Bad Behavior Is Gradually Becoming a Disease

From Theodore Dalrymple:

It is always tempting to ascribe bad behaviour, whether our own or someone else’s, to an external factor, which reassures us that no one is really to blame: the fault, dear Brutus, lies in our genes, not in ourselves.

We are now being asked to believe, thanks to a study in The Lancet, that children who are disobedient and defiant, who rush around and scream and break things, are primarily the victims of their genetic inheritance. This holds out the hope that a technical solution will be found to such problems as recalcitrance in the classroom, much as hi-tech weapons hold out the mirage of war without death.

That some children suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, probably of organic and neurological origin, seems certain. But the problem with conditions that are diagnosed purely by observation and reports of behaviour, without any clear biological marker such as an abnormality in a blood test, is that they tend to seep through the population like ink through blotting paper.

We have seen this clearly with the diagnosis of depression, which was once an uncommon but very serious condition. Now it is a diagnosis that has effectively banished the word “unhappiness” from the English language, at least as it is used in doctors’ surgeries and in hospitals. Depression – that is to say, all forms of human unhappiness – has become a technical problem, to be solved by medication or by some other technique.

The problem with this approach is that it encourages the hope of a quick and easy solution, to be supplied by others, and averts our gaze from unpleasant realities. This is something that we are naturally inclined towards in any case. Neither death nor the sun can be stared at for long, said La Rochefoucauld; nor can the behaviour of many British children, nor can the causes of that behaviour or the society in which they operate. It is much less troubling to blame it all on the DNA, and hope that one day genetic engineering will take care of everything for us, either by pre-natal testing, or gene therapy, or pharmacotherapy.

Of course, there are a restricted number of cases in which any or all of these things might offer some hope. But it ought always to be remembered that human behaviour is very rarely the result of genes alone, given that they ought to have the same effect whatever the environment. When a teacher draws the attention of a parent to the misbehaviour of his child in class, it is not his or her genes that increasingly make the parent take the child’s side against the teacher. It has far more to do with the prevailing culture – and a very unpleasant culture it often is.

What seems to have happened is that parents have lost the awareness that they had for decades – if not for centuries – that concentration and self-discipline do not come naturally to children, and have to be taught (as well, sometimes, as enforced).

Left to themselves, children (with a few exceptions) do not learn or develop these things. But increasingly, children are being left to themselves, de facto if not de jure. Even without the constant stream of electronic stimulation to which they are subjected – far more British children have a television in their bedroom than a biological father living at home throughout their childhood – the default setting for children, as it were, is attention deficit.

The tragedy of yesterday’s report is that the rumour of a genetic causation of inattention will spread through the population, and let it off the hook as far as its own responsibility is concerned. It wasn’t Johnny who didn’t do his homework; it was his genes.


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