Parallel Massive Social Displacements Late Ninteenth and Late Twentieth Centuries

Just as the twin shifts from agrarian to industrial and rural to urban dominated the shifting social demography of the late-nineteenth century in Europe and the United States, so the shift from industrial to service (or tertiary) and from urban to suburban dominated shifting social demography of the late-twentieth century. The United States has been in the vanguard of this development, and the massive economic displacement of African-American urban youth is the context for a renewed conception of biological thinking about social issues. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States is heading down a subtly parallel road entertaining the connection between genes and social outcomes. This is being played out on a stage with converging preoccupations and tangled webs that interlace youth unemployment, crime and violence, race, and genetic explanations.

There is direct link between de-industrialization, youth unemployment, and ethnic or racial or immigrant minority status in the United States. In 1954 black and white youth unemployment rates in the United States were equal, with blacks actually having a slightly higher rate of employment in the age group from 16 to 19. By 1982 the black unemployment rate had nearly quadrupled in this age group, while the white rate had increased only marginally (Kasarda). Just as unemployment rates among African-American youth were skyrocketing during these three decades, so were their incarceration rates. This provides the context in which to review and interpret the clear pattern of the recent historical evolution of general prison incarceration rates by race. In the last half of the twentieth century, the incarceration rate of African Americans in relation to whites has gone up in a striking manner. In 1933 blacks were incarcerated at a rate approximately three times that of whites. By 1970 it was six times; and in 1995 it was seven times that of whites.

Genetic studies of criminality have a heavy dependency on incarcerated populations. Thus, for example, one of the more controversial issues in the genetics of crime is whether males with the extra Y chromosome, or XYY males, are more likely to be found in prisons than are XY males. The first major study suggesting a genetic link came from Edinburgh, Scotland. In 1965 Patricia Jacobs and her colleagues reported that while all of the 197 males in this account of prison hospital inmates were described as dangerously violent, seven had the XYY karotype. These seven males constituted about 3.5 per cent of the total. But since it was estimated that only about 1.3 per cent of all males has the XYY chromosomal make-up, the authors posited that the extra Y significantly increased one's chances of being incarcerated. Ever since a controversy has raged as to the meaning of these findings and the methodology that produced them. The claim for a genetic link to crime is based entirely upon studies of incarcerated populations.

Yet, incarceration rates are a function of a full range of criminal justice decisions, a fact which research has long shown to be a function of social, economic and political factors (Cole; Mauer; Miller; Currie). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, forensic sciences are attempting to use DNA markers to identify ethnic affiliation estimations of suspects in criminal investigations (Lowe et al.; Shriver et al.). Just as health and hygiene were the vanguard for the late-nineteenth century screen for the unfit, so the genetic screen was first a health screen. However, the shift in use and focus to forensic science has already begun. The national DNA database, CODIS (acronym for COmbined DNA Identification System) contained, as of January 2000, genetic profiles of 210,000 convicts. It is coordinated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and all fifty states contribute to the databank.

The states are the primary venues for the prosecution of violations of the criminal law, and their autonomy has generated considerable variation in the use of DNA databanks and storage. Even as late as the mid-1980s, most states were only collecting DNA samples from sexual offenders. The times have changed quite rapidly.There has been active change in the inter-linking of state databases, and states are uploading an average of 3,000 offender profiles every month. Computer technology is increasingly efficient and extraordinarily fast, and it requires only 500 microseconds to search a database of 100,000 profiles.

As the United States increases the numbers of profiles in the national database, there will be researchers proposing to provide genetic profiles of specific offender populations. Twenty states authorize the use of databanks for research on forensic techniques. Based on the statutory language in several of those states, this could easily mean assaying genes or loci that contain predictive information (Kimmelman). The program of research for CODIS is increasing exponentially on an annual basis, and this data base is sitting there waiting to be tapped by researchers looking for violence genes—as evidenced by the spate of national interest over the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene. In the latter part of 2002, Caspi and his associates published an article in Science that cemented the relationship between behavioral and molecular genetics. The authors claimed to have produced findings that a functional polymorphism in the MAOA gene affects the impact of early childhood maltreatment on the development of antisocial and violent behavior. The policy implications of the research were strongly suggested in the conclusions, and re-ignite an old debate about the prospects and dangers of early identification of children who are thought to be at risk for violent or antisocial behavior. As in the earlier forms of eugenics, early identification always carries with it the appendage of both treatment and prevention.

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