Reviewed by Annalee Newitz
It's a prize that scientists have sought since the early nineteenth century: a biological marker that predicts violent behavior in humans. In the 1830s, phrenologists believed head bumps could reveal a criminal personality -- often, prostitutes and the poor were said to have bumps that marked them as deviants from birth. But today, it seems this pursuit may have moved beyond the realm of pseudoscience.
Thanks to recent discoveries, we have evidence that the genes of abused children are marked by the experience. Over time, these effects leave them prone to depression and make it harder for them to control their violent impulses. Could we be on the cusp of discovering a scientific approach to a social problem? In an essay for Matter magazine, former war correspondent Scott C. Johnson suggests that we are. Unfortunately, Johnson fails spectacularly to explain the complexity of this problem, and winds up telling a story that distorts both the science and the reality of abuse in many people's lives.
Epigenetics is the study of how environment and non-genetic molecular activity affect development. Johnson shows us how seemingly-unrelated studies in the field converge to offer a picture of the violence-haunted brain. One study that Johnson describes suggests there may be an epigenetic pathway to suicide, whereby an abusive childhood leaves the brain starved for the neurotransmitters that normally keep our moods on an even keel. Johnson also delves into public health studies which show that violent behavior has its roots in childhood.
Johnson argues that we need to look at these studies in light of another epigenetic study that shows an abusive childhood can leave its genetic imprint even on the grandchildren of the abused person. The suggestion is that violence isn't just a social cycle, but a hereditary one. These studies and others like them have renewed many researchers' interest in childhood interventions to prevent violent adults. They're especially significant if it turns out to be true that the epigenome, as Johnson puts it, is "more malleable" in early life.
Johnson's science reporting here leads to a few interesting conclusions, but he glosses over many of the questions and controversies in epigenetics. He doesn't mention that other epigenetic studies have shown that humans retain neural plasticity throughout most of their lives. Nor does he admit that "criminality" and "propensity to violence" are traits that are difficult to define, especially at the level of neuroscience and genetics.
But most of The Ghost in the Cell doesn't deal with science. Instead, it deals with the violent life of one woman.
Throughout the essay, Johnson foregrounds the story of Yokia Mason, who lives in a high-crime, African-American neighborhood in Oakland, CA. We assume she's there to provide a human face for his descriptions of how epigenetics researchers and others are tackling at the influence of childhood experiences on gene expression. But we never learn how Johnson met Mason, nor why she's telling her story to a journalist. Has she been working with some of the scientists in the article? No. Is she the subject of a scientific investigation into genetics and violence? No.
So why is Mason in this essay at all? As we learn more about her background, one begins to get the extremely creepy feeling that Mason went to the most impoverished neighborhood in Oakland, the city where he lives, and asked people there to tell him about their violent backgrounds. Though Johnson and the scientists he interviews are careful to explain that they are not trying to bring race into this story of genes and violence, the entire shape of this article belies that assertion. It seems as if Johnson chose to profile Mason entirely because she's a black woman who lives in a low-income area with a lot of gang violence.
Mason feels "haunted" by violence, she tells Johnson, and he takes this to mean that she may be one of these people whose brains are primed for violence by a history of abuse. By extension, he hints, her entire neighborhood may be a hotbed of people whose brains are hardwired for crime. And this is where Johnson's essay moves from merely problematic to simply bad science writing.
As any of the scientists he interviewed could have told him -- if he'd bothered to ask -- Mason is a classic example of somebody whose situation is too overdetermined for us to make any solid claims about her propensity for violence. Is she influenced by a genetic predisposition she inherited, by her own childhood experiences affecting her epigenetically, or by social issues we can't quantify in the lab like economic difficulties, stress from having children when she was a teenager, or living in a neighborhood with gangs? We can't possibly know without studying her brain intensively, and even then the answers would be extremely murky.
Holding Mason up as the human face of these epigenetic studies is worse than misleading. She's a narrative non sequitur whose presence brings up the nineteenth-century notion that black people are somehow biologically destined for poverty and violence. One wonders why Johnson didn't choose to tell the story of somebody who is actually the subject of studies on violence. Instead he simply says that Mason is "the sort of person" who has been studied before, mostly by policy makers and social scientists:
Thanks to the work of Meaney and others, many researchers now believe that the neglect and fear that pervaded the Mason household will have left a powerful chemical imprint in the cells of Yokia and her siblings. If the scientists are right, we may have to change the way we think about tackling violence and crime.
You know, like maybe we'll tackle it by going to the poor areas of Oakland and giving everybody there forced gene therapy?
Given that child abuse is a social problem that's also common in middle-class households of all phenotypes across the United States, one would have hoped that Johnson might have explored this side of the story. What do these epigenetic studies tell us about rage-addicted CEOs whose brains were shaped by abusive parenting and sadistic prep schools?
Instead, Johnson devotes an incredible amount of time to a voyeuristic look inside Mason's life, which he reduces to a series of bullet holes, homicidal men, and children who are already in trouble with the police. This story does not humanize Mason; it objectifies her, and reifies the notion that there are some communities where crime is being bred into the next generation because of child abuse.
Epigenetics is a fantastically promising new field of study, which may ultimately shed light on how childhood shapes our neuroanatomy as well as our neuroses. But Johnson does the field a disservice by situating its story in a narrative like this one. By the end of this essay, you'll feel like you've just read a tale of phrenology rather than epigenetics, where science is being twisted to justify the idea that the people in some communities are just born broken.
Annalee Newitz is a science journalist who is the editor of io9.com and the author of the forthcoming book Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction (Doubleday).
UPDATE: Scott Johnson, the author of "The Ghost in the Cell," has responded to this review over at Medium.