Guest Host: Katty Kay

Forensic researchers are taking another look at controversial claims about the role of genetics in criminal behavior. We discuss the ethical and policy implications.


  • John Paul Wright Professor of Criminal Justice, The University of Cincinnati
  • Arthur Caplan Professor of Bioethics and Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania
  • John Laub Director, National Institute of Justice (NIJ) at U.S. Department of Justice; Joint recipient of Stockholm Prize in Criminology (2011)
  • Benson George Cooke President, Association of Black Psychologists
  • John Butler Leader of the applied genetics group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology


  • 10:06:54

    MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane will be back on Tuesday. At the annual National Institute Of Justice Conference yesterday, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder said the importance of rigorous cutting edge research has never been clearer. One area of research getting fresh attention is the relationship between genes and criminal behavior.

  • 10:07:16

    MS. KATTY KAYJoining me in the studio to discuss DNA research in criminology are John Laub, director of the National Institute of Justice, and Benson George Cooke, president of the Association of Black Psychologists. John Paul Wright from the University of Cincinnati School of Criminal Justice joins us from a studio. Thank you, gentlemen, so much for joining me.

  • 10:07:35


  • 10:07:36

    DR. JOHN PAUL WRIGHTThank you.

  • 10:07:36

    DR. JOHN LAUBGood morning.

  • 10:07:37

    KAYThe phone number here is 1-800-433-8850. The email address is Of course, you can find us on Facebook and on Twitter. We would love to hear you. Fascinating subject, gentlemen. Thank you so much for coming in. Let me start with you, Dr. John Paul Wright. Why have, historically, criminologists been so reluctant to study whether there is a genetic cause to crime?

  • 10:08:03

    WRIGHTWell, I think you have to understand a little bit of the history of criminology. Criminology came out of -- was a subfield of sociology for a very long time. And at some point in the distant -- in the past -- I'm sorry -- biological theorizing was linked with Nazi efforts with racism, with all sorts of sort of nasty social and cultural policies, including the eugenics movement. And I think that set a very sour taste in the discipline's mind for a very long time.

  • 10:08:51

    KAYIn terms of -- what is now prompting the new research?

  • 10:08:57

    WRIGHTWell, what's prompting the new research, I think, is, first of all, data. We now have large data sets, both of twins, of extended families, of children of twins, data sets that also include measures, direct measures of genes that we've never ever had before. And it's allowing us to ask questions that we've never been able to ask before and to provide some empirical assessment of biological influences.

  • 10:09:30

    WRIGHTThe other thing that has changed is the technology has rapidly allowed us to both genotype people at a cost that's no longer exorbitant, as well as conduct imaging studies that are now very revealing. So you really have this amalgamation of data and technology that have allowed us to move in this direction. It's no longer speculation. It's no longer simply built off of correlation.

  • 10:10:04

    WRIGHTWe have various methods now at our disposal to assess biological hypothesis.

  • 10:10:10

    KAYYou mentioned the Second World War when I asked you why there had been this historic reluctance to study genetic causes of crime. And I was just wondering whether we are also seeing a generational shift amongst criminologists.

  • 10:10:23

    WRIGHTWe may be. My colleagues and I talk about this quite a bit. The new generation of criminologists are not -- you know, they're not afraid of technology. They've grown up in the area of genomics, of advances in molecular genetics. I think it's not as scary as it once was, especially when you start to delve into it, and you realize how complicated it really is. So I think that the younger generation of criminologists are, I think, more inclined to look at issues like this.

  • 10:11:00

    KAYDr. John Laub, first of all, congratulations. You've received the 2011 Stockholm Prize in Criminology. Well done.

  • 10:11:07

    LAUBThank you very much.

  • 10:11:08

    KAYGreat honor for you.

  • 10:11:08

    LAUBYes it is.

  • 10:11:09

    KAYTell us about your research.

  • 10:11:10

    LAUBWell, our research has been a long-term study that's looked at a -- how crime occurs across various phases of life, starting in childhood, through adolescence into the full length of adulthood. In fact, with Robert Sampson, we have, what we believe, to be the largest longitudinal study of offenders anywhere in the world. So we have data on 500 juvenile delinquents that were followed beginning at age 14, and we followed them until age 70.

  • 10:11:44

    KAYAnd did you learn anything about the issue of inheritance in this?

  • 10:11:48

    LAUBWell, we -- and, again, Dr. Wright's quite right, that the research during the 1940s and 1950s and, indeed, until the '60s that tried to look at biological measures used very crude measures of biology. And so we were not able to look at many of the things that he was talking about in that study. But, nonetheless, we do have a number of characteristics that people believe are linked to biological -- have a biological basis.

  • 10:12:16

    LAUBFor instance, we're able to look at early childhood impulsivity, early childhood hyperactivity, things like that. And, I think, for us, the -- while these kinds of factors may set an individual on a particular path, we believe that there are multiple pathways to crime. And we believe, more importantly, there are multiple pathways out of crime. And what we won the prize for was, really, our research looking at how it is offenders stop offending in later life.

  • 10:12:43

    KAYDr. Benson Cooke, you've expressed some concern about any linking of genetics to criminal behavior.

  • 10:12:51

    COOKEWell, based upon the article that was in The New York Times, it's -- it reported that, about 20 years ago, the Association of Black Psychologists held a position. As the current president, I probably say there are three major points that must be reconciled. The first is, who's doing the research?

  • 10:13:12

    COOKEWhile we're talking about moving in to the next generation, the reality is we're still using a scientific approach that, if you don't have people sitting at the table who represent a diverse worldview or a diverse cultural sensitivity and degree of competence, then you're going to run into some problems with what the outcome is going to be.

  • 10:13:31

    COOKEThe second is, what's going to be the experimental design? In many instances, if we're looking at who the control group is -- for example, that would be the norm. So what's the norm based upon versus what the control experimental group -- this is the one that deviates from the norm. You're probably going to get deficit modeling. In that context, research that's been done using European Americans or whites as the norm, basically results in African-Americans looking pathological.

  • 10:14:00

    COOKEThat's been a concern of the Association of Black Psychologists. And then, finally, the sample group. If you're looking at research from people who have been incarcerated, whether at the juvenile or at the adult level, and you take into consideration that the majority of those incarcerated are African-Americans...

  • 10:14:16

    KAYAnd men.

  • 10:14:17

    COOKEYeah, and men. Automatically, you're going to have some serious problems. It's a slippery slope.

  • 10:14:21

    KAYRight. So you're saying that, basically, the research can never be accurate enough to be valid?

  • 10:14:28

    COOKEI'm saying it's going to be important that you have people sitting at the table who represent the groups that are often -- are currently being highlighted as having some serious crime problems.

  • 10:14:40

    KAYIs there research, though, that you'd like to see done or, in general, that you think criminologists should steer away from?

  • 10:14:47

    COOKEWell, I think there's some other points that are really important. One is to really define -- when we're talking about crime, what kind of crime? For example, if you're looking at some of the work that's been done by Michelle Alexander in her book, "The New Jim Crow," she highlights that fact that in many instances you have individuals who, if they're using, for example, powder cocaine, faced a lower sentence of time versus those who are using crack. Same product, but, socially and legally, there is this difference.

  • 10:15:18

    KAYWe're looking at a different group of people.

  • 10:15:19


  • 10:15:20

    KAYOkay. Well, let me go back to you, Dr. John Paul Wright, because you have done some research on this. And bearing in mind what Dr. Benson -- I mean, Dr. Cooke was just saying, tell us a little bit about the research that you've done amongst adopted children and crime there.

  • 10:15:36

    WRIGHTWell, we've engaged in a full battery of studies, if you will. One was looking at children that had been adopted. And we've known since the -- at least, the 1970s, that children that are adopted, generally, but not always, turn out looking more like their biological parents than their adoptive parents. Now, this is, I believe -- some of (word?) work in the '70s showed this, and it has since continued.

  • 10:16:11

    WRIGHTI would say that the other side of that coin is that there's clear -- there's also clear evidence that adoption into dysfunctional families seems to increase whatever propensities or aggressive propensities a child may have. So there's an interaction.

  • 10:16:30

    KAYSo I'm right in thinking that you've found that adopted children, whose biological parents had committed a crime...

  • 10:16:38

    WRIGHTThat's correct.

  • 10:16:38

    KAY...were significantly more likely to be arrested than adoptees, whose biological parents have never been arrested. So it was not...

  • 10:16:45

    WRIGHTThat's correct.

  • 10:16:46

    KAY...a question of being adopted and issues that that might raise. It was the environment in which they were placed.

  • 10:16:53

    WRIGHTYes, both. It's -- with adoption -- the adoption studies in general, showed that if the parents had been arrested, the biological parents had been arrested, then the child has a priori higher risk of being arrested later in life. Again, I think it's important to draw out that if the child is placed in a home where parents are also being arrested, the adoptive parents are also being arrested, that that seems to aggravate the situation.

  • 10:17:24

    WRIGHTSo, in our minds, at least, there's clear evidence that these things interact.

  • 10:17:29

    KAYDr. John Laub, what do you make of that research?

  • 10:17:31

    LAUBWell, I think that -- I mean, I agree with Dr. Wright in the sense that most of the better work looking at genes and crime are looking at the interaction between genes in the environment. And, it seems to me, from a scientific standpoint, we need to be open to the possibility that there is a genetic basis for a predisposition or a propensity to be involved in crime.

  • 10:17:54

    LAUBBut, at the same time, the question is what it is about the environment then that influences the later development of criminal behavior. And it seems to me we cannot reduce our analyses to simply say, well, there's this genetic basis, and not really focus on the wide range of environment because, I think, our work shows the power of the environment.

  • 10:18:17

    LAUBAnd, as a social scientist, I'm not afraid of genetics 'cause I believe, in the long run, it's going to suggest the small part of the larger problem of trying to understand this very complex behavior known as crime. Because one of the things we've learned over the last 25 years is it comes from multiple sources.

  • 10:18:32

    KAYOkay. We'll discuss those sources, predisposition and the triggers that there might be in this, just after this short break. Dr. John Laub joins me here in the studio. Dr. Benson George Cooke is also here. John Paul Wright, professor of criminal justice joins us down the line. We'll take your calls, questions and comments later on in the program. Please do stay with us. We're going to have a quick break.

  • 10:20:02

    KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. You've joined our discussion on criminology and genetics and whether there are links between the two. New research coming out. I am joined here in the studio by Dr. John Laub. He's from -- the director of the National Institute of Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice. Dr. Benson George Cooke, president of the Association of Black Psychologists is with me in the studio as well.

  • 10:20:26

    KAYJohn Paul Wright, professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati joins us down the line. And we also have with us down the line, John Butler, who is the leader of applied genetics group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Mr. Butler, thank you very much for joining "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:20:43

    DR. JOHN BUTLERYou're welcome.

  • 10:20:44

    KAYYou've done a lot of work on DNA databases and actually keeping genetic records. What's the new thinking on databases? And how do databases differ from data banks?

  • 10:20:58

    BUTLERSo a DNA database is just a storage of a DNA profile, which contains a computer file with specific information from DNA for forensic testing. There's 13 specific sites right now that are tested in the U.S. within the human genome. They measure the length of DNA at those sites. A data bank is a storage of samples, so biological specimens that could be then tested for use into a database.

  • 10:21:23

    KAYAnd how are they used forensically, these DNA samples?

  • 10:21:27

    BUTLERWell, when you have an unknown profile from a crime scene, that can then be searched against a storage of DNA profiles from previously convicted offenders that are present in the database, based on laws that have been, you know, from various states that they'll include their DNA database profiles.

  • 10:21:46

    KAYMr. Butler, where's -- we're talking this hour about the links between -- or possible links between genetics and criminal behavior. How do you think that the kind of DNA databases that you're building up, and that are being built up in the States, affect the research into that? What do they tell us about those links?

  • 10:22:05

    BUTLERReally, nothing because the DNA profiles that are used for forensic purposes do not store any information related to ethnicity. So there's really -- or anything else. So there's nothing that -- all it stores is a basic -- just a series of numbers that are useful for -- just similar to a Social Security number that could specifically identify an individual.

  • 10:22:25

    KAYAnd yet they're not totally uncontroversial, are they? Because there is an argument from critics that current DNA databases maintained by the FBI might be skewed by virtue of where you collect the DNA from.

  • 10:22:37

    BUTLERNo. The DNA samples that are collected and stored within a DNA database are based on what -- the individuals that come into the criminal justice system. So offenders that -- when they're, if they're either arrested, depending on what the state law is, or previously convicted, those are the profiles that are then put into the database.

  • 10:22:54

    KAYMr. Butler, I have it the studio Dr. Benson George Cooke. He's the president of the Association of Black Psychologists. And I'd like to bring him in on this conversation, Dr. Cooke.

  • 10:23:04

    COOKEOkay, in the context of using the database and data bank for forensic purposes, I mean, I think everyone listening has probably seen "CSI" or other episodes and recognizes the value of that information in correctly identifying people to some offense that takes place. I think that's very different than talking about genetics as a basis for determining, you know, who a criminal might be.

  • 10:23:27

    COOKEIn a New York Times article, for example, the two questions that were raised that, I think, were very appropriate, is, should a genetic predisposition influence sentencing? I think that could be problematic, leading to a slippery slope. And another is, could genetic tests be used to tailor rehabilitation programs to individual criminals? And that would have to be looked at carefully.

  • 10:23:47

    COOKEAnd the key point that I want to reiterate, going back to, again, is who's sitting at the table when these decisions are being made scientifically about how to approach it? And what population is the norm around which the results are being formulated?

  • 10:24:05

    KAYSo would you say that there were any possible disadvantages for having a national DNA database?

  • 10:24:11

    COOKEWell, in the context of forensic purposes, I have no problem with that. I'm speaking of it in the context of saying, okay, now, we're going to have a marker for being able to determine, you know, who could potentially be a criminal from childhood up.

  • 10:24:24

    KAYAnd Mr. Butler, you think that couldn't happen with the databases as they currently stand?

  • 10:24:29

    BUTLERAs they currently stand, no. So they're just forensic tools to help identify unknown crime scene profiles.

  • 10:24:36

    KAYOkay, John Butler, leader of the applied genetics group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, thank you so much for joining "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:24:42

    BUTLERYou're welcome.

  • 10:24:44

    KAYLet's get back to this discussion. Just before the break, John Laub, you were talking about this idea of predisposition. I think this is very interesting, and whether people might have a predisposition that we could see from some kind of genetic research towards a crime. And the question then would be what would be the trigger?

  • 10:25:00

    KAYBecause somebody could have a predisposition towards aggressive behavior and go on to become CEO of a major company and channel their predisposition that way, presumably.

  • 10:25:10

    LAUBPresumably. But, also, I think there's a larger issue here, and it's linked to how one views development. And what I'm concerned about, when we look at the role of genetics in criminal behavior in particular, is it seems as if they're looking at development as simply this unfolding or unrolling of something that's already there, and that's going to play itself out as a person ages.

  • 10:25:32

    LAUBAnd what our research looks at, from a life course developmental standpoint, is how life course events can influence behavior over time. And what you end up with then is a malleability, individuals' change, enormous heterogeneity over the life course, unpredictability, and so forth. So it seems, to me, that we just can't use these markers to determine what people are going to look like from childhood to later adulthood.

  • 10:26:02

    KAYJohn Paul Wright, would your research with adoptees reinforce what John Laub was just saying?

  • 10:26:10

    WRIGHTWell, I think our research, in general -- I think we would say that we agree, in part, with Prof. Laub, that, you know, it is very difficult to look forward into the future, even with the data at hand, and say, well, you know, person X is going to be a high rate offender. And person Y is not going to be. There are many intervening mechanisms, and I think Prof. Laub's work with Prof. Sampson has gone a long way in elucidating some of those mechanisms.

  • 10:26:43

    WRIGHTThat said, there is also -- appears to be a pathway, although it is not a perfect pathway, where children who, very early in life, who show very high degrees of problem behavior, who are not controllable, who are highly impulsive, seem to be frequently set on a life course that just builds deficits, if you will, that creates problems along the way. And it divorces them from many possible pro-social opportunities.

  • 10:27:18

    WRIGHTAnd it's particularly those children that we're concerned with. Work by Terrie Moffitt and her husband, Avshalom Caspi, for example, shows this.

  • 10:27:26

    KAYBut is that -- what's the chicken and egg there? Because if you have a child who, at 3, has a tendency towards some kind of aggressive or antisocial behavior, couldn't it well be that they end up in an environment where they are more exposed to further aggressive and antisocial behavior, that it's harder for them to be integrated, and that if they had been -- if they had not had that behavior, they could have led a perfectly peaceful and crime-free life?

  • 10:27:49

    WRIGHTMm hmm. Most certainly. If you look at early childhood, one of the predictors of who the most aggressive children are is peer rejection. Early in life, young children who are very aggressive are socially excluded from pro-social peer groups. That's an important key element in understanding how their lives are unfolding.

  • 10:28:12

    WRIGHTBecause it also cuts them off from pro-social opportunities and pro-social learning environments that we think could potentially sway their propensity, whatever that propensity may be. But those are the people that we're worried about. We're worried about the life course persistent in the people that start early, accelerate offending, engage in a wide variety of crimes later in life, and who are slow to desist.

  • 10:28:43

    WRIGHTThat's the primary group of offenders that are responsible for the majority of crimes in our society.

  • 10:28:49

    KAYOkay, Benson Cooke, would you say then that, if we look at that group of children who have a predisposition, perhaps, very early on towards some sort of aggressive behavior, then they get -- as a psychologist, I'm asking you -- and then they get into a situation where they might be socially isolated, which is it that you would say is the more likely to determine whether they end up committing a crime, the fact that they've been socially isolated because of their behavior or some sort of genetic predisposition towards violence?

  • 10:29:16

    COOKELet me -- I'd like to take this conversation and kind of contextualize it in a way that is relevant for me. As I'm listening, I think about the fact that I grew up in a single parent family. I think about the fact that I grew up in the projects. I think about the fact that, early on in my preadolescent years, I moved into a predominantly white neighborhood, where I was isolated. Okay? I was told by my teachers that I would never amount to anything. But look at me now.

  • 10:29:45

    KAYI'm not witnessing a huge amount of aggressive behavior, I have to say, in the studio.

  • 10:29:47

    COOKEExactly. And so, I guess, my point is, it's really important to understand some of the cultural issues. For example, one of the things, again, I had mentioned before, the importance of having African-American geneticists, PhDs, sitting at the table, formulating the initial conversations on this, I think that that's really...

  • 10:30:09

    KAYAnd if that happened, would you be...

  • 10:30:12

    COOKEIf they're culturally sensitive to the issues that impact the African-American community, I think that some of the things that I'm talking about will come out. Case in point, there is a book called, "Medical Apartheid," written by Harriet Washington, that really provides an excellent historical overview from pre-slavery, slavery, up into the 20th century, of many of the misdeeds that have been done by the medical community in terms of this particular conversation we're having now.

  • 10:30:41

    COOKEHas this group studied that? Has this group looked at some of the work that has been done around the Tuskegee experiment? And there are many others. Because that's the point that, I think, I'm conveying as the president of the Association of Black Psychologists, that is the elephant in the room that people oftentimes are unwilling to speak to.

  • 10:31:00

    KAYOkay, what -- I'm not quite clear whether you are suggesting that any research linking, or suggesting, that there is a genetic link with criminology, you think is going to be somehow subjective or unrepresentative or unreliable?

  • 10:31:22

    COOKEI'm saying that there is information that I have not read about in the work that's being currently done, that speaks to the issue of cultural mistrust that is very prevalent from our professional orientation.

  • 10:31:37

    KAYJohn Laub, is it possible to marry the cultural, political, historical sensitivities with some sort of scientific genetic research that comes up with a -- I hate to use the word true -- but a result that we can say is pure fact?

  • 10:31:57

    LAUBWell, I think, I have a slightly different take on that question, and Dr. Wright alluded to the life course persistent offender. And this is a prominent theory within criminology, that talks about a small group of kids who have a number of risk factors that then they commit crime virtually in every decade of their life. And that's a very provocative theory. We believe we have data that can look at that empirically.

  • 10:32:25

    LAUBAnd -- 'cause, of the men we studied as adolescents and as children, they had many of the characteristics of life course persisters. However, once they became serious delinquents, then you try to prospectively look at what happens then to life. We see that all of those eventually desist over time. And so they do not continue in a life of crime. In fact, they are able to stop committing -- offending.

  • 10:32:49

    LAUBAnd that's because we believe, because of turning points in their life -- those turning points could be cultural context. Those turning points could be salient life events, like marriage, like work, like serving in the military. Lives could be turned around. And we think that's a very important message in this whole story of looking at genetics and crime.

  • 10:33:06

    KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, please, do call 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to Find us on Facebook or send us a tweet as well. Let's go to the phones now, to Tony in St. Louis, Mo. Tony, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:33:25

    TONYGood day. Good timing. I was drafted into the military in our worst year of war since the Korean War. And so my question is, is the genetic test for those who will not kill your family if their masters order them to? Or is it for a test for those who do kill when their masters order them?

  • 10:33:57

    KAYTony, sorry, I kind of dropped you there because I'm not sure that we're talking about whether people are going to kill as masters at all. But, you know, the question, I suppose is, is whether the testing is for people who will commit a crime. Or are we testing for people that won't commit a crime? And is that making a difference, John Laub?

  • 10:34:11

    LAUBI think that what my understanding of the research -- and I'm not a behavioral geneticist. But the research that's looking at genetic basis for criminal behavior is simply looking at whether or not there are unique markers that distinguish people who offend versus those who don't and has been brought up in this discussion, how we define who offends, our definition of crime, our population that we use to study that are absolutely crucial in terms of understanding the answer to that question.

  • 10:34:41

    KAYOkay. We can go now to Dr. Arthur Caplan. He joins us from the University of Pennsylvania, professor of bioethics and philosophy. Dr. Caplan, thank you so much for joining "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:34:52

    DR. ARTHUR CAPLANThanks for having me.

  • 10:34:54

    KAYYou've been listening to the discussion that we've been having so far on the role that genes might play in predicting criminal behavior. I wanted to get your reaction.

  • 10:35:03

    CAPLANWell, I'm nervous about the study of genetics with respect to crime, not so much that scientists themselves can't be precise in saying, here's a particular behavior that might then lead to crime, whether it's something like aggression or a lack of self control. But I worry a great deal about how this will be heard by policy makers, politicians, who, historically, have come away from these discussions thinking, aha, so there is a crime gene.

  • 10:35:37

    CAPLANNow, we know that crime, as a category, covers everything from selling drugs, and in some parts of the world, being a political dissident, to, historically, being the wrong race, religion or member of an ethnic group.

  • 10:35:55

    KAYSo hold on one second because you're suggesting, it seems to me, that the research might be valid. But you're worried about how it will be used, but...

  • 10:36:06


  • 10:36:06

    KAY...does that mean that we shouldn't do the research?

  • 10:36:09

    CAPLANWell, I think the research needs to be done, but it needs to be done with, I'll call it extreme modesty and excess caution about publication and precision in what you say publicly. And that becomes very important. Look, in one sense, genes influence just about everything. I sit on a number of groups that are trying to set standards for understanding how people react to different drugs, common drugs, like Plavix or Warfarin, Coumadin, that people take.

  • 10:36:42

    CAPLANAnd we know that people have side effects from those drugs, and some people metabolize them quickly. It's clear that that is mainly a genetic trait. But even there, small differences in genetic makeup can make a huge difference to how you make claims about who's likely to be a high metabolizer of drugs or low metabolizer.

  • 10:37:02

    KAYDo you see any positive benefit in this research?

  • 10:37:04

    CAPLANWell, I think it's important to understand the genetic basis of behavior. I think that it plays a role. But if we look at the incarceration rate, just for the United States, the highest in the world, probably approximating 800 people per 100,000, I don't think you need to do a scientific study to come to understand crime. It's a function of jobs. It's a function of economy. It's a function of opportunity.

  • 10:37:29

    CAPLANIt's a function of sentencing and the kind of criminal justice system you have. Yes, biology counts. But I don't want to see our policy makers running off, saying, ah, the thing to do is genetically test everyone.

  • 10:37:43

    KAYOkay, Dr. Arthur Caplan joining us from Pennsylvania. Thank you so much. We're going to take a quick break, stay with us.

  • 10:40:03

    KAYWelcome back. And I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. You've joined our conversation on genetics and criminology. And, during the break, I received this email from Jackie, who writes, "As a child I was excitable, impulsive, hot tempered, judgmental, aggressive, had minimally educated parents, was very poor and African-American. I guess that's why I became a lawyer."

  • 10:40:25

    KAYJackie, thanks for that. Let's go to the phones again. To Alex in Birmingham, Ala. Alex, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:40:32

    ALEXHi, thank you for having me. I guess my question involves some of the racial issues around this. My question is since African-Americans do make up about 80 percent of the current prison population, is it more of a nature or is it more of a nurture? Is it really a crime gene? Or, because African-Americans in the ghetto do grow up in a culture of crime, are they more likely to commit crimes themselves, external (word?) factors?

  • 10:40:59

    KAYOkay, I think that's what we're trying to sort out during the course of this discussion -- nature or nurture. Let me start with you, Benson.

  • 10:41:05

    COOKEI will say that it is not either of those. I -- I'm drawn to an image that many people may remember after hurricane Katrina. The Associated Press had two articles. And when I do presentations, I show them. One was a picture of a white man and white woman, and it said two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.

  • 10:41:29

    COOKEAnd, a few hours later, there was an African-American male, and in that picture it said a young man walks through chest-deep water after looting the grocery store. So here you have a perception of crime that was very prevalent during that particular horrific period following hurricane Katrina.

  • 10:41:47

    KAYWell, there was some crime during that period.

  • 10:41:51

    COOKEHere's the point. The point is the perception. How is it that two individuals who are also -- who are taking food from the store can be perceived as finding it? Another individual taking food from the store is looting. And oftentimes this kind of perception creates an image that law enforcement oftentimes have suspects -- suspicions on. I've -- and this has been true for me. I've walked in different stores, and I get followed around.

  • 10:42:19

    COOKENow, is it because I have a doctorate degree? You don't know. Is it because I'm wearing oftentimes a suit and tie, which is my usual attire? No. It's probably because I'm African-American. One time I even inquired about it, and I was told that that was, in fact, the case.

  • 10:42:34

    COOKESo part of what, I guess, I'm getting at is that it's really important that we recognize the impact that oppression often plays and the perception that people have of the differences that exist with one group over another, which is one of the reasons, again, referring to Michelle Alexander's book, "The New Jim Crow," why you have a disproportionately higher number of African-American males incarcerated.

  • 10:42:59

    KAYJohn Laub, can I pick up on what Alex was saying from Alabama then?

  • 10:43:02

    LAUBYes. I would -- I'd probably say it's nature/nurture and more. And, I think, one of the things we've learned over the last 25 years is that crime results from a multiplicity of factors, individual characteristics that may well be linked to genetics or early childhood socialization. Family socialization is very important, peer group interactions, schools, communities and, indeed, nations writ large.

  • 10:43:26

    LAUBAnd, I think, it goes back to this basic point about -- given the multiple factors and the multiple pathways that lead people to criminal behavior, that's what we have to be open to. I want to go back, though, to a point that Dr. Caplan made, and I think it's very important. It should not be lost. I think modesty, in terms of how we approach this research, is extremely important.

  • 10:43:45

    LAUBAnd, I think, also, being honest, in terms of public speaking, about it. One of the reasons I'm sitting in this chair is because I believe, as the director of the National Institute of Justice, the research and development arm in the Department of Justice, we should focus on the best science that's used for the field. And that's why I was willing to come on this show. And that's an important piece for people who are in policy positions to speak honestly about this very important issue.

  • 10:44:07

    KAYBut you are speaking about it -- and one of the things that struck me about what Dr. Caplan was saying -- was that, in a sense, he was saying, okay, do the research. But he was almost saying, but keep a lid on it, wasn't he?

  • 10:44:16

    LAUBWell, what I heard him saying was put the research in a context. And, again, I think that this is where...

  • 10:44:22

    KAYWhich is what Benson has been saying.

  • 10:44:23

    LAUB…which -- exactly. And this is why I'm here wearing, essentially, two hats, right. It's the head of the National Institute of Justice, the research and development arm of the Department of Justice. But I'm also here as a life course criminologist that's done research on longitudinal studies of how people move in and out of crime, which, I think, adds an important piece to this discussion.

  • 10:44:40

    KAYWell, Prof. John Paul Wright, are you concerned about how the research -- 'cause amongst us you've done specific research on this with your adoptees. Are you concerned about the policy implications of the research that you've done?

  • 10:44:54

    WRIGHTI'll make two points. First to echo what Prof. Laub said, that it's better that we talk about this than not talk about it. It's better that we know than don't know. It's better that we pursue rigorous science. Whether it's genetic or purely social, I would like to see the standards of modesty applied throughout the research base. Sometimes that doesn't happen on either side of the research spectrum.

  • 10:45:26

    WRIGHTIn terms of policy consequences, I'd like to first say that the massive increases that we've witnessed in incarceration in the United States occurred wholly independently of any biological theorizing, that if you look at what modern biological theorizing on human behavior talks about, they emphasize, for example, early intervention with children, nurse home visitation programs and, perhaps, even in certain situations, pharmaceutical types of interventions.

  • 10:45:55

    WRIGHTYou know, we have entire classes of drugs that have, literally, saved the lives of millions of people who suffer from depression and anxiety and other types of disorders that, otherwise, if we had simply buried our heads in the sand and had done nothing, we would not have been effective in our intervention efforts. I think some of the same things can be said about behavior. One of the leading causes of parents seeking help for their children is the -- it's not just misbehavior.

  • 10:46:29

    WRIGHTIt's the very difficult and taxing behavior. It's behavior that they cannot control or regulate. And they seek help for that. And, I think, eventually, over time, there may be better social interventions, as well as better pharmaceutical interventions, that will lead, overall, I think, to a better quality of life for the people involved.

  • 10:46:51

    KAYOkay, let...

  • 10:46:52

    WRIGHTBut crime...

  • 10:46:53

    KAYGo ahead.

  • 10:46:54

    WRIGHT...destroys families. And, you know, the involvement -- the taxing behavior of children places enormous stress on families. And, I think, the interventions there are potentially both social and even pharmaceutical, in some situations.

  • 10:47:10

    KAYLet's go to Maggie, who joins us from Fort Worth, Texas. Maggie, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:47:14

    MAGGIEHi, great topic. And, I think, two terms that you've mentioned so far, context and policy, are critical in this. As I've listened I'm reminded of a couple of books that I've read or seen. Foucault's book, "Madness and Civilization," is high-minded thinking about how one culture, the dominant culture, views the other, the weaker, and they perceive madness. They perceive crime in somebody who is incredibly different.

  • 10:47:49

    MAGGIEAnd then there's the issue of the whole social Darwinist pseudoscience that took place -- I have a book I found in an estate years ago from 1877 called, "The Jukes." And it, literally, is supposedly a study of a criminal family. It's called, "A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity" and further studies of criminals. This is a discussion that's been going along for a long time. So, I think, you must have to be very careful to not wade back into some of those waters.

  • 10:48:28

    KAYJohn Laub.

  • 10:48:29

    LAUBWell, I think that the caller is absolutely right. I mean, there's been a history of -- the history of criminology can be summed up in the search for the criminal man. And she refers to a classic book by Richard Dugdale which looked at a criminal family and tried to make linkages across multiple generations with respect to criminal behavior. I do think that this is something, though, that we can't just kind of ignore.

  • 10:48:51

    LAUBBecause, as Dr. Caplan said, we're looking at the effects of genes on a variety of behaviors. We're learning a lot more. I agree with Dr. Wright, that the methods, particularly the direct measures of genetics, is much better today, but, at the same time, I think, as the caller pointed out, it's all about context. And we need to take very seriously the importance of social context as we move forward.

  • 10:49:13

    KAYI want to read an email that came to us from Lisa. Lisa writes, "Have the researchers done any sibling studies regarding crime, that is, siblings of similar age, same parents and same upbringing, who have different behaviors in regard to crime?" I know families like this and always marvel at how one sibling can be uncriminal -- she says normal -- and the other turn out to be a criminal. Do we know, Dr. Wright, why this happens?

  • 10:49:36


  • 10:49:37

    KAYI mean, it gets a little back to what Maggie was calling us about from Texas.

  • 10:49:40

    WRIGHTAbsolutely. And we have known for a very long time that crime runs in families. About 10 percent of all families produce anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of all serious offenders. We've know this since, literally, the 1800's when we started keeping -- when records on this were first looked at. That's not changed. We find this in England. We find this in the United States. There are studies in other countries in Europe. We find the same thing.

  • 10:50:10

    WRIGHTSo it is true that there are some families that appear to be far more crime prone, if you will, over generations. That said, if we look within families, there's also -- there's oftentimes tremendous diversity, in terms of behaviors and traits, between children born within the same family. Some of the Nobel laureates have come from families with sort of very chaotic backgrounds and very turbulent types of backgrounds.

  • 10:50:41

    WRIGHTOther -- some of the worst psychopaths have come from very middle-class or upper-class families. So, yes, there's tremendous diversity. And some of our work has tried to understand, how do you get such a range of behavioral differences within, largely, the same socialization context? And the -- you know, part of that answer, I think, is probably just that the children are different coming out, that, when they enter the world, they're not blank slates.

  • 10:51:13

    WRIGHTThey have some degree of neurological substructures that make them more or less temperamental, more or less hyperactive, more or less open to novelty seeking, what have you, and that these things simply do play out, although, sometimes they are modifiable within the home environment. But taken at the extreme, yes, we do see tremendous differences between children born to the same parents.

  • 10:51:41

    KAYI'm Katty Kay. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to call us, do call. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. Benson Cooke, I want to pick up on what John Paul Wright was saying there. When you, as a psychologist, see families like that and you see very different behavior in different members of families, what are you looking at?

  • 10:52:00


  • 10:52:01

    KAYOr looking for, perhaps?

  • 10:52:03

    COOKEOne of the things that becomes important is contextualizing the history of the culture. For example, in The New York Times article, there was a statement that talked about how marriage may serve as a switch that directs, you know, energies toward investing in a family rather than competing with other males. What I found very interesting about that is, historically, for African-Americans, there was a period during enslavement and Jim Crow where it -- we were jumping the broom because it was not legal for us to be married.

  • 10:52:30

    COOKESo we created a different type of family structure. So how would genetics play out, in terms of understanding what we needed to do to be able to persist in an oppressive environment? I mean, how would one particularly look at that? Again, contextualizing becomes really important. I want to extrapolate this one article that came out in the New England Journal of Medicine in February of 1999 that looked at the effective race and sex on physician's recommendations for a medical procedure -- cardiac catheterization.

  • 10:53:07

    COOKEAnd what was interesting from this particular article, which also appeared on a "Nightline" episode with Ted Koppel, is that they showed that using one of the largest studies ever done, using African-American man, woman, Caucasian man, woman, physicians looking at a computer generated assessment, that the African-Americans were denied the form of treatment that could save their lives versus others.

  • 10:53:35

    COOKEAnd it was based upon the cultural bias that they had as to who would benefit from the particular service. So it's really important, again, for African-Americans to be sitting at the table having the conversation about the historical context of where the cultural mistrust exists around this particular issue. It's just really important that we recognize the value of being able to include that in the conversation.

  • 10:54:00

    KAYI want to include a tweet in the conversation from Willis who writes to us, "The way this conversation is going leads me to believe that the guests leave no room for free will. What can they say about that?" John Laub.

  • 10:54:11

    LAUBOh, I think there is room for free will, in that what we found in our work was not only did social events change people's lives, like getting married, joining the military, finding a good job, but we also found that the men sometimes took very specific agentic action to make those opportunities happen. So one of the serious delinquent...

  • 10:54:34

    KAYDeliberate action.

  • 10:54:35

    LAUBDeliberate actions. One of the serious delinquents recognized that he was in a bad neighborhood in Boston. He knew he had to get out, otherwise he'd be dead by the age of 20. He took his cousin's Social Security number and joined the military, went overseas, was able...

  • 10:54:50

    KAYTechnically, a crime.

  • 10:54:52

    LAUBTechnically, a crime, exactly. But he knew what he had to do. Others were very -- made conscious decisions to move out of the neighborhood and so forth. So we -- and in life course criminology writ large, allows opportunity for agentic actions by individuals.

  • 10:55:07

    WRIGHTI would agree with that, if I can jump in.

  • 10:55:10

    KAYGo ahead.

  • 10:55:11

    WRIGHTThe -- there is plenty of room for agency and free will, even with biological influences. If, for example, we look at alcoholism, there's very good evidence that alcoholism has a biological basis. You know, we do not say to alcoholics -- suffering alcoholics -- well, it's biological. There's nothing you can do about it. We say to them, you have to own this, that there is a 12-step program that you can engage in, that there are specific ways of living your life that you'll have to make accommodations to.

  • 10:55:42

    WRIGHTAnd then we attempt to set up the support networks around them to help them make those types of decisions. I spoke with one alcoholic who had a lengthy, lengthy criminal history, had spent much of his juvenile and adult life in prison and had, for the last 15 years, been quite a successful citizen. I asked him, you know, what changed. His response -- and I'll never forget it -- was, you know, he said, I'm a thief, a liar.

  • 10:56:10

    WRIGHTAnd if you push me too far, I may kill you. He said, I'm all of those things, but I'm not today. And his point was, I have a choice. His point was that, you know, he had taken it upon himself to redefine himself. And, I think, that is the power of human agency, that understanding our propensities, understanding our proclivities gives us information to make better choices.

  • 10:56:35

    KAYJohn Paul Wright, a very good point to end on, Professor of Criminal Justice at The University of Cincinnati. I've also had in the studio with me Dr. Benson George Cooke, President of the Association of Black Psychologists. Dr. John Laub, Director of the National Institute of Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice has also been here. Again, Dr. Laub, thank you and congratulations on your Stockholm award.

  • 10:56:53

    LAUBThank you.

  • 10:56:55

    KAYGentlemen, thank you so much for joining me.

  • 10:56:57

    ALL GUESTSThank you.

  • 10:56:58

    KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC. I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you all so much for listening.

  • 10:57:05

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.

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