Victim of the Scam

Dr. William Bernet’s “Warrior Gene” and Junk Science

In Dr. William Bernet, DSM-V, Parental Alienation, Parental Alienation Disorder, Parental Alienation Disorders, Parental Alienation Syndrome on July 17, 2010 at 4:25 am

I am still mulling this over after hearing it on NPR a couple of weeks ago.  This author pegged onto what exactly it was that was bothering me, and that is JUNK SCIENCE.  Dr. William Bernet of Vanderbilt University specializes in this component, being the proposer to the DSM-V Committee (the psychiatric and psychologist’s diagnosis and “insurance code” bible) of so-called “parental alienation disorder,” an “afflication” he provides expert testimony on in child custody cases.  For those who can afford him (typically fathers).

Again, removing responsibility for what an abusive parent or murderer may have done, there’s always an excuse when you use JUNK SCIENCE.

From Psychology Today:

July 13, 2010, Evolutionary Psychology

Pity the poor murderer, his genes made him do it

Did his genes make him murder?
Published on July 13, 2010

by Nigel Barber, Ph.D.

A criminal defense attorney has many arrows in his/her quiver. The latest is the “warrior gene.” Having this gene saved Bradley Waldroup from a first degree murder conviction.

The charges stemmed from a bloody rampage in which Waldroup shot his wife’s friend Leslie Bradshaw, eight times, killing her before attempting to kill his wife by chopping her up with a machete.

Waldroup had been drinking as he waited for his estranged wife and their four children who were to spend the weekend at his trailer home in the mountains of Tennessee. When his wife said that she was leaving with her friend, he removed the key from Penny Waldroup’s van to ensure that they could not leave, thereby establising criminal intent. Waldroup then launched his deadly attack on the pair.

The “warrior gene”

Waldroup’s defense attorneys ordered a test and established that he had the warrior gene. Like most such biological defenses, there is a germ of scientific truth combined with a hefty dose of junk science, including clever labeling. The warrior gene might be called other things, such as the gambling gene, the depression gene, the irritability gene, or, even the live-in-a-trailer gene because its effects are contingent on an abusive childhood.

The scientific rationale for diminished responsibility is that a variant of the relevant gene, known as MAO-A is linked to an under active prefrontal cortex, this being a key area of the brain that inhibits antisocial impulses. The gene is also associated with antisocial behavior in European Americans (but not others) but only if they were abused as children (1).

The gene has recently acquired some evidence linking it to impulsive aggression. In an experiment where subjects were provoked by having money winnings taken from them, people with the MAO-A variant proved slightly more vengeful but only if they lost the higher of two amounts of money(2). They asked for the provoker to drink a larger amount of hot sauce as punishment. Whether this experiment is more relevant to homicidal aggression, or sensitivity to the taste of hot sauce is anybody’s guess.

So far, a skilled defense lawyer might weave a tale that the bad gene had gotten the better of the European American defendant. The key scientific problem is that about 34 percent of Europeans have the warrior gene. Yet, homicide is extremely rare at a population level with only about one person in 100 committing a homicide during their lives. If the gene were used to predict homicide, it would be wrong more than 33 times for every one occasion that it was right (3).

Just the facts

This brings us back to the Waldroup case tried in March, 2009, where the warrior gene formed the kernel of a diminished responsibility defense. This defense received enthusiastic endorsement in a recent NPR report by Barbara Bradley Haggerty (“Can Your Genes Make You Murder?”)

Waldroup’s defense was not a simple genetic defense because it was combined with the normally ineffective abuse excuse. Defense expert William Bernet of Vanderbilt University argued that the combination of the warrior gene and being abused as a child was a dangerous cocktail that increased the likelihood of committing a violent offense.

Some of the jurors were persuaded by this defense. According to one, Debbie Beatty: “A diagnosis is a diagnosis, it’s there. A bad gene is a bad gene.”

Junk science is also junk science. There is no getting away from that either, especially if it helps the defense to save a defendant’s life.

1. Crampton, P., & Parkin, C. (2007, March 2). Warrior genes and risk-taking science. Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 120 (1250).

2. McDermot, R., et al. (2009). Monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA) predicts behavioral aggression following provocation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 2118-2123.

3. Caspi, A. et al. (2002). Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science, 297, 851-854.

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  1. The recent developments in thinking on genetics, mostly through the Genome Project researches, have tended to undermine many assumptions of psychiatry.

    The assumption had been (rather primitively) that we would ultimately find the gene for schizophrenia and other classifiable psychiatric conditions. Alcoholics were convinced we would find the alcohol gene; this was variously revised to the Addiction gene, etc.

    Most of us realise that single genes rarely affect gross behaviour. Most behaviour and the cognitive precursors of behaviour, are determined by complexes of genes often interacting with each other, sometimes in a complementary and sometimes in a more antagonistic relationship.

    Furthermore, genes have physiological and biochemical (endocrinal / hormonal) influences which interact with neurological features, determined by their own sets of genes. Most genes have physiological and/or biochemical effects in tandem. Even gross physiological feature, influence by other sets of genes (possibly overlapping) will also have some contribution in tandem with these others described genes.

    Genetically, human beings are essentially hybrids. Human kind has developed out of different strains of humanoids, which at some points were capable of interbreeding. In this way, we have developed dominant and recessive genetic features that can be activated under challenging social and environmental circumstances.

    Human being are incredibly adapted to be adaptive. Part of that adaptively includes a disposition to social organisation and cooperation. This was not ‘designed’, things genetically arose that way and the adaptively we are endowed with allowed us to use that genotypic feature towards that purpose, when the conditions were right.

    This has obviously contributed to our survival as a species, in tandem with our more primitive traits (so far). Who is to say which gene combinations will benefit us in the future.

    The ability to reproduce and raise our young, in physical and social environments that benefit them to do the same, will go a long way to determine which genes will be selected. It is even possible to loose of these genetic features by manipulating social structures, advantaging one socio-behavioural, phenotype/genotype over another.

    The gene being discussed (which is actually one of a set that have an interactive influence on cognitive processes and resulting behaviours), appears to have an influence on that part of the brain which we know is associated with these social, or socialised behaviours. It appears to diminish the frontal lobes influence on socialised behaviours.

    Its effect is not dissociated from other higher brain functioning, it is and integrated part of the ‘learning brain’. What we do know is, this area of the brain, that the gene influences in some measure (along with other gene influences) can tend to ‘disinhibit’, or override, the other socialising influences that allow us to adjust our primitive instincts to take entirely selfish actions.

    Everybody has this ability to switch modes, so to speak and a whole range of things can throw that switch, or make it more or less sensitive to being switched (or even get stick in one position). This gene is just one influence of many.

    The terms ‘underactive’ and ‘antisocial’ are not legitimate genetic concepts. The first statement that ‘MAO-A is said to be linked to an under active prefrontal cortex’ refers to a clinical / physiological concept. The second, a reference to ‘inhibits antisocial impulses’ is a psychiatric and/or clinical psychology concept, requiring a social standard against which to judge outcomes.

    In order to identify something to be physiologically & genetically ‘underactive’ we have to assume there is a bio-genetically determined, optimum level of physiological functioning. To identify something as genetically ‘anti-social’ we would need to see direct evidence of a genetic influence that determined a universal ‘social’ function. These are errors that geneticist’s make when they link too closely to clinical concepts.

    We can only really say (scientifically) something along the lines of: ‘the presence of this gene, when all others factors are made as equal as possible, has the effect of lowering the threshold at which socialising influences are seen to be overridden by the more impulsive human urges’. Any scientific statement beyond this requires further information, or a reasoned assumption of some kind.

    In addition it would seem to be clearly indicated by the research, that early childhood, developmental / learning experiences (lower brain survival traits and higher order neurological ‘cognitive’ functioning) can influence the relative impact of this gene. This is further evidence that genetic influence is not singular and direct.

    We can also say, with reasonable confidence, that all other physiological, toxic, environmental and social-behavioural influence (including provocation, intentionality, expectation and choices) will have moderating effects at different times. Not only do genes ‘not’ operate in isolation of associated genes, their influence is also moderated through the psych-social impact of gross physiological impact of other genes.

    The important issue here is that we are going to find a great many of these moderating genetic effects, each contributing to physiological, associated biochemical and gross neurological structure and functioning. These will interact in the complex ways described earlier and also through the active presence of the sum total of ‘others’ who we interact with. There are psycho-social consequences for all interactions.

    Any assumptions that we make from clinically controlled experiments (like the one described here) therefor only describes the possible outcome of genetic to social environment influence under the same conditions as those tested. In the real world, there are infinite, alternative contributions of multiple varying factors, as those kind described above, plus those which have not yet been considered (null hypothesis).

    The predictive value of the identified gene is very limited and its use in justifying decisions about culpability in and social behaviour is entirely speculative, unless soundly argued along with other detailed accounts of other influences. The psychiatric /clinical judgments are the first level of significant error and the legal interpretation that is the based upon these errors is a second level of errors.

    The conclusions that are arrived at are almost entirely spurious and make assumption far beyond the level of confidence that the genetic evidence could possibly justify. Even the measurement that 34 percent of Europeans have the warrior gene has little value in being a significant proportion of the population. It says nothing about the degree of effect. As the article indicates, the levels of ‘impulsive aggression’ in this sub-group would not seem to indicate significant increase in social risk.

    The reasoning above, apart from correcting many errors in the quasi-scientific thinking and even the flawed logic: The use of the influence of this gene to mitigate any ‘antisocial behaviour’ is unscientific, illogical, dishonest and duplicitous. Only someone very stupid, or scientifically naïve and legally incompetent could possibly pretend to believe the conclusions drawn are valid.

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