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Modern Predestination: The Dangerous Notion that Misconduct is Genetic

Theodore Dalrymple

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How do bad ideas spread and enter the general stock of received wisdom?

One culprit is sloppy or uncritical newspaper reporting. For example, a recent small item on the front page of the Sunday Times, the largest-selling serious Sunday newspaper in Britain, insinuated something both false and dangerous to believe.

The headline ran: WANT A FIGHT? SCIENTISTS SAY IT'S ALL IN YOUR GENES. The story begins: "Scientists have discovered an answer to one of the most intractable squabbles in family life -- argumentative children are born and not made."

According to the article, new research has found antisocial traits to be inherited rather than acquired (actually such research has been going on for a long time, and the ideas behind it are nothing new). The implication of this research, the newspaper says, is that a bad child would be bad however he or she was brought up.

What a relief to parents, then! It no longer matters how they raise their children: whether they coddle them, abuse them, neglect them, discipline them, or let them run wild, it's all the same. There is no such thing as parental responsibility, except perhaps in material provision. The good will be good and the bad bad.

The article cites the work of a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, to the effect that "men with a mutation in a single gene were predisposed to be violent." The same professor also allegedly discovered that antisocial behavior is largely inherited. The only faintly contradictory note in the article occurs when the professor argues that "an early diagnosis of a child who is predisposed to bad behavior be the key to offering them treatment to stop such tendencies developing." So perhaps the way children are brought up is not quite so unimportant after all. The professor is unlikely to be quite the idiot that the paper presents her to be.

Read the entire article on the City Journal website (new window will open).

Posted: 28-Feb-07



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