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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 December 2004, 14:59 GMT
Biological predisposition to violence: have your say

As the fear of crime in our society grows, so does the interest in whether it can be traced back to a person's physiology. BBC Two's If... We Could Stop The Violence explores the issues in its latest drama-documentary.

Lecture
Would brain scanning really be able to detect violence at an early stage, and therefore help cut crime?

And if it were proven that this was scientifically feasible, would it be right for the state to intrude on an individual's liberty, for the supposed good of society?

This debate is now closed. Thank you for your e-mails.

The views expressed on these pages are not necessarily the views of the BBC. The e-mails published reflect of the balance of opinion received.


I wonder what would happen to those who do not respond to intervention or their condition is beyond intervention. Then what, maybe a lethal injection would make our world safer by eliminating such vices amongst us! Is this the world God wanted us to live in? Please can we have a balance between science and sanity.
Dyna, Botswana

This just looks like an excuse to get even more people on mind-altering psychiatric drugs. Anyone with a similar "brain pattern" to someone who has committed crime could be forced to have treatment from psychiatrists, who for many years have committed violence on their patients by means of electric shocks, lobotomies etc.

At the end of the day, people are not robots who simply walk round reacting to the environment, they still have the power of decision
Dave, UK

It was ideas like these that drove Hitler to wipe out thousands of "genetically inferior" people. At the end of the day, people are not robots who simply walk round reacting to the environment, they still have the power of decision, regardless of their genetic make-up.

The only real link in violent families is the influences in their upbringing, lack of education, etc. Anyone growing up in a criminal environment is bound to be inclined to go down the same route, but if educated properly, and shown some control and responsibility and maybe picking up a few morals, could grow to become a valuable member of society regardless of his/her "violent genes".
Dave, UK

If we were to eradicate violent crime completely, communities would break down as there would be no need for collective sentiment. Ironically, it is the presence of crime that holds a community together.

Watching the programme sent a chill up my spine - reminding me of books such as Orwell's "1984" and Huxley's "Brave New World."
Rebekah, UK

This would simply never happen. If we wiped out people with violent tendencies, what would happen to our police force, armies, etc? We rely on violence to combat violence.
Beth, Woking, UK

This sort of scanning would be useful when people are joining the police, running a company or standing as politicians. In one of these groups violent tendencies might be considered useful, I leave it to the reader to decide which.
Mike, Colwyn Bay, Wales

Much of the programme and debate was informative, but missed the mark because so little was said by those who are victims of violence and antisocial behaviour and have their human rights flouted daily. Jeremy Paxman mentioned this in passing. Science has something to offer, but this needs incorporation into local action rather than philosophical moralising.
Neil Terry, Bolton, UK

The idea of brain scanning for sociological purposes is pernicious and repellent. One of the greatest dangers is that it will be used as yet another argument to relieve individuals of individual responsibility.

It is society's responsibility to: Inform its members of their responsibilities, make them aware that they are accountable for their behaviour and hold them accountable for it.

Bleeding hearts who wish to blame society for the misbehaviour of its members ought to face these facts.
John N. Doyle, Dublin, CA USA

As a victim of violent crime, I would be more than happy to see preventive action taken to ensure that those most susceptible to becoming criminals are given any support and/or help to stop such a course of action.

If genetic scanning can offer us a route to preventing the downward spiral of crime, then I am all for it
Tim Coley, Epsom, England

Prevention, as always, is better than cure and society as a whole would benefit if the root cause of violent crime was tackled instead of attempting to rehabilitate criminals or undo the social ills which may have led to their actions.

As studies have shown, prison is not an effective deterrent in stopping re-offending, and so it is futile to simply offer help or counselling when the deed is done. If genetic scanning can offer us a route to preventing the downward spiral of crime, then I am all for it. However, the people who would be found by such genetic scanning must be offered support to prevent their path into crime, not ostracised from society because of their genetic dilemma.
Tim Coley, Epsom, England

It amazes me to find that the so-called experts are still arguing as to whether a person's behaviour is down to nature or nurture. It is obviously both. As for the question, "Would it be right for the state to intrude on an individual's liberty?", well, yes and no. As is so often the case, issues to do with controlling behaviour are looked at from upside-down by these "experts".

Clearly, you do not want to wait until someone is killed before dealing with the individual and there is great concern in taking people's freedom away when no crime has been committed. How about not giving people these "freedoms" until they show the responsibility in being able to use them?

Individuals seem to expect an ever increasing amount of rights in the modern society, without doing anything to earn them or ever having to show that these gifts are going to be used responsibly.

Knowing where you stand, and what is required to progress, gives the individual a secure base where the expectations placed on him/her are not unrealistic. I believe this leads to a happier, more contented child/person. In turn, lessening the likelihood of a criminally violent future.
Alistair Cook, Fareham, England

It never ceases to amaze me how people can generalise and oversimplify the laws of Darwin so as to support a "survival of the fittest" perspective. Darwin indicated that creatures evolve and adapt to their environments, this does not necessarily involve development of violent tendencies.

To argue that humans are inherently, genetically violent is a fallacy
Gary Flitcroft, Darwin, Australia

It could mean evolving a longer beak or neck to eat, or forming social kinship groups to assist survival (as in humans). Therefore, to argue that humans are inherently, genetically violent is a fallacy. This is notwithstanding the fact that as a species, with a consciousness and the ability to rationalise our actions we can elect to avoid and abhor violence.

Some of the remarks on this site represent a deluded view of human nature which is overly deterministic and simplified, based on a misunderstanding of how violence functions in nature. Certainly we are capable of violence, but it is not an inevitable consequence of evolution, and those who think it is have misunderstood their biology lessons.
Gary Flitcroft, Darwin, Australia

For every person's strength there is a corresponding weakness. To filter out one genetic disposition will, in doing so, rob the human race of that potential strength.
Hudson Millar, Hamilton, New Zealand

I am a youth worker and work with excluded young people who are often not in work, education or in any kind of youth provision.

I do feel that social exclusion is the major cause of antisocial behaviour among young people. This is often compounded by the lack of options or life chances presented to them as they become adults.

Unless it was voluntary agreed, it would not be right for the state to intrude on a person's liberty
Trevor, London

We develop intervention programmes with various services and try to involve young people in this process. Scientific contributions such as brain scans, genetic research, etc, would be valuable in areas such as social services, education and the criminal justice system. However, as I see from week to week, economic, social and environmental factors are major contributions to antisocial, criminal and sometimes violent behaviour.

Unless it was voluntary agreed, it would not be right for the state to intrude on a person's liberty.
Trevor, London

In principle I support the research but I would want to be very sure that the diagnosis was reliable before supporting treatment based on it. Then I would expect it to be used only on cases where the individual concerned would feel some real benefit, NOT on the basis it would make a better society. What do you think we would watch as entertainment if violence became a thing of the past?
Peter, UK

I do not for one minute condone violent behaviour. I do, however, believe that its dramatic rise carries an important message about ourselves and our society (especially our economic system and priorities) which we ignore at our peril. For society, simply locking up the 'troublemakers', potential or actual, may turn out be analogous to taking aspirin for a brain haemorrhage! And for individuals, there are remarkable non-drug, non-invasive therapies that can transform lives.
Jon, Brighton, England

Aggressive behaviour is highly valued in society. In most societies, males are expected to show a certain amount of aggressive behaviour. Soldiers are expected to be able to show violent behaviour, as are policemen. Aggressive behaviour in pursuing sports, a career, defending your honour, etc is considered normal and positive. High numbers of famous and well respected people are known to be aggressive, abusive, and ruthless, and many times show behaviour the can only be describes as antisocial. But we still value them.

These are very nasty choices
Erik Jan van den Ham, Amsterdam, Netherlands

So what would we do with the prediction at age five of these people that they will grow up to be "antisocial"?

Lock them up? We would run out of politicians within a decade. "Re-educate" them?

Or maybe our action will be dependant on the social background, locking up lower classes and providing long-term treatment for the higher classes.

These are very nasty choices. And, in my opinion, there is not one single acceptable answer to them.
Erik Jan van den Ham, Amsterdam, Netherlands

We do not need any brain scans. We need to get back to a more moral society. In the past, more people went to church and talked to the people they met there. They sorted out any bad kids by giving them a crack then telling their fathers who gave them another. I am a Christian, but anyone who correctly follows any moral religion will not commit crimes.
Arthur Osbone, Leeds West Yorkshire

If there are tests which can detect treatable brain disorders, then these could provide a useful service.

However, if no crime has been committed then the person concerned can be offered treatment, but cannot be compelled to accept such treatment. If crimes have been committed, then this information might be used to guide the court as to the best action to be taken.

My second point is that there appears to be evidence that in some cases effective action requires treatment of the family, not just the individual.

My final suggestion is that these tests might have a useful role to play in respect of testing the suitability of candidates for political office. There are some I would like to see tested, but I will resist the temptation to offer their names!
Mr P Brown, Fareham, England

Social acceptance of getting/being drunk these days has increased violent behaviour on the streets and in families. If society considered getting drunk was not any longer appropriate behaviour (like smoking in public is not any longer socially approved behaviour) violence caused by being drunk would be virtually eliminated.
Gemma Daly, Willingham England

When we have screened, categorised and treated those with the violent tendencies what stops the next step of treating those who have the antisocial behaviour of protesting against the state. These are people who obviously have different genetic make-up to the majority of the population and their actions, from the point of view of the state, are disruptive and counter productive in the smooth running of society.

Then what other "criminal" dispositions will be discovered and their sufferers sent for treatment. When this occurred in the USSR to dissidents, we in the West stood up and protested about their human rights or are we to believe that such abuses cannot happen in a democracy.
John, Chorley, England

We are emotional human beings and there is not a definite pattern that could precisely outline our behaviour
Cathy, UK

Although brain scanning would help to reduce the number of crimes, the side-effects might outweigh the advantages of this new technology. We are emotional human beings and there is not a definite pattern that could precisely outline our behaviour.

A person is most likely to develop his/her violence potential under certain circumstances, i.e. social and financial depressions.

Therefore brain scanning only provides us with the possibilities of future criminals and it cannot ever be 100% accurate. At the end of the day, it is not only the bill that we would face (presumably a massive increase in government expenditure) but also the consequences of devastated family relationships, unwillingness of employing "potential criminals" and the taking away of an individual's liberty.
Cathy, UK

I think that it is a very risky area attributing genetics with a link to violent behaviour, the idea of actually tampering with people's brains on the grounds of a possible offence in later life is totally preposterous to me - this is literally attributing guilt before any crime has even been committed!

We cannot predict the future no matter what indicators are present, there are too many factors affecting the possibility to be 100% sure.

This reminds me of Hitler's ideal society
Cathy, Tipperary, Ireland
I also worry about where this study might lead, if it did come to it that children were medically treated for possible crime is this not like genetic engineering? Where will it stop, would we then decide that other "antisocial" behaviour was to be treated ultimately leading to the goal of a utopian society? This reminds me of Hitler's ideal society, would we "cleanse" ourselves of all undesirable behaviours? If we were to address this from a religious aspect would it not march in the face of all that is believed, who are we to tamper with God's creation?

I feel it is an extremely volatile area and am very doubtful of its potential for success.
Cathy, Tipperary, Ireland

Nothing in your programme suggested that a "genetic predisposition to violent behaviour" can be isolated from social and environmental factors therefore we must seek to influence those.

A restoration of the best of ante-natal care and provisions enshrined in the welfare state of the 1940s - free milk, vitamin supplements, dietary advice and support for prospective parents would help.

Good quality nursery education and other support for under-fives are enormously effective. This should be multi-disciplinary and include e.g. speech therapy, dietary advice etc.

Active, positive intervention can make an enormous difference, but it needs to be available to all.

I have taught children who were very troubled and seen the nursery make a difference to their lives and subsequent life chances. As Shami Chakrabarti said, we should be looking at making positive intervention available to all children and their parents to provide the optimum developmental environment for everyone. In doing so, we would be able to help prevent future violence.
Sarah Cox, Harlesden, London

I think the analogy with the development of mental health law is interesting. To an extent people are detained and treated on the basis of what they might do. Tragedies tear at the heart strings and a public movement develops to do something about it. What always remains unseen is how many lives are ruined unnecessarily.
Bob Axford, London, UK

Until we, as a society, start to examine the acceptance of bullying and aggressive behaviour in our schools and on the sports fields etc, we won't tackle the real issue. Many young boys feel it is not only acceptable for them to be violent, but that if they are not they will be seen as less masculine.
Caddi, Blackpool, England

The only people wholeheartedly in favour of brain scans as a solution to social ills are the people who are being funded to carry out this kind of research
Paul Jupp, Worthing

Simple fact: All that a brain scan can show is what areas of a brain are active at any given moment. Beyond that, the truth is that it is ALL guesswork. The only people wholeheartedly in favour of brain scans as a solution to social ills are the people who are being funded to carry out this kind of research. And that really is a fact.
Paul Jupp, Worthing

This is quite frankly absurd.

The Victorians had a stab at this and their findings were ridiculous, which is presumably what will come to be thought of this idea by future generations. Even if a correlation could be established between physiology and a pre-disposition to violence, I fail to see what sensible action could be taken with the "benefit" of this knowledge.

Here is an idea: Why don't we try to deal with the causes of crime rather than trying to quantify the "criminal element" and remove it by pre-determination. Crime is a symptom of larger problems. Deal with the problems and alleviate the symptom.
Andy, Worthing, England

I feel that brain scanning may help to detect the antisocial behaviour of those people who commit crime. But surely you will not be able to do so until the crime has been committed, as I suppose there would be an issue of "Human Rights".

Would it not be crucial to scan these young offenders to protect their future and the future of society?
Miss Patel, West Sussex

Saying that, in the UK the percentage of crimes committed by young offenders is surely rising, therefore would it not be crucial to scan these young offenders to protect their future and the future of society? As for intruding on an individuals liberty, the state has no right to randomly scan individuals, but they could if that individual has been classified as having antisocial behavioural problems.
Miss Patel, West Sussex

I think that unless there is definite evidence that genetics or brain abnormalities are a root cause of criminal activity, we should not go operating on all and sundry. I think it would either have to be the offender's choice or a way to stop serial offenders of extreme crimes.

This aside, it seems obvious that preventative measures such as better living conditions and education, and tackling poverty, drugs, etc, are going to be more effective. Of course, such things are socio-politically slow to combat.
Daryl Gillham, MK, Bucks.

We are too busy looking at the way we think the world "ought" to be and not the way it "is". What we are left with is a clash of "over-ideal fantasies" vs. "biological truth".

To say that genetic information holds no part in behaviour is wishful thinking at its worst
Ross Chippendale, West Yorkshire

The "Y" chromosome makes the sex of the developing offspring male. Males are evolutionary adapted to be aggressive, the reason is the "Y" chromosome makes the body in which it inhabits produce millions of sperm cells each day, and the body is nothing more than a survival machine - a way of passing on the DNA of the host to the next generation. To do this also means having to fight to either prove you will pass on well adapted genetic information that will survive, and also be able to gather food more easily.

To say that genetic information holds no part in behaviour is wishful thinking at its worst. The whole violence solves nothing, yes it does. The act of conflict, whether it is physical or mental, is partly the drive of evolution. We the human race need to stop being blinkered by are own ideas, as reality is somewhat different from the way we want it to be.
Ross Chippendale, West Yorkshire

What a difference brain scanning would make in detecting a preference for violence.

Perhaps these "potentially violent" people could be identified (for the good of society) by wearing a visible symbol in public.

After a trial period this labelling system could be expanded to include other social minorities. Perhaps bespoke "treatment centres" could be built in remote woodland areas...

We only need to look back sixty years to see the impact this type of policy can have within a supposedly civilised and advanced society.
Dominic Myers, Hull, England

Although I think that brain scanning could indicate individuals prone to violent reaction, these tests would only offer early indication into specific nurturing requirements. It would be immoral and socially destructive to attempt to take any further action.
Graham Kesley, Winchester, Hants

What I would be more interested in is the figures showing those who have these predispositions to violence, but who are not themselves violent. I am tired of hearing reports indicating 50% of those who are violent have this predisposition and not hearing how many live a normal life with the same predisposition.

It may be that of all people with this predisposition, only 20% or 10% actually become violent. By only looking at those who are already violent the report will be biased from the start and cannot be used as a measure of whether the state should get involved and intervene at an early age.
Dean, Wales

It might make us safer, but we lose a piece of our freedom
Jonathan Heywood, San Jose, CA USA

I do not think it would be scientifically feasible to determine a person's predisposition for violence. But even if it were, I do not think it would be right to intrude on the person's right to privacy. It might make us safer, but we lose a piece of our freedom. They might have a predisposition for violence but they should be given a chance to use their life experience to overcome it.
Jonathan Heywood, San Jose, CA USA

I think there is the difference between what it is and what is scientifically proved. We would never get what is absolutely true with any analysis. If it were enforced, it would help cut crime. But it would also have the chance of causing misunderstanding. So it is better to enforce after considering both positive aspects and negative ones.
Hisahiro Kato, Tokyo/Japan

I am not sure whether or not we will ever be able to detect and remove exactly what "violence" itself is. As with most of the experts I believe a large portion of what violence is will be "programmed" into us by our environments. Perhaps our genes can make us more or less resilient to violence but I do not believe they have the final say.

People's rights are there to protect them and everyone else - this would simply be the ultimate protection
Darren McAinsh, Falkirk, Scotland

If we find a way to make humans "immune" to violence and we seek to do so this raises, to me at least, questions over what kind of creature we would create.

Clearly such a creature would never arise in nature (carriers of a gene that stopped violent behaviour would be wiped out early on) but since we have created it we are finally ahead of nature. Creating creatures out of evolutionary sync could have great benefits to our civilisation since we recognise long-term goals unlike nature.

As for the question of the state and subjects rights I do not see a problem. People's rights are there to protect them and everyone else - this would simply be the ultimate protection. Even given objections to this I would point out that if a government were to come to power that supports this and it goes through then its what the people want and since its the people that decide their rights its still no problem.
Darren McAinsh, Falkirk, Scotland

To be quite honest the possibility of some sort of brain scanning could be an incredible breakthrough and if it were to prove that it worked then from one point of view I would totally agree with it. But there is always a flip side of the coin in that how fair could it be for you to lock up people purely for being what they are, isn't that exactly the opposite of our current teachings?

And I do not necessarily agree with the idea that people are inherently violent, violence in my view must be something passed to the child from parents openly. For example if a child were to be told by their parents that violence is bad then the child would most likely be a non-violent child. Very rarely are children found to be violent when brought up in non violent families, unless they were subjected to a violent outside influence.
Richard, UK

Brain scanning and genetically classifying people, for any reason, is wrong
Rebecca, Philadelphia, USA

Brain scanning and genetically classifying people, for any reason, is wrong. Even if scanning led to "intervention" for the criminally predisposed, we all know that program would only last as long as someone wants to fund it. After that, these people would just be "tagged" with some identifying mark (creating a confirmed criminal class of society), jailed, or killed.
Rebecca, Philadelphia, USA



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