(as originally appeared Sept 24, 2015 on SCIENCETHRILLERS.COM)
People often ask me “What was the inspiration for your novel The Ripper Gene?”. I’ve already mentioned in other interviews that the genesis of Lucas’s backstory-his mother’s untimely death one Halloween night- was based on a real Halloween night from my childhood that I later fictionalized. Here, I’ll discuss the inspiration for the scientific premise of The Ripper Gene.
As a young researcher, I happened to browse an article in Science magazine which described a gene with variants associated with increased aggression. The gene was monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) or the so-called “warrior gene”… a gene responsible for the synthesis of several different neurotransmitter precursors in the brain. When it’s inactivated (due to rare DNA variants found sporadically in the general population), individuals have trouble controlling their aggression and in some cases exhibit higher propensity for anti-social behavior and violent crime.
I wondered at the time whether other such genes would eventually turn up. At the time of that article’s publication, the so-called next-generation sequencing (NGS) methodologies- instruments that can sequence all 3.2 billion nucleotides of an individual’s human genome once every 30 minutes or so- had not yet even come into existence. In fact, the very first cobbled-together human genome, requiring more than a decade of effort across thousands of scientists and hundreds of millions of dollars… had still not yet been sequenced.
But as a pharmacogeneticist I knew that day was eventually coming, and when it did, I wondered whether we (the scientific community) would ever get to the point of understanding the complete set of genetic variants that predispose individuals to violence. In fact, I wondered whether we’d ever identify an optimal set of genes that, when altered in just the right pattern within an individual, would constitute a “perfect genetic storm”, and predispose that unfortunate individual to become a psychopath, or even a serial killer.
Indeed, other genes with variants linked to aggression and psychopathy have turned up since. There are now close to two thousand research articles reporting links between genetic polymorphisms and violence. Some of the better characterized (and more likely to be ‘real’) associations include genes involved in dopamine signaling, serotonin signaling, dopamine transport, serotonin reuptake and other types of brain-specific molecules. Interestingly, these variants are also implicated in other conditions as well, ranging from schizophrenia to suicide, from depression to substance abuse… in addition to being linked to anti-social and criminal behavior.
So it does indeed seem extremely likely that a set of DNA variants will one day be identified that predispose individuals to criminal behavior. In fact, defense attorneys have already used the DNA sequence of a certain gene in a violent offender client to successfully reduce the severity of the sentencing phase in a cold-blooded murder tried in 2013. Accordingly, the field is awash in controversy and ethical dilemmas from both a legal and culpability standpoint alone. And while it is likely that a set of DNA variants will be discovered that predispose to violence, it is even more likely to be present in a far greater proportion of the population than the tiny percentage of people who will ultimately go on to commit any crimes.
In other words, DNA won’t be the only answer, but rather will only be part of it. And it will likely be insufficient on its own to help identify individuals at risk for criminal behavior.
In fact, if future generations want to try and screen individuals for risk to commit these violent crimes such as mass murder or spree killing or serial murder… then they will most likely need to couple genetic information with many other measures. For instance, perhaps the best predictor of violent behavior will be a combination of DNA tests, brain scan images, psychological tests, interviews, metabolic profiles and who knows what other factors will almost undoubtedly be required before we can hope to identify individuals truly at risk for these especially tragic violent crimes impacting society at all levels.
However for me, as a writer, I was fascinated by a different aspect than the legal conundrum. I was far more concerned with the question of what this all means for classical notions of good versus evil. In other words, if DNA variation “matters” with respect to defining our baseline ability to choose between right and wrong… then what does that mean for such a fundamental concept as “Free Will?” Are we all really born and created equal, or are some of us hindered out of the gate, as soon as we’re born, hampered by a genetic Achille’s heel when it comes to aggression, impulse control, and empathy?
It’s an interesting question, and one that is posed within the pages of The Ripper Gene, as the FBI agents Woodson and Madden pursue a newly emerged serial killer who is hell-bent on constructing a terrifying tableau across the counties of southern Mississippi and the parishes of southern Louisiana. The Ripper Gene doesn’t attempt to provide a definitive answer on this controversial topic… but rather only illuminate it as a question that needs to be asked, and considered… before technology and science carry us as a society so swiftly forward that we’re at the precipice of understanding the link between genetics and violence long before we’ve considered what in the world it really means for us…as citizens, as individuals, as human beings ourselves.