- Published: June 8, 2015
The most obvious applications for neuroscience in law, and the ones we have thought about most in the neurolaw class, concern treatment and conviction of criminals and criminal behavior. Neuroscience, however, could possibly have implications for civil rights as well. In light of the recent passing of proposition 8 in California, an amendment to the state constitution that bans same sex marriage, the question of the genetics dictating behavior could have interesting effects.
Explaining dangerous behavior through genetics will help us understand mental disorders such as sociopathy, but will not mitigate our treatment of criminals. What about explaining behavior that is not directly harmful to anyone, but is considered taboo by some groups? There has been much research devoted to both genetic and neurohormonal explanations for sexual orientation. Plenty of evidence that genes influence sexual orientation has been found, but there has not been compelling evidence identifying specific genes (1). Like most complex behaviors, it is likely that homosexuality is brought about by a combination of genes and environment. It seems inevitable that pre-disposition genes will be found for homosexuality, but will this make people more likely to accept the behavior? Transsexual people are also ostracized and despised by many groups, but it was recently shown that gender identity is very strongly correlated to the size of a specific nucleus in the hypothalamus. It turns out that the identity held by transsexuals agrees with the identity implied by the size of this specific area in the brain (2). With better biological understanding of minority groups and behaviors, perhaps we will see a rise in fair treatment of these groups.
There will always be those who do not change their opinions, but I believe science will be a tool to fight for equal rights among these groups, and importantly could stop some of the hateful crimes committed against them for behavior that hurts no one.
2. Garcia-Falgueras A, Swaab DF. A sex difference in the hypothalamic uncinate nucleus: relationship to gender identity. Brain. 2008 Nov 2. [Epub ahead of print]