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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