Newtown Shooter Adam Lanza’s DNA to be Analyzed for “clues”

January 1st, 2013
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I was absolutely floored to read that the Connecticut state medical examiner’s office has asked scientists at the University of Connecticut to study the genetic makeup of Adam Lanza, the 20 year old who killed 26 in Newtown.  The University of Connecticut has a highly respected human genetics department and has been involved in numerous groundbreaking studies.  In this case, however, the value of genetic testing for both science and investigation is, at best, extremely dubious.

Via the Daily Mail:

DNA of Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza to be examined for ‘evil’ gene in first study of its kind ever conducted on a mass murderer

The study will be the first one of its kind and will evaluate any genetic evidence for the mass killing of 20 first graders, six members of staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School and his own mother.

Scientists have been asked to study the DNA of Newtown school killer Adam Lanza to see if has an ‘evil’ gene that led him to carry out the massacre.

The study, which will look at any abnormalities or mutations in his individual DNA, is believed to be the first of its kind ever carried out on a mass murderer.

Lanza slaughtered 20 children and six adults in one of America’s worst ever school shootings on December 14, 2012.

The 20 year old also shot dead his mother Nancy before taking his own life as police closed in on him at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut.

The massacre prompted President Obama to look into new gun controls and banning assault rifles such as AR-15 Bushmaster used by Lanza in his rampage.
The study of the killer’s DNA has been ordered by Connecticut Medical Examiner H. Wayne Carver who carried out the post mortems on all the victims.

He has contacted geneticists at University of Connecticut’s to conduct the study.

Not all the press reports have been as sensational as the Daily Mail. Business Insider reports that “Plans To Study Adam Lanza’s DNA Splits The Scientific Community,” and Smithsonian states “Adam Lanza’s DNA Will Tell Us Nothing.” Other press outlets are just reporting that the rests were requested by investigators.

The first problem with this idea is that it seems to presume that there is something extremely unique about Adam Lanza that set him apart from the rest of humanity or made him uniquely evil.   That may be a comforting thought – to believe that only a corruption of nature could result in a human being deciding to unleash gunfire on a classroom full of innocent children, but it’s just not true.

While the shootings in Newtown Connecticut may stand out in terms of the sheer number of deaths and the tragically young age of the victims, the level of violence displayed is hardly unique.  The desire to cause great harm to others and commit acts of violence without hesitation is not really as uncommon as we might want to believe.  Shooting sprees have happened before.  Most have not been as deadly, but that is certainly not for lack of effort or desire to cause as many deaths.  There are, no doubt, even more individuals who would be capable of committing acts as heinous as those of Adam Lanza, but have not, either because they expressed their violence and anger by some other means or because they did not have access to firearms or because they were somehow stopped or thwarted before they could commit such an act.  Rather, the actions of Adam Lanza were the result of a combination of a disturbed individual, an environment which did not control him and the opertunity to exact great harm.

Of course, there’s good reason to believe that Adam Lanza did have mental health issues, and we do know that some of those have genetic roots, but that does not mean that anything will be learned from analyzing his DNA.   There is no single gene or group of genes associated with committing acts of mass murder.  There are genes which may result in a predisposition to anger or aggression, but that in no way explains a behavior as complex and calculated as the Newtown shootings.   For one thing, the evidence of a link to violent behavior is, at best, tenuous.  Additionally, simply having a genetic predisposition toward a hot temper does not mean that a person would act out in such an extreme and callous manner;  It could simply mean that they get are prone to getting into verbal arguments or punching the wall in frustration.

The fact of the matter is that human behavior is based on a very complex mix of environment, development and genetics.   While genes may play some role, it would be extremely overly-simplistic to think that there should be some kind of genetic smoking gun.  Even if genetics did play a role in the mental issues suffered by Adam Lanza, it’s unlikely that a DNA test would reveal it anyway.  There are tens of thousands of discrete genes and millions of base pairs that make up the human genome, and we still do not know what most of them do.  This is complicated by the fact that something like behavior is not governed by a single gene or even by a series of genes, but by a complex interrelationship of many.

If there is some genetic basis here, it probably is not a mutation, but just the genes inherited (combined with environment and circumstances), but even if there is, would it be detected?   We all have different DNA and mutations do happen, with most of them not causing any observable change.  If, however, some mutation has occurred, and that mutation is so glaring that it is detected, it still would not prove anything, because given one subject, it could just as easily be a fluke as being significant.

The only way a genetic study of this type could have any scientific value at all would be if it were a large scale study, looking at the genetics of many spree killers and comparing their genetics to the general population.  In that case, it’s possible that some genetic factor could be shown to be more common in such individuals than in the general population.   Although that still would be of limited value (and grave potential for misuse) because there is certainly no black-and-white gene for evil that exists in killers and not law abiding citizens.

This is just a bad idea:

This is really a bad idea for any number of reasons.  For one thing, it’s expensive. Sequencing an entire human’s genes has come down quite a lot recently, now being in the range of less than a few thousand dollars. However, in this case, it would be more than just sequencing the genes, but having scientists and technicians pour over the data looking for some kind of anomaly that might be related to violence.   Such a process will also be time consuming, and will drag out this investigation, potentially for months, while the complex genetics of a human are analyzed with a fine toothed comb.

This deflects attention from the real issues and is only likely to further sensationalize the press coverage of this tragedy.  It also can serve to deflect blame and reenforce the notion that people are not responsible for their actions.  There appears to be an overall trend in Western culture to take pity on those who commit horrendous crimes and presume that they must have committed them for reasons beyond their own control.   This could have some dangerous implications.

The perpetuation of this over-simplistic view and the myth that there is some kind of direct genetic basis for evil actions has even greater implications for the possibility of discrimination and targeting of individuals based on genetics or simply because of who they are related to.   After all, if one presumes that Adam Lanza had some kind of evil gene, then, by extension, one could presume that there is a high likelihood that close relatives would also carry this gene.  The stigma of being an immediate family member of the perpetrator of such horrific actions is difficult to begin with, and claims that there is some kind of gene that causes these actions only serves to further threaten the innocent relatives of violent criminals.

Adam Lanza has a brother who lives in New Jersey and a father in Connecticut.  Both are, no doubt, in a state of enormous grief and shock.  They deserve, if nothing else, the presumption that there is nothing in their heredity that would result in such vicious actions.   Of course, they are not alone.  Today, an elderly brother of Lee Harvey Oswald lives a private life in Texas, three great nephews of Adolf Hitler live in New York and Stephen Jones, son of the leader of the People’s Temple has spent his life in the shadow of the horror of his father’s cult.   These people have caused no harm to anyone and should be left alone.   Yet the claims of an “evil gene” threaten to further marginalize them or even endanger their lives.

The issue of motive:

Much has been made of what the motive was for Adam Lanza.  As a loner, his life had little documentation and the only person who spoke to him often, his mother, was killed.  He offered no suicide note or other explanation.  He smashed the hard drive of his computer, making it difficult to retrace his digital footsteps before the crime.   The investigation thus has tried to piece together whatever fragmented data or witness recollections it can to determine why this shooting happened.

It is interesting to see that the investigation to uncover the motive has become such a major concern.  After all, knowing what drove Lanza to massacre does not really change anything, and his motive is unlikely to be applicable to preventing future tragedies of this type.  However, it is clear that people wish to have some reason or cause to which this horrible event can be attributed, as if it could help make sense of it.   If nothing else, it gives a sense of having some way of productively responding to the incident.

I believe the motive was, in fact, most likely simple and obvious.  Adam Lanza had mental health issues, but he was not insane.   He may have had social problems, he may have had difficulty maintaining normal emotions, but overall, he was aware of reality, knew what he was doing and the implications.  He was obviously angry.  His anger probably had no deep root, other than resentment for his mother and society in general.  He reacted like a two year old, who stamps their feet and screams and punches the shins of the adults around them.  Except, unlike a two year old, he had access to powerful firearms.  In his fit of childish empty rage, he decided he wanted to make the world suffer and do something that would cause the most pain to the most people.

I, myself,  have no sympathy for him.   He is every bit the creep and coward he appears in his photo.  There is nothing tough about attacking little kids with a gun.  While it might be somewhat satisfying to have had the chance to see him stand, stripped of all respect in front of a judge and jury to cower in hearing his fate, it is just as well that he offed himself and ended his miserable existence.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 1st, 2013 at 9:15 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Events, Misc. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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9 Responses to “Newtown Shooter Adam Lanza’s DNA to be Analyzed for “clues””

  1. 1
    Joffan Says:

    If we had a sample of 20 mass-murderers and we could identify some limited subset of genes that were uncommon among the rest of the population…

    that still demands that we answer the question, what to do next? Certainly it would be immoral to lock up anyone who matches that gene subset. We do not – we really cannot – lock up people on the grounds of things they have not done.

    And even to get that far, I have already assumed something I think would be extremely unlikely, namely that there is a genetic underpinning of the impulse to mass-murder.

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  2. 2
    PsihoKekec Says:

    This reminds me of how Soviet scientists studied brains of Lenin and Stalin to see what made them such geniuses. They learned nothing.

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  3. 3
    RBR1978 Says:

    What on earth do they expect to find? As the post says, there are no genes known to be associated with murder (Maybe some with aggression, but it’s not like it’s a proof positive link because many people do have them and never harm anyone)

    If we do not know what most of the human genes do and how do they even know exactly where to look?

    This is my understanding regarding finding mutations. There are many diseases we know are genetic because we can trace them through generations and when there are such diseases scientists have gone looking to try to uncover what gene is exactly responsible for the disease. After years of looking and searching and comparing different people, there are a few we have found the gene for and many we still have not and are still looking for.

    Therefore, how could such a gene, speculative as it may be, be found in a single subject with nobody to compare it to? Or if something strange were found, how possibly could it be validated that it was not unrelated?

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  4. 4
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Joffan said:

    If we had a sample of 20 mass-murderers and we could identify some limited subset of genes that were uncommon among the rest of the population…

    that still demands that we answer the question, what to do next? Certainly it would be immoral to lock up anyone who matches that gene subset. We do not – we really cannot – lock up people on the grounds of things they have not done.

    And even to get that far, I have already assumed something I think would be extremely unlikely, namely that there is a genetic underpinning of the impulse to mass-murder.

    I would not bet a lot of money that anything would be found.

    I guess its possible, of course. Murders do have some common pathologies – things like sociopaths personalities in serial killers and spree killers might have poor impulse control and a tendency toward aggression.

    But these are extremely general qualities. I am therefore sure there will never be a gene or set of genes that would be directly associated with it. What MIGHT be found is a tendency. For example, a gene which only exists in 20% of the population is found to exist in 45% of mass murders. I guess that’s possible.

    But what would that do? Even if it only existed in 10% of the general population, that means it is more likely for someone who has it to be a law abiding, harmless person. That makes it meaningless or worse, prone to abuse.

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  5. 5
    DV82XL Says:

    Ah the good old nature/nurture argument again. Looks to me like an overt attempt to drag a red herring through the firearms debate.

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  6. 6
    Chris Says:

    Waste of time and money for the stated purpose – but data is data. I would hope the information could be used for some productive purpose.

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  7. 7
    Rob Says:

    What happens if “they” actually find an evil gene, or genes? Will those of us carrying those genes be subject to scrutiny, or could there be an outcry to require everyone to be tested? Could a defendant’s genetic data be presented in court as evidence of an evil propensity?

    The reference above to Lenin and Stalin is on point. I think we are more like the USSR than we care to admit.

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  8. 8
    I'mnotreallyhere Says:

    If you need evidence of an “evil gene” you could probably start with testing the Daily Mail newsdesk and editors. Whilst there is merit in combating sensationalism, the Daily Mail can spew it out much faster than any one person can counter it.

    What’s worrying is that it’s supposedly the UK’s most read news site.

    More on-topic, I can see there being merit in hanging on to a sample of Lanza’s DNA for archive reasons, the same justification for a well kept log book or good accounts – you never know when the extra data points might be useful in analysis down the line. As someone who has behaved in a remarkable way, good or bad, there might later be some system for learning more about why – it’s the same logic as hanging on to Einstein’s brain.

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  9. 9
    A.K. Hoffman Says:

    @Rob — I wrote a book exploring that very what if scenario. How would the media hype and societal pressure for justice play out?

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