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J Med Ethics 34:507-509 doi:10.1136/jme.2006.019596
  • Research ethics

Scientific responsibility for the dissemination and interpretation of genetic research: lessons from the “warrior gene” controversy

  1. D Wensley,
  2. M King
  1. Bioethics Centre, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
  1. Dr D Wensley, Bioethics Centre, Dunedin School of Medicine, PO Box 56, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand; dana.wensley{at}stonebow.otago.ac.nz
  • Received 18 October 2006
  • Revised 8 July 2007
  • Accepted 2 August 2007

Abstract

This paper discusses the announcement by a team of researchers that they identified a genetic influence for a range of “antisocial” behaviours in the New Zealand Māori population (dubbed the “warrior gene”). The behaviours included criminality, violence, gambling and alcoholism. The reported link between genetics and behaviour met with much controversy. The scientists were described as hiding behind a veneer of supposedly “objective” western science, using it to perpetuate “racist and oppressive discourses”.

In this paper we examine what went wrong in the dissemination of the research. We chose as our framework the debate around the “internal/external” responsibilities of scientists. Using this discourse we argue that when the researchers ventured to explain their research in terms of social phenomena, they assumed a duty to ensure that their findings were placed “in context”. By “in context”, we argue that evidence of any genetic influence on behavioural characteristics should not be reported in isolation, but instead presented alongside other environmental, cultural and socio-economic influences that may also contribute to the studied behaviour. Rather than imposing a new obligation on scientists, we find this duty to contextualise results is in keeping with the spirit of codes of ethics already in place. Lessons from the “warrior gene” controversy may assist researchers elsewhere to identify potential areas of conflict before they jeopardise research relationships, or disseminate findings in a manner that fuels misleading and/or potentially discriminatory attitudes in society.

Footnotes

  • Funding: This article is based on research undertaken for the Human Genome Research Project (NZ). The multidisciplinary, international research project is led by Faculty of Law, University of Otago, with funds provided by the New Zealand Law Foundation.

  • Competing interests: None.

  • i We are thankful to our reviewers for pointing out this possible alternative interpretation of events.

  • ii For example the CIOMS International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research Involving Human Subjects (appendix one) provides that among those items to be included in a research protocol are the “circumstances in which it might be considered inappropriate to publish findings, such as when the findings of an epidemiological, sociological or genetics study may present risks to the interests of a community or population or of a racially or ethnically defined group of people”.[Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS. International ethical guidelines for biomedical research involving human subjects. Geneva, Switzerland: CIOMS, 2002.] Similar considerations have been advocated by UNESCO, where the Universal declaration on bioethics and human rights endorses the obtaining of community consent where appropriate and the avoidance of stigmatisation and discrimination. [UNESCO. Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. Paris, France: UNESCO, 2005. [Article 6(3)].