Søren Roest Korsgaard

The Notion of Evil Killer Genes Examined


Scientists from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have reported an association between violent crime and genes (a low-activity MAOA genotype and the CDH13 gene), labeled evil killer genes by the mainstream press. Supposedly, having these genes makes one more likely to commit profoundly immoral acts such as murder.  This article examines the genetic hypothesis and the broader implications. It is demonstrated that the genetic hypothesis is oversimplified and that situational attributions (e.g. culture, environment) are far more important than dispositional attributions (e.g. genetics).

Extreme Violence and Morality

Concluding that there is a clear-cut nexus between genes and extreme violence implies an intimate connection between genes and morality. Extreme violence, which the study purported to be linked to genetics, falls at the end of the spectrum of morality, i.e. acute immorality. The study, which was published in Molecular Psychiatry, neglected to incorporate a discussion of morality as well as the concept of good and evil into their study, and hence the scientists have produced a framework which is artificially constricted – unless of course the highly unorthodox position is advanced that morality does not exist or that violence is not related to morality. Nevertheless, this reasoning was hinted at by the lead-author, Dr. Tiihonen, in an email to the writer of this article when he stated that “we have not mentioned anything about ‘evil’ or ‘immorality’ in our article, we try to focus on facts [1].” As we shall see, even a simple discussion of good and evil reveals numerous complexities which likely undermine the purported connection between genes and violence. In lieu of analyzing relevant concepts, the scientists focused exclusively on a minority group of convicted, violent criminals who allegedly are responsible for “the majority of all violent crime” in developed countries [2]. Hence, they failed to account for legalized violence perpetrated by government entities as well as multiple rigorous studies which show that violence and other profoundly immoral acts are intimately related to power and obedience. Even so, they proceeded to conclude that the etiology of violence is facilitated by two genetic polymorphisms i.e. internal factors working within the individual.

Right and Wrong

Most people tend to have a notion of what is right and wrong; however, many equate morality to the laws of the country in which they have been born. This implies that an unlawful killing of another human being is regarded as murder, and that killings carried out legally are not murders.
For the reason that laws are highly variable it follows that actions regarded as legally sound at this point in time may later be regarded as sinful, criminal, and immoral. A one-time hero may later be regarded as a murderer depending on how a society evolves. For example, when Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Hitler, his action was illegal under German law and he was executed for it. Today he is widely regarded as a hero. Stauffenberg justified his actions by saying that it was for the greater good; he tried to carry out the will of the people [3].
When executioners in the US, China, Nigeria, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere snuff the life of people convicted of murder, drug offenses, sexual molestation, tax evasion, and for being intoxicated by alcohol, the executioners often state that it is for the greater good. It is rare to see actual remorse among executioners, but a few instances have been noted [4, 5].
It can be scientifically demonstrated that many executioners in the US are unavoidably cold-blooded killers since it has been shown that statistically 1 in 25 on death row is innocent, and in fact, many innocent people worldwide have been beheaded, hanged, lethally injected, shot, or electrocuted [6]. These statistics are not hidden from the public, and many campaigns have attempted to cast light on the irreversible nature of the death penalty; yet, judges continue to sentence people to death, and the death tolls of executioners continue to rise. Furthermore, many people continue to support the death penalty, even in developed countries [7]. In China, as many as 10,000 people join together in stadiums, laughing and cheering, as drug dealers and convicted criminals are killed by firing squad [8]. It has been observed that the convicts are sometimes “immediately [8]” executed after sentencing. In China, the “justice system notoriously favors prosecutors and Chinese courts have a 99.9% conviction rate [9].” It has also been reported that “China has occasionally exonerated wrongfully executed convicts after others came forward to confess their crimes, or in some cases because the supposed murder victim was later found alive [10].”
It follows from the evidence that supporters of capital punishment, executioners, and non-legalized cold-blooded murderers directly or indirectly support killing innocent individuals. In line with this argument, it can be argued that this group should, if the genetic hypothesis has any merit, have a specific biological makeup increasing the likelihood of violence or acute immorality. Similarly, usage of recreational drugs is legalized in several countries, but if you find yourself in the wrong country you may be executed; particularly in Asia. Alcohol is an integrated part of western society, but being intoxicated in Saudi Arabia could lead to your execution or a lengthy prison sentence. Over the past years, a notable trend in the West has been a move toward the legalization of drugs, particularly for personal possession (exactly what constitutes a “drug” is highly subjective and varies considerably between countries). It is not inconceivable that in the distant future drug usage may become legalized in the majority of countries. Decades from now, these societies would undoubtedly perceive the past executions of people for using government defined drugs as being wicked and unjust. Could the conclusion not be drawn that certain societies as a whole should have “evil killer genes” for allowing cruel, inhumane executions and incarcerations to take place?
The argument of good intention (i.e. executioners, judges, etc. are not categorically evil since they are acting within the law and believe their actions to be justified) was thoroughly dispelled by Martin Luther king, who wrote: “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers [11].” Historically, legality is often irrelevant when judging the morality of particular actions.
Implicitly, the Karolinska Institute scientists assumed that legality equals morality and vice-versa by examining convicted offenders – they stuck to politically correct violent offenders. However, if higher-order moral behavior is inherited biologically to a certain extent then the law of the land cannot be used to elucidate this matter. Under the scheme of politically dictated laws as opposed to universal moral laws, it is possible for an individual to commit violent crimes that are morally sound, and for another to act within the law, but be engaging in acute immoral behavior. For example, legalized child murderer and serial killer, Brandon Bryant, has killed more people than Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway combined. For years, Bryant killed from a safe location in the US by pressing the button on a joystick as a US drone operator. After six years and hundreds of victims later, he quit his job allegedly because he had begun having second thoughts about killing children and others. He described one of his kills as follows: “The smoke clears … he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it’s hot …. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him [12].”
On October 14, 2011, former US President Barack Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, directed the CIA to conduct a drone strike and mass murder in Yemen. One of the many victims was 16-year-old Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, who was brutally murdered while having dinner. He had never been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one [13]. On January 27, 2017, the boy’s 8-year-old half-sister, Nawar “Nora” al-Awlaki, was killed in an operation authorized by Obama’s successor, Donald Trump. Bullets struck her multiple times and she died a slow and painful death [14].

Death by Government

The study was exclusively based on offenders found within the penalty system, but no references were made to political killers and socially acceptable psychopaths who often are extremely deadly and successful – but commit their acts legally – legally within their own country, at least. After the Persian Gulf War, from 1990-1991, the US imposed economic sanctions upon Iraq that resulted in the death of over 500,000 Iraqi children. Madeline Albright, Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, was questioned about the sanctions on live TV. She had clearly not prepared for the question that follows. She was asked: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright calmly responded that “we think the price is worth it [15].” Albright’s infamous quotation leads us to another important point, namely democide.
Democide has been defined as “any murder by government – by officials acting under the authority of government. That is, they act according to explicit or implicit government policy or with the implicit or explicit approval of the highest authority [16].” The term was coined in the 1990s by the late Rudolph Rummel, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii. Rummel’s analyses and very conservative calculations show that governments were responsible for over 262,000,000 deaths worldwide in the 20th century [17]. The figure does not include soldiers killed in combat, but exclusively unarmed civilians. Rummel gives a practical characterization of this incredible figure: “Just to give perspective on this incredible murder by government, if all these bodies were laid head to toe, with the average height being 5′, then they would circle the earth ten times. Also, this democide murdered 6 times more people than died in combat in all the foreign and internal wars of the century. Finally, given popular estimates of the dead in a major nuclear war, this total democide is as though such a war did occur, but with its dead spread over a century [18].”
Statistically, it is evident that it is astronomically more likely that your own government or a foreign one and its handlers will kill you than non-legalized violent offenders. The Karolinska scientists ignored the data and focused only on a narrow band of law-breakers, a focus that distorts the spectrum and prevalence of acute immorality. The genetic hypothesis, if it has any merit, would have to be able to predict legalized murders, such as Madeline Albright, in a double-blind test.

The Majority is Latently Evil

While only a small group ordered directly or indirectly the various democides, genocides, and holocausts of the 20th and 21st century, hundreds of thousands of individuals assisted their governments in carrying out these atrocities and even more approved of them. A full spectrum analysis of the genetic hypothesis would therefore at least incorporate the genetic material of drone operators, soldiers, imprisoned offenders, government mercenaries, people who have no history of violence, torture specialists, and any government official who has directed or supported violent actions, including war. In the study, all of these nuances were not mentioned. In an email to this writer, the lead-author, Dr. Tiihonen, admitted that their study applies only to developed countries, an artificial restriction as violence and genetics do not cease to exist outside the artificially determined borders of “developed countries.” He went on to say that “we concluded that in Finland (a developed country) 5-10% of violent crimes (defined by legislation of Finland) are attributable to 2 genetic polymorphisms [19].”
As we shall see in the following section, solid scientific data show that the difference between the majority of so-called law-abiding citizens and cold-blooded killers is minuscule, and a number of social and environmental factors are vastly more significant than genetics in determining which moral direction an individual will take.
During the Nuremberg prosecutions of Nazi doctors, engineers, and soldiers, the “Nuremberg defense” was widely used to try to minimize moral and legal responsibility for those who carried out or facilitated atrocities. The essence of the defense is that the soldiers, doctors, and other workers simply followed the orders of their superiors and hence were not culpable at all or at least not to the same degree as their superiors [20]. In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram wanted to scientifically examine aspects of the Nuremberg defense and determine if so-called ordinary people (postal clerks, high school teachers, salesmen, engineers, doctors, etc.) would blindly follow orders of an authority figure even if commanded to do reprehensible acts including the electrocution of helpless victims. The general setup of the study involved telling the subject that they would be participating in a learning experiment to test how punishment affects memory. At the beginning of the experiment, the subject and the victim (a confederate of Milgram) were introduced to each other by the experimenter who was dressed in a lab coat. Most observers found the victim to be “mild mannered and likable [21].” The victim was “strapped onto an ‘electric chair’ apparatus [21]” and electrodes were placed on the victim’s wrist. The subject was informed that the straps were “to prevent excessive movement while the [confederate] was being shocked. The effect was to make it impossible for him to escape from the situation [21].” The subject was then told that the electrodes were connected to a shock generator in the adjacent room. For each error, the subject was instructed to deliver a specific dose of volt to the victim starting at 15 and ending with 450 volts. After the experiment, it was revealed that no one had suspected that the instrument was a simulated shock generator. On the generator, Milgram and his colleagues had clearly written which dose of voltage constituted: Slight shock, moderate shock, strong shock, very strong shock, intense shock, extreme intensity shock, and “danger: Severe Shock [22].” The last two switches were simply marked, XXX, a clear indication that death would most likely follow. The victim would give a predetermined response to the increasing degrees of punishment, including pounding on the wall, screaming, complaining of heart problems, and saying they refused to proceed with the experiment. When the device hit the 330 volts mark, the victim would deliver this message: “(Intense and prolonged screaming) Let me out of here. Let me out of here. My heart’s bothering me. Let me out, I tell you. (Hysterically) Let me out of here. Let me out of here. You have no right to hold me here. Let me out! Let me out! Let me out! Let me out of here! Let me out. Let me out [23].” During the final stages of the study, the victim was instructed to feign death by no longer answering or responding to electric shocks. At this point, the experimenter would tell the subject to treat silence as a wrong answer and continue to administer voltage jolts.
Before the study was undertaken, several well-educated psychologists “were provided with a detailed description of the experimental situation. They were asked to reflect carefully on it, and to predict the behavior of 100 hypothetical subjects. More specifically, they were instructed to plot the distribution of obedience of ‘100 Americans of diverse occupations, and ranging in age from 20 to 50 years,’ who were placed in the experimental situation [22].” There was considerable agreement among the psychologists that only between 0-3% would administer the complete series of electric shocks. To everyone’s surprise, a staggering 65% went through the whole set of punishments from 15 to 450 volts.
Many subjects “expressed deep disapproval of shocking a man in the face of his objections, and others denounced it as stupid and senseless. Yet the majority complied with the experimental commands [22].” Moreover, many subjects laughed and smiled as the victim screamed in agony and pounded on the wall. The “laughter seemed entirely out of place, even bizarre [22].” After the experiment, several explained that they were not sadistic and did not enjoy the torture and killing of the confederate.
The Milgram study and variations of it have been repeated numerous times and in several countries. There have been found no significant differences between US and non-US residents (almost exclusively Western societies); also, gender does not make a noteworthy difference nor has obedience to authority changed for the better with time [23]. As recently as 2015, the experiment was repeated in Poland with a staggering 90% inflicting the highest dosage of voltage. The lead author of the study, Dr Thomasz Grzyb, concluded: “Half a century after Milgram’s original research into obedience to authority, a striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual [24].”
The Milgram experiment, and its subsequent replications, demonstrates that under the command of authority, violence flourishes and not by a specific set of genes. The subjects of the study were not convicted criminals, but law-abiding citizens; hence, the Milgram experiment is a clear indication that external influences are far more important than a genetic relation to violence. However, if external factors are less important, a double-blind genetic version of the Milgram experiment would establish beforehand who would put their victim through the entire set of electric shocks and who would not. Statistically, authority-obedient individuals are by far the most dangerous, morally reckless, and most likely to commit atrocities. It follows that individuals who defy authority and question laws and executive orders are the most dangerous to any murderous regime.

Power and Violence

A very important, but implicitly expressed factor in the Migram study is that of power. Similarly, Rummel’s research shows that “ethnic, racial, and religious diversity, economic development, levels of education, and cultural differences [25]” do not account for democide. Instead, “the best predictor of this killing is regime power. The more arbitrary power a regime has … the more likely it will kill its subjects or foreigners. The conclusion is that power kills, absolute power kills absolutely [26].”
The relationship between power and violence was also hinted at during the notorious and widely criticized Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Dr. Philip Zimbardo wanted to study the psychological effects of perceived power and recruited ordinary people with no histories of abnormal behavior to function as either guards or prisoners in a simulated prison environment. The experiment was cut short after the guards began abusing and psychologically torturing the prisoners, many of whom had begun to see themselves as actual prisoners. Interviews and psychological tests indicated that “abusive guard behavior appears to have been triggered by features of the situation rather than by the personality of guards [27].” Zimbardo concluded that internal characteristics of the individuals were far less significant than external influences in explaining their behavior. This implies that evil is not “as related to personality or childhood values as we think [28].”

Mandatory Human Genetic Engineering

In the foreseeable future, if western governments embrace the highly questionable notion that violence is, in large part, a result of genes rather than environment and culture, it could lead to enforcement of mandatory genetic editing such that future generations would not have allegedly undesirable genes. To persuade public opinion, the spurious argument could be injected via the mainstream media that opponents to genetic editing are responsible for violence and killings carried out by those with bad genes because they allow such genes to exist. Genetic editing is currently on the table as something which could soon become mandatory, like vaccines have been in some countries and states.
In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui created the world’s first genetically modified babies. In the wake of that human experiment, a writer for the South China Morning Post asked: “If governments were to start modifying their populations’ genes on a mass scale to treat genetic ailments such as sickle cell disease, would that pave the way towards the eventual use of this technology for enhancement [29]?“ The article continues, “’Oh, that’s going to happen for sure’, says Derya Unutmaz, a Connecticut-based immunologist and principal researcher at Jackson Laboratory [29].” Unutmaz went on to say that “at the military level you can imagine you want to create super-soldiers who can withstand all kinds of diseases and tough weather and carry hundreds of kilograms. These were science fiction, but now we have the tools that could enable them [29].” Numerous scientific magazines are already implicitly advocating gene editing and predicting that it will soon become mandatory. A science writer for TheAtlantic.com predicts that within a few decades “the United States will arrest, try, and convict some parents for refusing to edit the genes of their child before he or she is born [30].” Realizing that government is the number one cause of unnatural death and the most dangerous entity ever to have existed, it follows that politicians and the elite will likely attempt to illegalize a whole host of genes deemed undesirable, including the genes allegedly associated with violence. One plausible scenario is the emergence of a doctored quasi-religion, which we may call “genianity,” advanced and created by the elite in order to encourage widespread acceptance of mandatory genetic engineering. The dogma of genianity will be that everyone must subject themselves to genetic modification or “therapy” for the “greater good.” A scenario worthy of consideration is the following. First, sympathy and support would be generated via eradicating profound defects and illnesses. Second, years of targeted propaganda would change and push the boundaries of norms and ethics in regard to genetics, fostering a militant belief system which becomes a quasi-religion. The adherents of genianity would discipline each other if doubt occurs when genes that are associated with politically incorrect behavior are gradually added to the list of undesirables. Dissenters would be imprisoned, excluded, or become social outcasts. Eventually, future generations would be largely engineered beings designed for government approved thinking and behavior.

Final Thoughts

As shown in this article, the genetic hypothesis for violence stands in stark contrast to solid data from a variety of disciplines including social psychology and philosophy. The hypothesis encounters numerous difficulties when violence is looked at from a broader perspective and politically incorrect material is analyzed. Contemporary societies define a virtue or an evil based upon artificial moral parameters i.e. laws and regulations; hence, scientists need an objective system, such as a universal set of moral values, in order to fully explore the hypothesis.

About the writer: Søren Korsgaard, author of America’s Jack the Ripper: The Crimes and Psychology of the Zodiac Killer, is the editor of www.crimeandpower.com and webmaster of www.paulcraigroberts.org. Support Søren’s work by donating Bitcoin: 19Z22vsdaKJX4gy8GDy6J8QU1ZZ9EvSoEo    


1. Email to Søren Korsgaard from Dr. Jari Tiihonen. April 27, 2018.
2. J Tiihonen et al. “Genetic back ground of extreme violent behavior.” Molecular Psychiatry (2015).
3. “Germans who resisted Hitler and the Nazis” https://www.biographyonline.net/people/famous/people-opposed-hitler.html.
4. “I was Virginia’s executioner from 1982 to 1999. Any questions for me?” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/21/death-penalty-former-executioner-jerry-givens.
5. “THE EXECUTIONER’S TALE: Former San Quentin warden reveals how he killed prisoners in the jail’s ‘coughing box’ without any training . . . or remorse” https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3481019/Former-executioner-San-Quentin-reveals-killed-prisoners-gas-chamber-without-training-claims-never-haunted-him.html.
6. Gross et al. ”Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death.” National Acade my of Sciences (2004) https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1306417111.
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9. “Thousands in China watch as 10 people sentenced to death in sport stadium” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/18/thousands-china-watch-executed-sport-stadium.
10. “Executed Chinese teenager found innocent 18 years on” http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/executed-chinese-teenager-found-innocent-18-years-on-75633.
11. “Martin Luther King: ‘Everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was Legal’” https://libertyblitzkrieg.com/2013/06/07/martin-luther-king-everything-adolf-hitler-did-in-germany-was-legal/.
12. “Confessions of a Drone Warrior” https://www.gq.com/story/drone-uav-pilot-assassination
13. “Abdulrahman al-Awlaki” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdulrahman_al-Awlaki
14. “Nawar_al-Awlaki” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nawar_al-Awlaki
15. “’We Think the Price Is Worth It’ Media uncurious about Iraq policy’s effects–there or here” https://fair.org/extra/we-think-the-price-is-worth-it/.
16. “DEMOCIDE VERSUS GENOCIDE: WHICH IS WHAT?” https://hawaii.edu/powerkills/GENOCIDE.HTM.
17. ”Freedom, Democracy, Peace; Power, Democide, and War” https://hawaii.edu/powerkills/welcome.html.
18. “20TH CENTURYDEMOCIDE” https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/20TH.HTM.
19. Email to Søren Korsgaard from Dr. Jari Tiihonen. April 27, 2018
20. Nuremberg defense https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/Nuremberg+defence
21. Milgram, S. “Behavioral Study of obedience.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (1963).
22. “Milgram Experiment – Obedience to Authority” https://explorable.com/stanley-milgram-experiment.
23. Blass, T. ”The Milgram Paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology (1999).
24. “Conducting the Milgram Experiment in Poland, Psychologists Show People Still Obey” http://www.spsp.org/news-center/press-releases/milgram-poland-obey.
25. R. J. Rummel. “Democracy, Power, Genocide, and Mass Murder.” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Peace Science Society (International) (1999).
26. “POWER KILLS: GENOCIDE AND MASS MURDER” https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/POWER.ART.HTM#*.
27. “Stanford Prison Experiment FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS” http://www.prisonexp.org/faq/.
28. “How Good People Turn Evil: The Stanford Prison Experiment” https://exploringyourmind.com/how-good-people-turn-evil-stanford-prison-experiment/.
29. “The future of gene editing: ending disease or creating super-soldiers or a master race? Why rules are needed” https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/article/2179853/future-gene-editing-ending-disease-or-creating-super
30. Will Editing Your Baby’s Genes Be Mandatory? https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/04/will-editing-your-babys-genes-be-mandatory/522747/

Author Since: Apr 09, 2019

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