Corruption: moral hazard or all in the genes

Okot Nyormoi


Corruption is never far from the spotlight. With the European Union’s recent report that corruption is losing the Community billions in dollars a year, corruption is headlines again. European Union report followed reports from Uganda that billions of dollars in aid money meant for war victims of northern Uganda have gone missing from the office of the prime minister. In Kampala the prime minister did not resign much less lose his job.

For years some government and institutions in some countries have struggled to rid themselves of corruption, corrupt practices and corrupt elements in their midst but without much success.  Despite what economists know as moral hazard, which is the temptation that confronts nearly everyone at one point or another, to do the wrong thing for personal gain, and which some people cannot resist, there are people who persist with the explanation that corruption is all in the genes.

Whether or not corruption be is in the genes and is inheritable is not a new debate. Since corruption, that is the abuse of position of power or trust for personal gain, is a crime one may address this question in the context of criminal behavior generally. What follows here is a brief history of the claim that it is all in the genes and of the conclusions we have drawn from these debates.

In 1870, an Italian doctor, Cesar Lombroso proposed what he called the theory of the criminal mind and endeavored to prove it. Lombroso studied the skull of a notorious brigand. From this single case study the good doctor claimed that the criminal has specific physical features that are identifiable. Lombroso’s claims were laughable.

The development of the science of heredity in the late 19th century by Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, and the emergence of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection expanded the debate on the cause of criminal behavior.  In 1983 a man named Galton (cousin to Darwin) came up with the term eugenics. Eugenics embraced the belief that the quality of human beings can be improved through selective breeding.  For many years the practice of eugenics or selective breeding was carried on in many European countries and in the United States. Wherever it was practiced it caused great human suffering.

The practice did not and could not as it practitioners claimed, eliminate the perceived undesirables from the human population.  Heredity and the dynamics of the interaction between the genes, diet and the environment were far too complex. People did not always produce children with traits that are similar to their own.

From the science of eugenics the search for the criminal and corruption trait invaded the zone of the chromosome. We know that the average person carry 46 chromosomes of which X and Y are the sex chromosomes. It is the Y chromosome that will determine whether a newborn will be male or female.

Females have XX chromosome combinations while males have XY combinations.

In 1962 a 46 year old man turned up who had an extra Y chromosome giving him the unusual combination of XYY. This discovery led to the absurd claim that the Y chromosome was responsible for criminal behavior. A man with an extra Y chromosome, the XYY man; would be, it was argued, more aggressive and therefore possess greater tendency towards violent crimes.

We know of course that in real life violent crimes are committed by both men and women who as you know possess no Y chromosome. Moreover with men violent crimes occur in men with the XYY as well as in men with the XY chromosome combinations.

Before the door could be closed on the notion that Y chromosomes caused or are linked to criminal behavior, a new idea called warrior gene arrived. The idea involved enzymes which are proteins that catalyze or speed up the rates of chemical reactions in the body.  An altered form of the enzyme is non- functional and there are people who inherit this non-functional variant. Such individuals usually have low intelligence quotient (IQ), are fearful, impulsive, aggressive and violent.

In 1993 a man called Brunner found that 14 male members of a Dutch family who all had a long history of violent crimes all shared the gene for this enzyme. Brunner and his colleagues concluded that the gene for this enzyme was responsible for violent crimes. For a brief while, Brunner and his colleagues held sway and their conclusions got named the Brunner syndrome. But this was soon discarded. The simple inheriting of the non-functional enzyme variant did not make one a criminal. An appropriate environment was necessary to make one with such a gene to become a criminal.

Even with the dumping of the warrior gene theory as an explanation for criminality and corrupt practices, the door to the claim that it is all in the gene could not be shut entirely.

Developments of new technologies for visualizing brain activities soon allowed doctors to detect active and non-active parts of the brain. Studies showed that certain parts of the brain of the violent criminal compared to brain activity of the normal person had very low brain activity. This finding led to the conclusion that the fore brain is what controls criminal behavior.

However other studies of brain scans found that some normal individuals shared similar pattern of brain activity with the criminals in the study, therefore nullifying the claim that low activity in the fore brain was a sure sign of criminality. While studies of twins suggest greater similarities in the types of crimes identical twins commit compared to non-twins or non-identical twins, there are no known genes linked to criminal behavior. This leaves us for now with the theory of moral hazard as the only valid explanation for the prevalence of corruption and corrupt practices around the world.