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Depending on the individual situation, violent behaviour may be (inter


alia) learned, triggered or biologically determined. Discuss the
usefulness of such theoretical explanations in relation to gang violence.

Violence is defined by neurobiologist Jan Volavka as “overt and intentional

physically aggressive behaviour against another person” (1999, p. 308). There

have been many attempts to explain why human beings are violent. Theorists

have put forward arguments that put human violence (or at least humans

gravitating towards violent situations) down to biology: do genetics affect how

violent an individual is? Another explanation that theorists give for human

violence is that it is learned behaviour from your cultural background,

environment and family. There are some theorists from both sides of this

argument that suggest that whether violence is learned behaviour or inherent in

human biology, the majority of people are able to curb their violent tendencies

most of the time until something triggers it and a large amount of pent up

aggression and violence is released.

Many researchers believe that violence is not naturally within human nature but

is a result of a mixture of how a child is raised; their surroundings in their

immediate and close environment; the influence of their peers and some

researchers suggest that music, television and video games also have a large

influence on a child. In a study carried out by Wake Forest University School of

Medicine it was found that of 722 eleven and twelve year olds asked “only 1.4%

of the students had not witnessed or been the victim of violence and 54.1% of all

students reported witnessing or being the victim of between one and 15 acts of

violence” (Science Daily, 2000). Robert DuRant, the man who was in charge of

this study also found that violent behaviour is learnt by children in “primary

social groups which, in turn, is enforced by what the child sees in its

neighbourhood, on television, in video games and movies and hear in its music”
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(Science Daily, 2000). He also found that when a child is disciplined by corporal

punishment he/she is much more likely to behave violently towards others. The

child has been socialised to think that violence is the norm and that it is alright

to use it to either punish or get its point across.

This approach to violence as a learned behaviour can be applied very easily to

gangs to form an explanation of why gang violence is at such a high rate. Egley

& Major (2003) give some statistics about gangs in America:

• “100% of cities with population greater than or equal to 250,000

reported gang activity in 2001.”

• “85% of cities with population between 100,000 and 229,999

reported gang activity in 2001.”

• “69% of cities with population at least 100,000 reported having gang

related homicides in 2001.”

• “59% of all homicides in 2001 in Los Angeles and 53% in Chicago

were gang related, there was a total of 698 gang related homicides in these

two cities combined.”

These statistics from America show that gang violence is a major problem; many

of these gangs will be formed of lower class young men. Relating this back to

Robert DuRant’s study, many of these young men would have grown up in less

privileged households where corporal punishments were used regularly; they

would have gone to sub standard schools where it would be more likely that their

education was disrupted and they used violence to settle arguments and fill time

when they were bored. DuRant thinks that it is no wonder people who are

subjected to this kind of childhood grow up to be violent people, and violent

people are more likely to find an outlet for their violence by joining a gang.
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Contrary to this argument of a learned violence, some theorists believe that

violence is an innate human trait: it is in our biological makeup to be violent.

Some may counter this argument by asking why everybody is not violent, and

the biological school will say it is because of their learned behaviour that they

have not turned to violence. If an individual is taught that violence is wrong then

they subconsciously suppress their natural instinct to become violent. Research

from the Florida State University, led by biosocial criminologist Kevin Beaver, has

found that the gene Monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene could be linked with

violence and aggression. MAOA is an enzyme that breaks down

neurotransmitters in the brain which are related to mood and behaviour such as

norephinephrine, dopamine and serotonin (Science Daily, 2009). Hereditary

mutations of these neurotransmitters have been found to cause a violent and

aggressive disposition; and although they occur in both males and females, it

seems that only males are affected with increased violence. Scientists believe

that this is due to the fact that the mutation of the gene only appears on the X

chromosome and as girls have two of these they are likely to have another copy

of the gene which is not mutated. Boys are affected by a mutated MAOA gene

because they only have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome and as such

cannot have a healthy copy of the gene replicated to counteract it (Science

Daily, 2009). It was also found that there is a direct link between boys who have

a variant of the MAOA gene (the low-activity 3-repeat allele) to gang

membership and participation in gun violence. This means that if a scientist finds

this gene variant in boys then they can predict that they will become a member

of a gang, and advise parents or carers to take preventative measures (Chattah

Box, 2009). Not only this, but research older than Beaver’s also supports his

theories about the MAOA gene. Scientists discovered that humans have various

forms of the gene and various mutations which result in different levels of
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enzymatic activity. Individuals that have a low activity gene which produces less

of the enzyme display higher levels of aggressive behaviour overall than those

who’s genes produce more of the enzyme (Science Daily, 2009).

Many of the explanations for human violence and, more specifically, gang

violence focus on the MAOA or ‘warrior’ gene occurring in males. That there

are so many different studies on the same thing with many of the same

conclusive results, it leads me to believe that the above biological

explanations for violence are a far cry from Cesare Lombroso’s studies of

the 19th century which are now wholly discredited. These studies are

modern and technologically advanced scientific studies that seem to go a

very long way to helping explain gang violence. That some people can be

detected early on in their life to have the innate tendency to gravitate

towards gangs and gang violence in particular shows that there must be

some biological reason that at least some people are heavily influenced by

their biology when it comes to becoming a violent offender. If someone is

detected to have this variation on the MAOA gene then they can be

discouraged from violence and perhaps raised differently so that hopefully

the likelihood of them joining a gang decreases.

When talking about triggering it can be seen from both sides of this

argument. Some people are able to either ignore or control their instincts for

violence that is given to them from their biology, or is instilled in them

through their upbringing and nurture throughout life, but even for these

people there is a breaking point. Take the example of Seung-Hui Cho, the 23

year old man who murdered 32 people and wounded 25 others before killing

himself in the Virginia Tech massacre of April 2007. He left a note in his

dorm room detailing what made him do what he did. He criticised the rich
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kids in school and part of it read “You caused me to do this” (ABC News,

2007). This man, one way or the other, was triggered in some way and

snapped when he could not take any more. He resorted to violence. It may

have been that he had a bad upbringing, it may have been that he had the

MAOA gene; it may have been a combination of the two, or neither of them.

One way or the other, something triggered this man to murder 32 people.

From the evidence that I have gathered in this discussion I have come to the

conclusion that one single explanation for violence of any kind will never

come back with any conclusive results. Each individual will react differently

to different social situations they are put in, and each individual reacts

differently to different chemicals in their body. What theorists must do to

gain proper explanations for gang violence is to put all of the contributing

factors together and take the individual personally into account. This

thought is backed up by the fact that violence is a subjective thing, and

although it has been defined and quantified, what might seem violent to one

may seem like innocent boisterousness to another. The fact that there have

been multiple studies on the warrior gene argument which concur on many

points show that there is definitely a correlation between levels of

aggression in males and the MAOA gene. The same is true of studies into

low income areas in which poor families treat their children violently or treat

each other violently in the presence of their children; allow them to watch

violent films and play violent games and where the children are generally

underprivileged. Children are vulnerable to all kinds of influences around

them and if they are not protected from then they may well fall victim to

them. These are the children who grow up to be violent people in violent

gangs. All of the explanations put forward in this essay are relevant and true
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to some extent, but they must be combined to give the most useful

theoretical explanation possible.


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Bibliography

ABC News, 2007. Killer’s Note: ‘You Caused Me to Do This’ [internet].


Available at: http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=3048108&page=1
[Accessed 5th May 2010]

Chattah Box. 2009. ‘Warrior Gene’ Fuels Gang Membership, Male Gun Violence.
[internet].
Available at: http://chattahbox.com/science/2009/06/08/warrior-gene-fuels-gang-
membership-male-gun-violence/
[Accessed 5th May 2010]

Egley, A. Jr. & Major, A. K., 2003. Highlights of the 2001 National Youth Gang
Survey. [internet]. Florida: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice
and Delinquency Prevention.
Available at: http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/fs200301.pdf
[Accessed 5th May 2010]

Science Daily, 2000. Violence Is A Learned Behaviour, Say Researchers At Wake


Forest University. [internet].
Available at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/11/001106061128.htm
[Accessed 5th May 2010]

Science Daily, 2009. ‘Warrior Gene’ Linked To Gang Membership, Weapon Use.
[internet].
Available at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090121093343.htm
[Accessed 5th May 2010]

Science Daily, 2009. ‘Warrior Gene’ Predicts Aggressive Behaviour After


Provocation. [internet].
Available at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090121093343.htm
[Accessed 5th May 2010]

Volavka, J., 1999. The Neurobiology of Violence: An Update. Journal of


Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci, [internet]. 11 (3), pp. 307-314.
Available at: http://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/reprint/11/3/307.pdf
[Accessed 5th May 2010]

Zimbio, 2009. “Is There an Innate “Warrior Gene” That Propels Gang Violence?”
[internet].
Available at:
http://www.zimbio.com/Prison+Gangs/articles/18/There+Innate+Warrior+Gene+
Propels+Gang+Violence
[Accessed 5th May 2010]

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