david_lykken's picture
Behavioral Geneticist and Emeritus Professor, University of Minnesota
The Reduction Since 1993 In American Crime Is An Illusion

The much-touted reduction since 1993 in American crime is an illusion. The U.S. rate of violent crime today is still nearly four times what it was in 1960. The recent dip in crime is the predictable result of our segregating in our prisons more than six times the number who were inmates as recently as 1975. A few of these inmates are psychopaths, persons whose genetic temperaments made them too difficult for the average parents to successfully socialize. A few others are mentally ill or retarded or sheer victims of circumstance. But most are sociopaths, persons broadly normal in genetic endowment who matured unsocialized due to parental mis-, mal-, or non-feasance. Like our language talent, humans evolved an ability to acquire a conscience, to feel empathy and altruism, to accept the responsibilities of a member of the social group. But, like the language talent, this proclivity for socialization requires to be elicited, shaped, and reinforced during childhood. The epidemic of crime that began in the 1960s is due largely to the fact that, of males aged 15 to 24, the group responsible for at least half our violent crime, the proportion who were reared without fathers is now four times what it was in 1960.

More than two-thirds of — abused children, juvenile delinquents, school dropouts, pregnant teen-agers, homeless persons, adult criminals — were reared without the participation of their biological fathers. Calculated separately for white and black youngsters, it can be shown that a fatherless boy is seven times more likely to become incarcerated as delinquent than a boy raised by both biological parents. Judith Rich Harris argues that parents are fungible, that children are shaped mainly by their genes and their peers. I think she is 80% correct but I think that there are a few super-parents who effectively nurture and cultivate their children (and largely determine their choice of peers). And I am certain that the bottom 10% of parents are truly malignant — immature, or overburdened, or indifferent, or sociopathic themselves — so that their children are almost certain to be robbed of their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Suppose we were to require those who wish to have — and keep — a baby must be mature, married, self-supporting, and never convicted of a crime of violence. If the parents of the 1.3 million Americans currently in prison had met such simple licensure requirements, I believe that at least a million of those inmates would instead be tax-paying citizens and neighbors. Interfering with parental rights, even as modestly as this, is rather frightening because the instinct to procreate is as strong in us as it is in all the birds and beasts. But homo sapiens should be able to agree that the rights of the children outweigh those of parents who are unable or unwilling to grow up, get married, and get a job.