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.

Our search for, and apparent willingness to believe in, or at least give credit to the possibility of, “the” gene for complex social behavior suggests that credulity and inability to think critically did not die out with the advent of the Enlightenment. The will to believe is as strong as ever. We are like creatures so dazzled with our own technological prowess that we no longer think it necessary to consider the obvious.

Genetic variation might explain some of the difference within a population, but it is most unlikely to explain differences between populations. It is unlikely to explain why, for example, the rate of criminality has increased in Britain by something like 35 times since the end of World War II. In short, genes (except in a few rare cases) are not destiny: character is destiny, and character is made as well as born.

The article, probably read quickly and without much reflection by hundreds of thousands of the best-educated people in the country, will give aid and succor to a government that has, like several previous governments, almost systematically neglected its primary and most undeniable duty, to maintain the safety and property of citizens as they go about their lawful business. If bad behavior is genetic, over to the doctors—and, eventually, to the eugenicists. For, as Goethe once remarked, when disorder reaches beyond a certain point, people begin to long for the man on the white horse—or in this case, in the white coat.


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