In this article:
- In the third season of The CW’s television drama series Riverdale, one of the characters suggests that her daughter is destined to become a serial killer because she carries a “serial killer gene.” But is there any truth to this idea?
- The show identifies the “serial killer gene” as MAOA, which is a real gene linked to high levels of aggression in its low-activity form.
- The CDH13, which is also referenced in the show, has also been linked to tendencies toward violent crime.
- However, to suggest that these genes on their own result in one being “destined” to become a serial killer is flawed logic.
- The conditions that result in a serial killer are complex and varied, as this article will examine.
What makes a murderer? Does homicidal behavior stem from deep-rooted childhood trauma? Is it the result of a capitalistic system that has little concern for the individual? Or does it come down to genetics?
According to attendees at the FBI’s Serial Murder Symposium, common traits among serial killers include sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, a need for control, and predatory behavior. All of these character traits are consistent with psychopathic personality disorder.
However, the question remains: Are serial killers born with a desire to kill or is it something that they develop over the course of their lives? Nurture or nature? Well, it seems that both genetics and conditioning may play a role in the creation of a serial murderer.
In this article, we’ll examine the myth of the “serial killer gene,” an idea popularized by The CW’s television drama series Riverdale. We’ll also examine the real role that genetics may play in creating serial killers and what other factors could contribute to the creation of serial killers.
The Serial Killer Gene
In the third season of Riverdale, Alice Cooper reveals to her daughter Betty that she carries the “serial killer gene,” implying that Betty is destined to become a serial killer. Ever since the debut of this episode, the internet has gone crazy discussing whether or not the “serial killer gene” was a real thing.
The show goes so far as to identify MAOA and CDH13 as the specific genes that cause homicidal behavior. But is there any truth to this? Well, sort of.
The Warrior Gene
In fact, monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) has often been labeled the “warrior gene” for its association with higher levels of aggression in response to provocation. According to certain studies, individuals with low levels of the gene are more likely to respond aggressively when they think they’ve been wrong.
This phenomenon was the subject of an odd yet interesting experiment co-authored by Rose McDermott, a professor of political science at Brown University. The experimental procedure was as such:
“Each subject (A) first performed a vocabulary task in which they earned money. Then they were told that an anonymous partner (B), linked over the network, could choose to take some of their earnings away from them. The original subject (A) could then choose to punish the taker (B) by forcing them to eat unpleasantly hot (spicy) sauce — but they had to pay to do so, so administering punishment was costly. In reality, the “partner” who took money away was a computer, which allowed the researchers to control responses. No one actually ingested hot sauce.”
The results of the experiment, which was conducted only on male subjects, did suggest that people with low levels of the MAOA gene had a greater tendency toward aggressive behavior. The implication here is that this genotype may influence violence, interpersonal aggression, crime, and political decision-making.
Another study conducted on Finnish prisoners published in 2014 yielded a similar result. It suggested that both MAOA and CDH13 were associated with extremely violent behavior and that “at least about 5–10% of all severe violent crime in Finland is attributable to the aforementioned MAOA and CDH13 genotypes.”
These types of studies certainly suggest that there is some significant connection between genetics and recurring homicidal behavior. However, the picture is a bit broader than that and it’s certainly not a valid assumption to say that people with low levels of MAOA are destined to become serial killers, as the Riverdale television series has suggested.
In fact, it’s estimated that about one-third of the population of Western civilization carries the low-activity form of the MAOA gene whereas the portion of the population that are serial killers is far less than 1%. So, if you have low levels of the MAOA gene, it doesn’t mean you’re destined to go on a killing spree. It just means that you’re a little more likely to get aggressive.
Nature or Nurture?
For decades, people have debated whether serial killers are conditioned to be serial killers through events in their lives or whether they are born serial killers due to some genetic makeup. The truth is that both nature and nurture play an important role in the creation of a serial murderer.
People who exhibit low MAOA have been proven to have a higher tendency toward violence and, therefore, a higher tendency to become violent criminals. But low MAOA activity alone does not cause someone to commit multiple murders.
As many studies have suggested, there is a myriad of environmental factors that can play a pivotal role in the formation of a homicidal mind. Some factors that have been suggested are an estranged father, low socioeconomic status, lack of maternal sensitivity, poor living conditions, childhood abuse, and many others.
A 2005 study from the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology revealed that 26% of serial killers were sexually abused as children, 36% were physically abused, and 50% were psychologically abused.
These numbers certainly suggest some connection between childhood trauma and serial killer behavior.
For example, Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez was believed to have had an extremely abusive childhood, regularly enduring brutal beatings from his father. Henry Lee Lucas (known as “The Confession Killer”) and Ottis Toole, who were believed to have killed hundreds of people, both endured physical and psychological abuse as children.
On the other hand, serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer were both believed to have grown up in healthy, supportive households. So, serial killers are not necessarily victims of child abuse and victims of child abuse are not necessarily serial killers.
It seems that science cannot point to one gene that is the acute cause of serial killers, nor can it identify one environmental factor that creates serial killers.
Yes, there are certainly both genetic and environmental factors that occur with higher regularity among serial killers. But we cannot say that these factors alone were what caused these serial killers to commit their crimes — or that everyone with these genetic or environmental risk factors is doomed to become a killer.
Every human being is the sum of a massive range of environmental and genetic factors, and we have yet to understand the full extent of that range. What exactly causes someone to become a serial killer is unknown. But to suggest that this criminal behavior is caused solely by some “serial killer gene” is entirely misleading.