- Published: November 14, 2012
An article written in the Arizona Republic last year offers an interesting prediction: science will eventually lead to the end of the death penalty. The argument is as follows: The issue of capital punishment is dominated by politics and ethics. However, science will eventually kill it with its advances in neuroscience and genetics because these advances will lead to a good enough description of the human brain that will highlight predispositions to violent behavior. With this understanding, we’d be able to treat those with such predispositions before they commit violent acts. The article argues that advances in neuroscience and genetics will help us identify and treat issues early on in someone’s life, which will in turn prevent us from ever having to use the death penalty.
As interesting as this argument is, it is misguided. There is a major factor working against the article’s argument: predictive power does not lie in genetics alone, as this article implies (especially when it alludes to the “murder gene”). The environment someone is in plays just as large a role in influencing whether someone will act violently. Thus, predictions can only be made when informed by both environmental and genetic factors. However, even if we make reasonable predictions, we can’t possibly know whether someone will commit a violent crime (we can only suggest likelihoods). After all, crime is very context-dependent. Thus, the article’s claim that we will eventually be able to predict violent behavior and contain it (thereby eliminating the need for a death penalty) doesn't consider all of the factors contributing to violent crime.