A pedophilia gene: “The Devil made me do it”

The Turin-based newspaper, La Stampa, has a fascinating report on the latest developments in neuroscience. Researchers have isolated a gene whose mutation they believe provides the biological basis for pedophilia.

This started my mind down a certain journalistic path, and I began to think — about television. There are times when I miss the ’70s variety shows. “American Idol,” the “X Factor,” “Dancing with the Stars” are good in their own way, but they don’t have the breadth of entertainment that “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Smothers Brothers,” “Sonny and Cher,” “Captain and Tennille” and, yes, even “Donny and Marie.”

But of these, my favorite was “The Flip Wilson Show.” I can recall quite clearly sitting with my parents watching Flip play Reverend Leroy backed by his four deacons with a ready “Amen” on their lips. (I never imagined that I would grow up to become a priest in the Church of What’s Happening Now, a.k.a. The Episcopal Church, but that is a different story.)

While I gravitated towards the Rev. Leroy, the most popular skit on the show centered around Geraldine Jones. Flip would done wig and padded dress and with a falsetto cry utter one of the catch phrases of that era: “The Devil made me do it!”

Flip’s audience would respond with laughter. And why not? He was funny and Geraldine Jones’ cry was a wonderful excuse. It’s not my fault. I had to do it. The devil made me do it.

In an article entitled “Un gene alterato scatena la pedofilia” (An altered gene triggers pedophilia), Marco Accossato reports:

Italian researchers have discovered a possible genetic origin for pedophilia, making sexually deviant behavior a potentially treatable condition. But is it an alibi for convicted pedophiles?

The article reports that a study conducted by neuroscientists at the Universities of Turin and Milan and published in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that pedophilia was caused by a defective growth factor in the brain called Progranulin (PGRN).  A 50-year-old man who had begun to exhibit pedophile behavior underwent a neurological analysis and was found to have a a mutation of PGRN in his brain. Treatment of the condition led to a cessation of his pedophilia.

La Stampa wrote:

Un annuncio clamoroso … A dramatic announcement: a possible biological basis for socially unacceptable behavior can be found according to a study of patients with rare neurodegenerative disorders. The discovery, which will be presented [at a conference] in Turin, opens new research possibilities but for the first time presents a medical treatment approach to the disease. There are obvious potential ethical and legal implications to this discovery.

“Having shown that pedophilia is largely tied to a biological condition” has “extraordinary medical and social implications,”said Prof. Pinessi … [Further research is required to show however that] all pedophiles have the same genetic mutation … but having identified the cause of pedophilia as a neurobiological condition there is “a possibility of a cure” as shown in the Turin case.

“After several weeks of treatment with atypical anti-psychotic neuroleptic drugs along with antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors the patient ceased his pedophile behavior,” the researchers reported.

The La Stampa reporter also conducted a video interview with lead researcher Prof. Lorenzo Pinessi that touched upon the “ethical and legal implications” of the discovery. I was pleased to see that the moral issues were mentioned in the article and the accompanying video. But I wish the story had developed the medical ethics side a bit more. The lede suggests we will look into this: “Is it an alibi for convicted pedophiles?”, but we don’t get more.

Which is a shame in an otherwise great story for the author introduces the concept of free will and biology, but doesn’t do anything with it.

After I finished reading this story, I pulled from my bookshelf “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and turned to Book V, Chapter IV — The Rebellion.

Ivan Karamazov is going mad. He is unable to reconcile his knowledge of evil with his philosophical belief that the universe is governed by science.

[A]ll I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level—but that’s only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it?—I must have justice, or I will destroy myself.

The conventional wisdom of our modern age is rigidly deterministic. If the devil doesn’t make you do it, it is your genes, your upbringing, sociological forces or cultural pressures. While Geraldine Jones’ excuse for buying a new dress and the discovery of a gene responsible for pedophile behavior sound very different, both presume that what we do is wholly predetermined by outside causes.

We can will what we want but we cannot will what we will. Philosophers call this argument reconciliationism, which holds that free will and determinism do not conflict. People do choose as they wish, it’s just that those choices are themselves determined. We are free to will what we are certain to do.

What then can we say about evil? Can evil, right or wrong, or justice exist in a universe that is determined? In the post-Auschwitz world, how can we not believe in evil? If history, biology or sociology determine behavior moral indignation is senseless. However, I cannot escape the conviction that some actions are just evil — pedophilia being one.

What is the journalism angle in that?

La Stampa begins to address the God question — or the ethical/meaning of life question. That’s in the story. But is seeking an answer to this question possible in a newspaper? What is the role of the journalist in this case? Is he simply a chronicler, a reporter or does the craft of journalism have a moral purpose that rises above the repetition of disparate facts? What say you GetReligion readers?

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  • sari

    My first thought, after reading this line, ““After several weeks of treatment with atypical anti-psychotic neuroleptic drugs along with antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors the patient ceased his pedophile behavior,” the researchers reported.”, was that the patient was too zonked to sit up, let alone think or engage in sexual activity. Seriously. Atypical anti-psychotics are used on-label to treat schizophrenia and bipolar, and off-label to treat volatile individuals with other neurological disorders. They are widely used (overused) to treat meltdown-prone children with autism , despite the many undesirable and sometimes dangerous side-effects. The guy was probably a zombie.

    To answer your actual question: since one can be ethical without subscribing to belief in a higher power, I feel it appropriate for news journalists to address the ethical questions while refraining from the G-d question. The bigger issue, in my mind, concerns societal expectations (not quite the same thing as ethics). Should we strive to overcome whatever obstacles are placed before us, or should we exist as victims and persist in our bad behavior?

    As mentioned in earlier posts, both my children have autism spectrum disorders. Though both are very, very bright, one was substantially more delayed than the other. Nonetheless, when he tried to blame his actions on autism, we would remind him that autism is not an excuse for bad behavior and encouraged him to work towards being more appropriate. Little steps become big steps become ingrained behaviors. You cannot get too much more hardwired than autism.

  • Jerry

    The science reporting in this story appears to be abysmal. I can’t read Italian, so I’ll just comment on what you have here. We have one person with a genetic condition who also is a pedophile. That one person was treated and the pedophilia disappeared.

    First, class, repeat after me: correlation does not imply causation How many pedophiles have that genetic condition? If not all, then pedophiles without the genetic issue would have treated with the exact same drugs to see what the result is. Do all pedophiles with that genetic condition respond the same way? If that’s not the case, why not?

    A good model is is the research on possible genetic components of alcoholism.

    If all this research was done and there was a causation established between the genetic defect and pedophilia, the moral and religious question would remain. Does it really matter if I’m tempted because I have a genetic weakness or for some other reason? Doesn’t God want me to resist that temptation no matter what?

    Shouldn’t news stories about this research finding cover all these scientific and moral issues? You betcha.

  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    Yes, the craft of journalism does have a moral purpose that rises above the repetition of disparate facts. Now if only the business of journalism would allow the craft to be what it is meant to be.

  • Sydney Penner

    Of course, long before reconciliationists (or compatibilists, as philosophers are more likely to call them) were arguing that free will is compatible with scientific determinism, they were arguing that free will is compatible with divine determinism. See, e.g., Martin Luther. So I’m not sure whether this bit of neuroscience does much in the way of raising new moral or religious issues.

  • Julia

    The movie “A Clockwork Orange” comes to mind.

  • Dave

    If history, biology or sociology determine behavior moral indignation is senseless.

    Unless history, biology and sociology compel moral indignation.

  • Bern

    sari: as the mother of a neuro-atypical who after other therapies failed abysmally to allow my child to affect some modicum of self-control we (reluctantly) resorted to the to use of an atypical anti-psychotic I can assure you he is still a-typical but he is no zombie.

  • http://sarahboylewebber.blogspot.com/ Sarah Webber

    I also have 2 autistic children, one higher-functioning than the other and my son (whose behaviors are harder to control) takes a general anti-depressant to help him cope with his anxiety about change, any change. There’s nothing like experimenting on your children with psychoactive drugs, let me tell you, but it makes his life (and ours) so much easier to deal with. But I digress….

    The best advice his first therapist gave us was that most standard parenting rules still apply: hitting his sister is never going to be okay, no matter how many times we have to discipline him when he does it. He is also almost uncontrollably compulsive (any eraser to be found in a mile radius is going to be chewed) but that never means we find that behavior acceptable.

    I wonder if this man suddenly started having these pedophilic (how do you conjugate that?) impulses and they went and tried to find out why. And I wonder if while it might work for others who have this same brain chemistry, but I doubt it would work for everyone. I expect it would be like autism, where some treatments work for some people but not all. I believe cancer is similar in terms of treatment; some drugs work for some people and not others, etc.

    The human brain seems infinitely complex. I have two children, a boy and a girl, and their versions of autism don’t really resemble each other. I mean, they both have sensory disorders, but not the same ones. She has exotic food allergies, he just has one (eggs) which is the same as my cousin who we now believe had a similar autism as my son. It is my hope in 20 or 30 years to understand why my children have the problems they do, but I honestly don’t expect concrete answers before then.

    Sorry for rambling.

  • james

    Why is everyone so resistant to the possible discovery of a treatment for pedophilia? If it is true, it would make the world a much safer place.

  • Dave

    James, that’s not resistance, it’s realism. These are stories of anti-psychotic drugs in action against other disorders with a genetic component. There is, in the information given in the story, no reason to believe that pedophilia treatment will not be a similar mess. One successful outcome is a data point, of which a competent study needs hundreds before we can say anything for certain.

    An interesting journalistic excursion would be to review other treatments attempted for pedophelia, which would probably not be able to stay out of the zone George would like to see explored.