The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 20th, 2004

The awful truth: we may all be criminally irresponsible

For people who believe passionately in personal responsibility, last week was a bad week. Several strange and terrible stories came to an end, coinciding with the curious case of the “love gene” of the prairie vole. All these stories bring into sharp, unpleasant focus the old question of how far each of us is truly, equally, responsible for what he does, for better or for worse. And in me they have all tended to bring out the biological determinist.

Some of the worst news stories had to do with paedophilia. In Belgium on Thursday, Marc Dutroux was found guilty of unspeakable crimes against six girls, the youngest aged eight and the oldest 19. Even his own mother expressed her horror in court at her own “vile” progeny.

Dutroux himself showed no remorse and claimed that he was not a paedophile, “even if it is true that I slipped up with Sabine at a time when I was lonely and needed affection”. Sabine was a 12-year-old girl whom he kidnapped, kept locked, chained up and half-starved in a filthy cellar for 80 days and repeatedly raped. He says she’ll get over it.

Experts appear to agree with Dutroux that he is not a paedophile. My view is that it hardly matters what you call him. There is something profoundly wrong with him. A man who can want to do such terrible things, and then do them and then feel no remorse is not in charge of his behaviour or of his destiny and in that sense is not morally responsible.

I feel the same about Francisco Montes, who last week was jailed in France for 30 years for raping and killing the 13-year-old English schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson.

What struck me, too, from various details that emerged, was how bizarre and out of control his attitude was as well. It was not just that he did something incomprehensibly bad; his own view of what he did and his own later behaviour was incomprehensible, too, in ordinary moral terms.

Perhaps it is rather unfair to speak in the next sentence of the unhappy British crown court judge His Honour Major-General David Selwood, who was placed on the sex offenders’ register last week after admitting paedophile offences. His crime was much less.

He had downloaded 75 indecent images of children on his computer: the pictures were of naked and half-naked boys between eight and 14 years old. He tried, risibly, to justify this illegal interest by saying that he was curious to see how easy it was for somebody with limited computer skills such as himself to find such images on the internet; he maintains that he has no sexual interest in children.

One can only gape in wonderment. This wretched man must have been entirely aware of the terrible risks of visiting such sites, let alone downloading child porn on to his computer and storing it, long after his “curiosity” must have been satisfied. A lowly journalist with little honour or social standing to lose would not dare to do it — even in the name of genuine research — without written permission in triplicate from at least five chief constables.

But this man, despite the dreadful risk of losing everything dear to him — his good name, his job, his pension (neatly retrieved in the event) and the respect of his wife, children and grandchildren — surfed the net in many incomprehensible moments of madness, all for a few photographs. One can hardly guess at how overwhelming the desire must have been, especially in a man of nearly 70.

It might seem even more unfair, perhaps, to let one’s mind wander from this unhappy man to the sexual urges of the prairie vole, but there does seem to me to be a kind of link. Last week scientists at Emory University in Atlanta revealed that as far as voles are concerned, at least, there may be a single gene that transforms the most promiscuous and sexually driven creature into the most faithful and uxorious.

It seems that the prairie vole belongs to the tiny proportion of mammals (5%) that are habitually monogamous and is (by human standards) quite extraordinarily faithful to its mate. The meadow vole, by contrast, is the Don Juan of voles, habitually promiscuous with multiple partners.

It seems that this comes down to brain chemistry and a single gene. The virtuous voles have much higher levels of the hormone vasopressin and of its receptor in the ventral pallidum, a part of the brain that processes rewards, than the naughty voles.

In the Emory experiment the single gene for the vasopressin receptor was taken from the virtuous voles, bonded onto a harmless virus and transferred into the brains of the naughty voles to replicate. In this quite extraordinary experiment, the naughty voles switched from promiscuity to monogamy almost overnight. Vasopressin probably plays a key role in determining sexual fidelity.

In short, gene treatment stops frisky voles being love rats, as one headline put it. As Dr Larry Young, leader of the research team, said: “Our study provides evidence . . . that changes in the activity of a single gene can profoundly change the fundamental social behaviour of an entire species.”

Of course, men are not mice or voles. But as Young also said: “It is intriguing to consider that individual differences in vasopressin receptors in humans might play a role in how differently people form relationships.”

Intriguing is hardly the word for it. Experiments like this, and the many huge leaps forward in brain chemistry and genetics of the past 30 years, keep bringing one back to the same fascinating, painful question.

Is it still possible to believe that people are all equally responsible for their behaviour, when it is becoming clearer and clearer that in some powerful and specific ways biology is destiny, and also that in humans biology is unequal — and this is without even considering the powerful effects of traumatic childhood influences.

In other words, perhaps people who behave unspeakably badly or compulsively or weirdly are at the mercy of atypical biological urges. Perhaps, as so many wretched sex offenders say, they just can’t help themselves.

Vasopressin is also thought to be involved in autism, for instance. Anybody who knows somebody with autism, particularly with serious autism, will know the deadening feeling that there is very little that can be done, at least by psychotherapy. Such people are condemned by biology not to understand how to feel and to behave as others do.

To blame them for their antisocial behaviour would be stupid and cruel. And so, by extension, one’s sense of blame, of moral responsibility, is subtly eroded, starting from the extreme edges of experience but moving towards the centre ground of what we assume is normality.

Moralists are stern about any attempt to turn moral questions into medical (or scientific) questions, and understandably so; our entire civilisation, all our notions of equality and worth, depend on the idea of equal moral responsibility. But the awkward truth, in the light of the growing evidence, is that we are not all equally in the driving seat of our destinies. We believe in this equality not because we think it’s true, but because we think it’s good.