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Deviance: Nature vs. Nurture Essay

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Every society has developed their own rules and principles, and every society contains those who break away from these norms and expectations. These people are called deviants. All societies throughout history have had these deviants who refuse to follow the rules set up by the community in which they live. Deviance is necessary, to some degree, for societies to advance. Without deviance, human culture would stagnate. The causes of deviance, like many other topics, is up for debate. Some say people are genetically determined to either be deviant or not, some say deviance is caused by the environment in which they grow up: nature, or nurture.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many families were studied in order to possibly find a connection between heredity and criminality or “feeble-mindedness” (feeble-mindedness was a term used in this time period that could mean a number of things: various forms of mental retardation, learning disabilities, and mental illness). The two most well- known studies were of the Jukes and the Kallikak families.

The Jukes were first studied in 1874 when a sociologist named Richard L. Dugdale studied the records of 13 prisons in New York. After researching a number of convicts’ genealogies, he found that there was a man, whom he gave the name Max, born somewhere between 1720 and 1740 who was the ancestor of 76 convicted criminals, 18 brothel owners, 120 prostitutes, over 200 people on welfare, and 2 cases of feeble-mindedness. In 1912, another study was published on the Jukes, this time by a man named Arthur H. Estabrook, who claimed Dugdale’s study hadn’t been thorough enough. Estabrook added more than 2,000 additional people into the group of subjects included under the pseudonym “Jukes,” raising the total to 2,820. The Kallikak family was first studied in the same year as the last study on the Jukes was published. Henry H. Goddard was an American psychologist who ran the New Jersey Home for the Education and Care of Feebleminded Children (now known as Vineland Training School).

In 1912, he began to study the genealogy of a woman in his facility, who he gave the pseudonym “Deborah Kallikak.” Goddard found that the woman’s great-great-great grandfather, Martin Kallikak, a Revolutionary War hero, at one point had an illegitimate child with a feeble-minded barmaid. This child, a son, had children of his own, who had their own children, and continued on through the generations. These descendants all wound up poor, insane, criminal, or mentally retarded. However, after further research into Martin Kallikak’s family tree, Goddard found that his other descendants, those not related to the feeble-minded barmaid, were completely different. These children grew up to be intelligent, prosperous, upright citizens; they went into careers like doctors, lawyers, and ministers. According to Dugdale, Estabrook, and Goddard, there is a very clear link between genetics and the behavior in which a person participates within their lifetime. These studies, however, are 100 years old.

Some people would argue that unless more modern research is devoted to genetic-based deviance, that we cannot consider these studies valid today. There has been a significant amount of study given to genetically caused deviance, in particular to the MAOA gene. In a few different studies the low-expression variant of this gene, known as MAOA-L, has been linked to an increased risk of violence and aggressive behavior. The MAOA gene controls the production of monoamine oxidase A, an enzyme that lowers the body’s use of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. When the MAOA-L gene is present in a person, their body will use more of these neurotransmitters than normal, this can lead to sleep disorders, excessively impulsive or violent behaviors, and extreme mood swings. A 2006 study, headed by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, found that people with the MAOA-L gene were more likely to have a smaller limbic system. The limbic system includes the hippocampus, amygdala, anterior thalamic nuclei, and the limbic cortex. These parts of the brain help to control emotion, behavior, and long-term memory.

The study also found that the amygdala became hyper responsive when the participants with the MAOA-L gene were given a task such as copying a facial expression. The amygdala is a part of what controls emotional processing in the brain; the researchers hypothesized that this group would be less likely to inhibit strong emotional impulses. Studies such as these can give great support to the nature side of the deviance debate. On the nurture side of the argument, numerous studies on the effects of a divorce or broken home on a child have led to some convincing statistics. Children of divorced parents are about two times more likely to drop out of high school than those whose parents continued to be together. Females who grew up in a family where the parents divorced are roughly twice as likely to become teenage mothers than those living with non-divorced, biological parents. Seventy percent of long- term convicted criminals were raised in a broken home.

While 75% of juvenile criminals who are considered a threat to the public also came from a divorced family. A perfect example of deviance being a result of environment and not genetics is a man named Richard Ramirez. Ramirez was born in 1960 and was the youngest of six children; he and his siblings all grew up surrounded by the same home environment. The difference for Richard being that around ten years old, his cousin, Mike, became a role model after returning from the war in Vietnam and receiving numerous awards and medals. However, Mike was not a positive influence on Ramirez; he showed Richard pictures of women in Vietnam whom he raped, and then showed him pictures of the same women after they had been brutally murdered.

Mike taught Richard how to hunt effectively, and eventually introduced him to drugs and theft. What many consider the final trigger for Ramirez, about 11 years old at the time, was when he witnessed Mike kill his wife. In 1983 Richard Ramirez moved to the Los Angeles, California area; soon after, in June of 1984, Ramirez claimed his first victim. “The Night Stalker,” as he was eventually labeled, continued on a string of murders, rapes, and mutilations until he was incarcerated in August of 1985. Ramirez was convicted of 13 murders, 5 attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults, and 14 burglaries. He is currently on death row.

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