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The danger of analyzing Adam Lanza's DNA

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 18, 2013 11:11 AM

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Researchers at the University of Connecticut are analyzing Adam Lanza's DNA. Last week Nature published a forceful editorial explaining why that's a bad idea.

They explain, first, that even if geneticists find discrepancies in Lanza's DNA, those discrepancies won't tell us anything about why he did what he did:

Such associations hold only for groups. Many healthy people carry mutations associated with disease; many people with mental illness carry no known risk factors. Mass shooters are often young white men, yet very few young white men become mass shooters. There is no one-to-one relationship between genetics and mental health or between mental health and violence. Something as simple as a DNA sequence cannot explain anything as complex as behaviour.

They go on to warn that, while nothing in Lanza's DNA will explain Sandy Hook, the data collected might trigger a 21st-century witch hunt:

But there is a dangerous tendency to oversimplify, especially in the wake of tragedy. If Lanza’s DNA reveals genetic variants — as it inevitably will — people who carry similar variants could be stigmatized, even if those variants are associated only with ear shape. If Lanza has genetic variants already associated with autism or depression, people with those diseases could come under suspicion as well.

And they conclude with an important point about the limitations of modern genetics in general:

Geneticists must explain — and in the wake of the Lanza move many already are — that the ability to sequence DNA is many steps removed from the ability to make that sequence meaningful. Many, if not most, mutations are meaningless outside narrow contexts. One of the most robust examples of a variant that has been linked to antisocial behaviour holds only for individuals who experience severe childhood trauma or abuse; those who do not face no greater risk of being antisocial than people without the variant. Less-studied risk factors presumably work the same way. Genetics matters only in the context of environment.
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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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