Epigenetics, the warrior gene and Cameron Conaway’s quest for answers
Bill was up until 3:00am working on a report to be presented to the Head Office at 7:00am sharp. Up at 6, he made his eighth cup of coffee within 24 hours and forced himself to drink it through the caffeine jitters and even though it burned his lips and mouth. His home printer jammed so he skipped breakfast to fix it and when he did he reprinted his report, gathered all his documents and out the door he went. During the drive Bill tried to focus on what he was going to say at the meeting but his focus was interrupted by the incessant gargles of stress-and-espresso induced diarrhea. He needed to shit but there was no time. At 6:55am he pulled into the last available parking space, grabbed his briefcase and downed the last sticky drops from yesterday’s Red Bull. When he opened the door it slammed forcefully against the white Honda Civic parked next to him. Quick inspection showed a significant dent and the black paint from Bill’s car was slashed across the Civic. God damnit, he said. No time to handle this now. Fuck it. His heart thumped in his chest and he could feel the pulse in his fingers. Caffeine and rage. He walked up to the company door, swiped his keycard and as soon as he entered the building an elderly woman with a cane dropped her large stack of papers and they slid across the marble floor every which way. Jesus Christ lady, he mumbled. There was nobody else to help her gather them but he didn’t notice because he was too busy stepping around and even on top of a few to get where he was going.
Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, is credited with coining the “nature vs. nurture” phrase that now shapes how many of us view why we are the way we are. To be clear, the nature vs. nurture debate is best dissected when applied to given scenarios or characteristics – your brown eyes go to nature, for example. But the complexity of being human means that nurture has always been a tougher, shades-of-grey kind of concept. In criminology, for example, this question is often posed:
Did the serial killer murder because of the environment in which he was raised or because of something in his genes?
The answer, of course, could be both. But up until recently many have viewed this “both” answer as being two separate selves. Now we have causality. An emerging scientific field has caused the nature/nurture polarities to pull towards and even blur into each other.
Epigenetics, the study of how environmental factors affect gene expression, is at once smudging the glasses we’re looking through and giving us a brand new set of lenses. It’s proving that although our DNA remains exactly same – the serial killer still is made from the 46 chromosomes of his parents – the “nurture” can and does affect how our genes work. To top it off, new discoveries are revealing that the environment in which our parents and grandparents were raised in may alter our gene expression – whether we’re more inclined to live long or, in this case, act violently. If we are what we eat, we may also be what our mother ate. Similarly, our ability to handle stress today may be directly influenced by the stress our grandfather experienced years ago.
Bill’s boss wasn’t impressed and he even questioned Bill’s work ethic. As a result, Bill fumed all morning to the point where he thought of murdering his boss. He felt violence in his blood, a sort of temple-pulsing tunnel vision that lasted for hours. He made sure he was the first out for lunch so that he could move his car away from the white Honda Civic and re-park when a new space arose. A calm came over him but was quickly replaced by embarrassment as the slide of his keycard reminded him of how he let the elderly woman struggle. There she was sitting at the greeter’s desk with her red ball of yarn. Now his anger peaked. He was the worst kind of pissed off: pissed at himself. He knew he should apologize but he couldn’t and this weakness pissed him off even more. He kept his eyes down and got into the elevator. Once inside he stared at the ground and images appeared of his father beating him with a belt for being a “wimp.” He couldn’t remember why but it didn’t matter. A warm document sat atop his desk. He’d been fired. He kept it cool on the outside but continued feeling murderous on the inside. Why couldn’t the boss at least talk to me face-to-face about this? he wondered. He finished his shift, emptied out his locker, went home and began to write a suicide note.
In the documentary by National Geographic titled Born To Rage: Inside the Warrior Gene, Henry Rollins speaks about how it is perhaps the worst possible name given to a gene. What man wouldn’t want a gene with such a name? The warrior gene (Monoamine Oxidase-A gene) has been linked to aggressive behavior, violence and even criminal activity. Throughout the documentary Henry and his team of researchers go on a quest to discover who has the gene. They tested men from all walks of life, from former gang members and bikers to elite MMA fighters and Buddhist monks. The results were surprising. Of the men tested, a higher percentage of the monks had the warrior gene than did the MMA fighters. With about one-in-three men carrying the gene, the documentary begs the questions: did the monks pursue seclusion because they knew they had anger issues? Did the MMA fighters choose their sport because they were interested in an aggression that didn’t come naturally?
The warrior gene has even entered the American court system. NPR’s story titled Can Your Genes Make You Murder? followed the case against accused murderer Bradley Waldroup. It was one of the rare cases where the jury was actually asked to weigh this type of genetic evidence. Waldroup has the warrior gene, and forensic psychiatrist William Bernet said this when he testified: “His genetic makeup, combined with his history of child abuse, together created a vulnerability that he would be a violent adult.” He went on to say, “A person doesn’t choose to have this particular gene or this particular genetic makeup. A person doesn’t choose to be abused as a child. So I think that should be taken into consideration when we’re talking about criminal responsibility.”
Waldroup was accused of shooting his wife’s friend eight times and slicing her head open with a sharp object. He then went after his wife with a machete. He was sentence to 32 years.
Bill’s mother was a poor seamstress born in inner-city Detroit and his father left shortly after his birth. He’s been fending for himself since he’s been born and he has the knife wounds to prove it. It’s clear that the environment Bill was raised in has increased the likelihood of his criminality. But the environment that baby Bill grew up in may also mean the adult Bill’s warrior gene is fully expressed. What this means is that epigenetics and the warrior gene can work synergistically. In Boston Review’s Sept/Oct 2012 issue, Professor James J. Heckman’s writes about the relation of epigenetics and the warrior gene in his article Promoting Social Mobility:
“An extensive recent literature suggests that gene-environment interactions may be central to explaining human and animal development. For example, neuroscientist Avshalom Caspi and his colleagues have shown that the adverse impact of the absence of one gene—a particular variant of the Monoamine Oxidase-A gene, which has been associated with antisocial behavior and higher crime rates—is triggered by growing up in a harsh or abusive environment.”
It’s easy to think we have control over every situation. Except when we don’t. It’s also easy to think others have more control over their situations than they do. Enter Bill. He never killed himself that day and he never went on to kill anyone else. But despite going to therapy and reading books on how to control his anger he had many days like the day shown here. Days where he raged. Days where he caused material damage. Days where his rage blinded him from helping others. Is Bill a good man or a bad man? Is it even possible to judge this? It’s clear that he works hard – even to the point of sacrificing his health – and he cares deeply about his job. He might care about it because it provides the finances to support his family or because he wants his parents to be proud of him or because he wants to move up the corporate power ladder or all of the above. We don’t know. We only know he’s a man like many others who have it in them to shake with rage so violently that they can damage another person’s property or see someone in need and simply walk away.
Some have claimed that the warrior gene dampens empathy and that this is likely why the American prison population has a significantly higher percentage of the warrior gene than those on the outside. Much more research is needed, but the links sure seem obvious. The conversation here at The Good Men Project often grapples with what it means to be a good man. But perhaps we can get closer to this by asking from the other end of the spectrum. What makes a bad man? And what is it that might make a bad man bad?