Character motivation: belief or disbelief in a genetic predisposition to violence

Is there a genetic predisposition to violence? Some studies suggest there is. So, if a defendant–a diagnosed psychopath–has the gene, should he be given a lighter sentence on the theory that he is not as morally or personally responsible for his crime as others might be? Or a stiffer one, on the theory that he is more likely to re-offend, and only a longer sentence can protect the public?

Last month, NPR reported on a study published in the August 17, 2012 issue of Science magazine that asked judges to review facts–based on a real case–then compared their hypothetical sentences. (Here’s the abstract – full access is restricted.) The judges given a report detailing the neurobiological basis for the psychopathy gave shorter sentences–an average of 13 years compared to 14 years without the report.

As the NPR reporter said, “Our sympathy for the idea that biology might be responsible for criminal behavior is powerful.”

How will that sympathy affect your characters–or not? How will their different opinions influence their thoughts and dialogue, their actions and their relationships? What conflicts will result?

2 thoughts on “Character motivation: belief or disbelief in a genetic predisposition to violence

  1. This is a very interesting question and one I wrote about in my novel, The Killing Gene, that I released in May. I grew up in an abusive home and based my story on the relationship my father had with his father and then later had with me.

    The verbal and physical abuse dished out to my father during his formative years was substantial. Was my grandfather born with these violent tendancies? That ‘s impossible to know. Did my father inherit the same “gene” or was he also a product of his environment? In real life, the violence ended with him because even though I was batters mentally and physically, I did no become an abuser. The facts of my upbringing did weigh heavily on my decison to marry and have children. I was lucky to find a wonderful woman and we just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary but we never had kids. I like to believe that I would have been a good one and not perpetuated the sins of the past.
    Unless there is a major scientific breakthrough, I don ‘t think we will ever be able to tell if someone is born “bad.” There are too many unknown variables at play. Justice will continue to be meted out (or not) as it always has. Whether someone has a genetic predisposition to violence will probably remain a mystery.

    • Howard, many thanks for your thoughtful reply. It sounds as though you have dealt well with a difficult past, and found ways to use your intensely emotional experiences in your writing. Congratulations on that, on your book, and on your wedding anniversary!

Leave a Reply to Leslie Budewitz Cancel reply