Can a young person’s genes really set them up for a life of crime?

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Rocio Montoya

OUR attitudes towards crime and punishment are highly political. They often come down to how much we believe a person’s particular life circumstances should be taken into account when deciding whether their punishment fits the crime they committed. But criminal justice isn’t an evidence-free zone. Behavioural scientist Terrie Moffitt at King’s College London has spent her career trying to uncover biological and environmental roots to criminal behaviour. Now she has evidence from brain imaging and genetics to support her idea that there are generally two groups of people who persistently commit crime, each with different causes for their behaviour and different prospects for reform.

Dan Jones: How has the nature-nurture debate influenced views on criminal behaviour?

Terrie Moffitt: Our thinking about the roots of antisocial behaviour has followed pendulum swings between putting nature or nurture centre stage. Writing in the late 17th century, philosopher John Locke came down on the side of nurture, arguing that we are born as blank slates and learn all our behaviours, bad ones included. Then in the 19th century, Cesare Lombroso, the founder of criminology, suggested that bad people were born that way and could be identified by the shape of their eyes, ears, teeth and eyebrows. By the 1960s, after John Watson and B. F. Skinner developed behaviourism, the pendulum had swung back to nurture.

Everything changed in the 1980s and 90s, and the debates really heated up. Scientists started reporting studies of crime drawing on thousands of twins and adoptees in Scandinavian registers, which seemed to point to genetic transmission of criminal behaviour from parent to child. This was like …

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Can a young person’s genes really set them up for a life of crime?