – who had stolen varying amounts of money. This oversimplification of such a complex and poorly understood science has resulted in media hype and commercial exploitation of public hysteria.

The media hype and commercial exploitation has recently been demonstrated by a National Geographic series, ‘Born to Rage’ – linked below – and websites offering reduced cost genetic tests for the ‘warrior gene’ ($66-$99 a test). The problem is: what are people meant to do with this knowledge? The media is leading many individuals with violent tendencies to feel a false sense of justification for their behaviour. The justification is based on highly complex and poorly understood biology, such that the link between genes and behaviour are uncertain and tenuous at best.

National Geographic’s Born to Rage Advertisement

Behaviour genes, such as MAOA, operate in complex biochemical and metabolic pathways within the still mysterious human brain. The gene may overlap and interact with other unidentified genes, proteins, and related biochemical pathways in ways genetics has not yet explored. Additionally, no robust research has been done into the kinds of environmental factors, and the degree of their influence, on the expression of aggressive or antisocial behaviours within individuals.

Disturbingly, despite this lack of certainty and the often tenuous links, McDermott and colleague’s paper has been exploited by the law to defend criminals on trial and reduce criminal sentence, as occurred in the Italian case of Abdelmalek Bayout.  Additionally, the ‘warrior gene’ was detrimentally used by geneticists such as Rod Lea in 2007 to describe the traditions, culture and history of New Zealand’s Maori population, feeding global stereotypes. Other geneticists, such as Garry Hook, have challenged the cultural associations – in a period when the rate of crime, violence and alcoholism among the Maori population is already socially and politically sensitive – as ‘irresponsible and not supported by the facts.’

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