By PATRICIA COHEN
Published: June 19, 2011
It was less than 20 years ago that the National Institutes of Health abruptly withdrew funds for a conference on genetics and crime after outraged complaints that the idea smacked of eugenics. The president of the Association of Black Psychologists at the time declared that such research was in itself "a blatant form of stereotyping and racism."
The tainted history of using biology to explain criminal behavior has pushed criminologists to reject or ignore genetics and concentrate on social causes: miserable poverty, corrosive addictions, guns. Now that the human genome has been sequenced, and scientists are studying the genetics of areas as varied as alcoholism and party affiliation, criminologists are cautiously returning to the subject. A small cadre of experts is exploring how genes might heighten the risk of committing a crime and whether such a trait can be inherited.
The turnabout will be evident on Monday at the annual National Institute of Justice conference in Arlington, Va. On the opening day criminologists from around the country can attend a panel on creating databases for information about DNA and "new genetic markers" that forensic scientists are discovering.
"Throughout the past 30 or 40 years most criminologists couldn't say the word â€?genetics' without spitting," Terrie E. Moffitt, a behavioral scientist at Duke University, said. "Today the most compelling modern theories of crime and violence weave social and biological themes together."
... Criminologists and sociologists have been much more skittish about genetic causes of crime than psychologists. In 2008 a survey conducted by John Paul Wright, who heads graduate programs at the University of Cincinnati's School of Criminal Justice, discovered that "not a single study on the biology-crime link has been published in dissertation form in the last 20 years" from a criminal justice Ph.D. program, aside from two dissertations he had personally overseen (one of which was Mr. Beaver's). He also noted that the top four journals in the field had scarcely published any biological research in the past two decades.
Mr. Wright said he now thinks "in criminology the tide is turning, especially among younger scholars."
Is criminology a social science? I hadn't realized that. I thought criminology was just what people who wanted to be prison guards majored in at junior college.
I'm sort of joking, but I'm kinda not. I am, relatively speaking, a devoted aficionado of the social sciences. If you want your field to be of interest to the intelligent layman, I'm exactly the kind of person you need to interest. Yet, there are a whole bunch of social sciences, such as criminology, that have simply faded out of interest for people like me.
Occam's Butterknife is a big reason why criminology has been so boring for so long. Obviously, the most notable fact about street crime in America is that blacks commit a disproportionate share. And, the most obvious reasons for this are the same reasons as why, say, blacks are disproportionately represented playing defense in the NFL. Here is Lawrence Taylor famously breaking quarterback Joe Thiesmann's leg. You look at L.T. and say: he's got all the tools it takes to be a really good mugger.
Back in 1985, James Q. Wilson (political scientist) and Richard Herrnstein (psychologist) wrote Crime and Human Nature. It reviewed all the twin studies related to crime up through that point. It documented the obvious. That pretty much ruined criminology, because now the highest service any criminologist could render to the field was to not mention the elephant in the living room.
Similarly, Jonathan Haidt made waves a few months ago by making a speech at a social psychology convention, where he asked all the conservative social psychology professors to raise their hands, and he got three out of about a 1000 or so.
My amazed response was: Social psychology is a discipline? Why hasn't anybody told me about it before? Maybe the fact that it is so ideologically homogeneous has something to do with why it's so boring and so widely ignored?
In contrast, overall psychology is doing much better at keeping the intelligent layman's attention. For example, here's a paragraph from this article:
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard whose forthcoming book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature," argues that humans have become less violent over the millenniums, suggests that the way to think about genetics and crime is to start with human nature and then look at what causes the switch for a particular trait to be flipped on or off.
Let me make a prediction: Pinker's book, which is set for release on October 4, 2011, will be huge. Not necessarily in sales, but everybody will be blogging about it.
Granted, Pinker prefers to be called a "cognitive scientist" rather than a psychologist, but Harvard calls him psychologist, so that's what the NYT calls him.
The point is that psychology, because they haven't managed to totally squeeze out the politically incorrect psychometricians and other members of the awkward squad, is a relatively happening field.