The following story contains spoilers from the third episode of “Defending Jacob,” “Poker Faces.”
Apple TV+’s limited series “Defending Jacob” stars Chris Evans as Andy, a respected assistant district attorney whose son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), is accused of murder. In the third episode, Andy reveals that his own father killed someone, and is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
“That’s not who you are,” Andy tells Jacob. “He’s one guy, one bad man. He has nothing to do with you.”
But Jacob’s mother, Laurie (Michelle Dockery), disagrees. She remembers that Jacob was a difficult child who screamed constantly, threw things and often played too rough with classmates. One girl needed stitches after he pushed her off a play structure.
Those watching at home might wonder whether Jacob’s ancestry could complicate — or even determine — his future. It’s a nature-versus-nurture debate: Are certain people genetically predisposed to committing acts of violence?
Author William Landay first explored the subject in his 2012 book, on which the show is based. He was intrigued by a 1997 magazine article about three generations of men: a convicted grandfather, a cop father and a murder-suspect son, the latter of whom declared, “I was born with the murder gene.”
“That comment, at the time, had no scientific meaning at all, he was just using it as a shorthand to say that he had inherited a violent streak,” said Landay, who read publicly available research then emerging on behavioral genetics and neurocriminology and found it narratively compelling.
“As a writer, the idea that genetic destiny can override free will — that somebody might think, ‘Well, I can’t be blamed for my actions, because it’s in my genes’ — is haunting.”
Regardless of Jacob’s genome, does such a thing as a “murder gene” actually exist? While some criminal attorneys and works of fiction (including a past “Riverdale” episode) would argue otherwise, “there is no such thing as a ‘murder gene,’” said Dr. Carrie Bearden, professor at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences.
“It’s not like Huntington’s disease, where there’s a single gene that causes the disorder, and you can do a genetic test to find if a person has that specific mutation and will, at some point, develop those symptoms,” she explained. “There’s no single, deterministic gene that would make someone commit a murder.”
There are, however, various genetic factors — linked to psychopathy, neuroticism, impulsivity, manipulating others, and a limited capacity for empathy — that can make someone more susceptible to commit a violent act, said Bearden. Though their heritability varies, the traits, if already present in the DNA, are more likely to be expressed if the person suffers abuse in their earliest years.
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