Beware The Violence Initiative Project


As late as the 1980s, a small but influential coterie of prize-winning scientists were trying to prove that black children were, on average, less intelligent than white children. Intelligence, they said, ran “in the genes” of racial groups.

Their evidence? They reviewed the infamous studies of “twins” who had been separated at birth and raised far from each other to prove the validity of genetic determination of behavior. They also compiled results from IQ tests across the country and subjected them to statistical analyses, which, they claimed, showed a general differential between racial groups. This alleged differential, they went on, was due to genetic factors. These scientists—all of whom were white—concluded that black people were genetically inferior to whites, when it came to intelligence.

Yet these scientists made a number of critical errors trying to squeeze their round “facts” into square holes. For one, the variation of IQ scores within each racial group far outstripped the differential between racial groups. So, many individual black children turned out to score higher on IQ tests than many individual white kids. In fact, there was and is no valid way of predicting how an individual child of any ethnic or racial background would, all other factors aside, perform on standardized IQ tests.

A second critical blow to their theory of Aryan intellectual supremacy had to do with the nature of standardized IQ tests. What exactly did these tests measure? Were they culturally or racially biased? A large body of work was presented in the 1970s and early 1980s that left in shreds the notion that standardized IQ tests measured anything “objective” at all. Many of the test’s questions showed them to be racially and sexually biased; they did not speak to a black child’s experience, which differs vastly from the white “norm.”

Lastly, Sir Cyril Burt’s “twins’ studies” on which many racially charged IQ assertions had been based turned out to have been fabricated, and the scientist’s reputation now lies in tatters and his name disgraced.

Although such racially based intelligence theories never fully went away (and, let us not forget, “race” is defined in this literature as “genetically based”), they were roundly discredited scientifically. (See, for instance, Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, W.W. Norton, 1981.) As professor Gerald Horne writes, it became increasingly clear that “research is never ‘neutral.’ Who asks the questions, what questions are asked and what ones ignored, who pays for the research, who interprets the results are all subjective decisions outside the realm of ‘pure science.’ The bias is built in.”

It was not until the publication of The Bell Curve in the early 1990s, by Herrnstein and Murray, that some of the same quack theorists emerged from their crypts and, with new jargon, proceeded to offer the same white supremacy in the guise of new “scientific research.”

Today, some scientists are again proposing biologically deterministic explanations for behavior, but instead of focusing on the genetic basis of “intelligence” they now substitute the more au courant “violence”—a hereditary characteristic of Black and Latino people, they say. The recent biology-and-crime movement was kicked off by the publication in 1985 of Crime and Human Nature by James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein. A major media campaign followed, leading in 1992 to a report by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council, “Understanding and Preventing Violence,” which called for more attention to “biological and genetic factors” in violent crime, “new pharmaceuticals that reduce violent behavior,” and studies of “whether male or black persons have a higher potential for violence.” Unlike the case with IQ, scientists claim they can control the alleged “genetic predisposition” of black children to committing criminal acts of violence by medicating them, before aggressive behavior and violence ensues.

So, under the aegis of the federally funded Violence Initiative Project, Gail Wasserman, a professor in Child Psychiatry at Columbia University, and Daniel Pine, a medical doctor associated with the same institution, have picked up where the discredited racially based intelligence theories left off. They lead a team of researchers in performing numerous experiments, partly funded by federal tax dollars, on Black and Latino children as young as six years of age.

Says Gail Wasserman, PhD, in her funding proposal to establish a “behavioral disorders” center at Columbia University’s Department of Child Psychiatry: “It is proper to focus on blacks and other minorities as they are over represented in the courts and not well studied.”

In one such “study” at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Wasserman and her cohorts took 34 healthy boys, ages 6 to 10, and administered them the dangerous drug, fenfluramine. Fenfluramine is the primary ingredient in the diet drug fen phen, which has been banned by the U.S. government. The boys were all from impoverished families; 44 percent were African American and 56 percent were Latino.

The boys were made to fast for 12 hours prior to the test, and during the test were allowed only water. An intravenous catheter was inserted and designed to remain in place for five and one half hours. During that period, a dose of the drug fenfluramine hydroxide was administered (10 mg/kg). Blood was drawn hourly.

Ninety percent of adult subjects experience side effects from a single dose of fenfluramine—and Wasserman and Pine were administering it to children. Effects of a single dose of fenfluramine on adults “frequently include anxiety, fatigue, headache, lightheadedness, difficulty concentrating, visual impairment, diarrhea, nausea, a feeling of being ‘high’ and irritability.” Federal Drug Administration (FDA) studies show that the drug causes severe heart valve damage in as many as 30 percent of the adults who take it. Fenfluramine has also been shown to cause a fatal heart condition known as pulmonary hypertension. Studies done on rodents and monkeys showed that a single dose of fenfluramine caused microscopic damage to brain cells lasting up to 18 months. Yet the New York State Psychiatric Institute proceeded with administering fenfluramine to children—in doses eight times higher than that causing damage in monkeys’ brains—even after the drug had been banned in September 1997.

In using that drug, the clinicians hypothesized they could counter the alleged racially inherited genetic predisposition to aggressive behavior and violence by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Some scientists have correlated low serotonin levels with aggressive behavior. (Whether decreased serotonin levels cause aggression or are manifested effects of it is a distinction often fudged in the scientists’ public statements.) By increasing serotonin levels, the researchers hypothesized, they could claim that the (genetically determined) levels of serotonin are further reduced by socially adverse child rearing practices in Black and Latino familes. Through medication, they say, they could increase serotonin levels and thereby prevent the kids from committing acts of violence. This despite the fact that most of the children had not committed any acts of violence at all.

The children were selected because they each had older siblings who had been delinquents known to the Family Court. The children’s names and addresses were—and continue to be—sorted and channelled by government officials on the public payroll at the Department of Probation and the New York City Board of Education, and passed along to the researchers. So much for claims of legal confidentiality.

Forced to reply, the NYC Board of Education spokesperson denied that students had been referred for the purpose of participating in research. But the documents prove the Board was lying. In fact, writes New York Newsday, the Board’s Committee on Special Education “worked closely with the researchers from the beginning.” And, as the Department of Probation has written, “We are participating in a Research Project being conducted by Professor Gail Wasserman, of Columbia University, regarding younger brothers of male offenders, in a [sic] effort to identify early predictors of anti social behavior.” The memo was leaked by Probation Officer Renee Jackson, who has been subjected to harassment, changed job assignments, and constant pressure ever since.

Nor are the experiments limited to Pine, Wasserman, and other researchers from the New York State Psychiatric Institute, who have been experimenting on young minority children since 1992. Similar experiments have been going on at Queens College and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and at facilities throughout the United States, under the rubric of the National Violence Initiative Project, supervised and funded through the National Institute of Mental Health.

By claiming genetic predisposition, psychiatrists are able to tap into the hundreds of millions of dollars available for genetics research—the latest fad. That’s the new claim for why people do anything: commit violent crimes, engage in homosexual or heterosexual behavior, come down with certain cancers, even commit murder—it’s in the genes. The money, in turn, has fueled all sorts of similar “projects,” including new methods for genetically frisking prisoners for “bad DNA”—that is, obtaining samples of prisoners’ DNA, computerizing its sequence, and storing it for future use.

Far less in public resources is spent on researching the effects of toxic byproducts of industrial production and chemicalized agriculture in causing cancer, lead poisoning, and other immune compromising “diseases.” Instead, funding—and thus, blame—is shifted to an individual’s (or ethnic/racial grouping’s) biological makeup, their “genetic predisposition” to, for instance, breast cancer (even though the “gene that causes breast cancer” panic of the last few years is fraudulent). In such a framework, the widespread social and environmental causes are ignored and the victim becomes targeted as the culprit.

Thus, we see today, psycho surgery, lobotomies, and electro shock making a comeback, as well as medicalization of what are fundamentally socially or environmentally caused ailments and behaviors. New and dangerous genetically engineered drugs are being tested on prisoners, soldiers, and mental patients institutionalized in asylums or warehoused in impoverished inner city slums, Indian reservations, and Third World countries. To the giant pharmaceutical corporations, as well as to the government, these areas provide human guinea pigs.

Scientists can no more predict the full effects of altering a single gene on an individual organism—let alone on larger ecosystems in which plants, animals and micro organisms evolve in precarious balance and symbiotic relation to each other—than they could track a particular electron through a single atom, let alone the course of a nuclear bomb blast or the evolution of the universe. Recent experiments in gene therapy have even caused the deaths of relatively healthy patients, and the Food and Drug Administration has ordered shut down human gene therapy experiments at the University of Pennsylvania and a review of such experiments throughout the U.S., after an inspection uncovered “numerous serious deficiencies” in ensuring patient safety during a clinical trial that cost an 18-year-old Arizona man his life.

The static and reductionistic thinking emblematic of genetic explanations for behavior leaves out, among other things, the way in which interactions between things synergistically create complex environments which feed back into and reshape the very items said to have “caused” them, transforming the entire relationship. From the earliest models of how our cells work, reductionism provided the basic (and wrong) framework: DNA, most scientists said, determines genes, genes determine chromosomes, which determine cells, which determine tissues, which determine organs, which determine organisms, and on out into the multi layered cosmos. According to the genetic model of the 1960s—which still dominates most collegiate texts and most certainly the public mindset—the genetic information of a segment of DNA—a gene—is transcribed into messenger RNA that in turn is translated into a protein, one to one to one.

But, back in the 1970s, “Researchers made the surprising discovery that, in the cells of higher organisms, messenger RNA is altered by enzymes before its information is translated into protein (Chambon, 1981). In the language of genetics, pieces of RNA are excised from the molecule and the remaining pieces are fused to make the functional RNA that then serves as the template for protein synthesis. There is no one to one correspondence between DNA sequence and proteins.”

Cellular Biologist Stuart Newman took the implicit critique of strict genetic determinism a step further and explicitly laid out multi-tiered and interactive mechanisms of development, cell morphogenesis and pattern formation that relied on such non-reductionist factors as the position of a cell with respect to other cells; how position affects its internal chemistry, which in turn impacts on salt levels and other nutrients, which in turn affects the development of the body’s organs. The whole, in other words, shapes the parts as much as the parts generate the whole. According to Newman, the interaction between living cells and their environment makes possible a vast number of pathways development of the organism could take. Genes should be seen more as repositories of development that has already happened, winnowing down the possibilities rather than actively determining what is going to happen.

Newman’s approach removes biology from the reductionist framework holding it back, and brings to it a powerful dialectical approach. Summing up one of his many investigations, Newman writes: “Both cells and ecosystems can thus be analyzed as highly complex networks of large numbers of components undergoing mutually dependent changes in their relative abundances. But while this way of thinking is common among ecologists, it is not well suited to making precise predictions, and has failed to take hold to any significant extent in cell biology. Instead, the most common intellectual framework of cell and molecular biologists is a reductionist approach. The preferred objects of study are detailed interrelations among small numbers of relatively isolated components. In this paradigm, an understanding of the qualitative properties of the system as a whole, such as the conditions for stable, periodic, and chaotic behaviors, is sacrificed in favor of exact knowledge of a more limited set of phenomena.

“Undoubtedly many scientists, working in this reductionist tradition, were surprised to learn from recent studies of so called ‘oncogenes’ or cancer associated DNA, that the introduction into cells of the capability of making a normal cellular protein in slightly greater amounts, or in a slightly altered form than usual, could render that cell cancerous, with all the multifarious behavioral changes implied by that term. In spite of this, many molecular biologists, when asked to consider the impact of introducing new components into complex ecological systems, have remained within their reductionist framework and have dismissed the potential for ecological harm from the release of what they consider to be well characterized entities.”

The VIP is among those trapped in the reductionist framework. It starts where the book The Bell Curve leaves off—the search for the gene that “causes” criminal behavior and the assumption that intelligence, poverty, and criminal behavior is the result of “deficient” genes. (The researchers involved do concede, when pressed, that environmental factors do play some part, but that environment mostly serves to bring out inherited traits that are already present.)

The race-based “biological theory of aggression” is neither new nor scientific. One champion of the Violence Initiative, Dr. Frederick Goodwin, defended the “theory” before the National Health Advisory Council in February 1992: “If you look, for example, at male monkeys, especially in the wild, roughly half of them survive to adulthood. The other half die by violence. That is the natural way of it for males, to knock each other off and, in fact, there are some interesting evolutionary implications of that because the same hyper-aggressive monkeys who kill each other are also hypersexual, so they copulate more and therefore they reproduce more to offset the fact that half of them are dying. Now, one could say that if some of the loss of social structure in this society, and particularly within the high impact inner city areas, has removed some of the civilizing evolutionary things that we have built up and that maybe it isn’t just the careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities jungles, that we may have gone back to what might be more natural, without all of the social controls that we have imposed upon ourselves as a civilization over thousands of years in our own evolution.”

Goodwin follows in a long line of proponents of racial supremacy who have traded in the Klan’s white sheets for white lab coats. They argue that social problems are caused by biologically defective members of oppressed classes; society can be improved by identifying and eliminating the propagation of these “defectives.” In the 1850s, Louisiana physician Samuel Cartwright described a mental disease of slaves called “drapetomania,” which caused its victims to run away from their masters. A century later, American physicians Vernon Mark, Frank Ervin, and William Sweet proposed that urban rebellions were caused by brain damaged individuals who could be cured by psychosurgery (lobotomy). They received almost $1 million in federal funding.

In the 1970s, O.J. Andy, director of Neurosurgery at the University of Mississippi, published reports on invasive surgeries he had performed on children who were said to be developmentally disabled. (All were Black.) Peter Breggin describes Andy’s surgical achievements: JM was a nine-year- old boy said to be “hyperactive, aggressive, combative, explosive, destructive and sadistic”—a prime candidate, in 1966, for O.J. Andy’s psychosurgery. Over a three-year period, Andy operated on the child on four different occasions. He implanted electrodes in his brain. Andy concluded, in a 1970 article, that JM was no longer combative or aggressive. In actuality, Andy had mashed the child’s brain, suppressing intellect and emotion, and disabled the child by turning him into a vegetable. Andy revealed that “the kind of brain damage that could necessitate such radical surgery might be manifested by participation in the Watts Uprising. Such people, he diagnosed, ‘could have abnormal pathological brains’.”

The Coalition Against the Violence Initiative (CAVI) is leading the attack against such misuses of science. CAVI claims that aggressive, violent or criminal behavior is no more determined by genes than is the desire to study “the inheritance of violence” or “the predisposition” to become a corporate lawyer (which often runs in the family). One could argue that cops, generals, football players, and many others have inherited a violence gene that predisposes them to committing acts of violence—not to mention corporate executives and politicans who murder with their pens. Capitalism is inherently violent; the removal of the products of labor from those who produce it—the underlying basis of the system—requires an enormous level of violence and the system selects for those kinds of personalities capable of ministering to capital’s needs. The society we live in validates that violence; but because it becomes part of the social substrate most don’t see it as abnormal—or, for that matter, violent. Nonetheless, people shape, and are primarily shaped by, social—not genetic—conditions that strongly influence their activities.

The reductionist and biodeterminist approach exemplified by the Violence Initiative Project is rampant in the scientific establishment’s approach to social ills. In November 1998, researchers distributed a memo to staff at George Washington High School in Upper Manhattan announcing a survey to be done on freshmen “at risk for negative behaviors.” By now, we should all have an idea of what “at risk for” means. Youngsters so designated are to be sent to the clinic run by Columbia Presbyterian and the Columbia School of Public Health, for “assessment.”

CAVI sent a strongly worded letter to the principal outlining its concerns and calling for cancellation of the survey. Members passed out leaflets to students and parents alerting them to the dangers and advising them not to sign consent forms. Members of Lawyers for the Public Interest also called the school, as did a number of individual teachers whom the Coalition had contacted. As we go to press, we have just learned of a victory for the Coalition—the principal canceled the survey.

But despite occasional victories for those resisting genetic manipulation, the Violence Initiative Project, along with the biotech industry, is charging ahead full speed.

Dr. Peter Breggin, a leading analyst in the field, has observed, “This [approach] corresponds with the current financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry, since several drugs affecting serotonin neurotransmission have been submitted for approval to the Food and Drug Administration…. The controversial antidepressant, Prozac, is the first of these serotonergic drugs, and it has become the largest moneymaker in the pharmaceutical industry.”

Against this backdrop, NIH provided a hefty $100,000 grant for a conference entitled “Genetic Factors in Crime: Findings, Uses and Implications.” It was to be sponsored by the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland and slated for October 1992. The promotional brochure promised that “genetic research holds out the prospect of identifying individuals who may be predisposed to certain kinds of criminal conduct, of isolating environmental features which trigger those predispositions, and of treating some predispositions with drugs and unintrusive therapies.” Genetic research also gains impetus from the shortcomings of liberal “environmental” approaches to crime—deterrence, diversion, and rehabilitation. Thus, the failure of the liberal paradigm (as opposed to the many radical models developed by social movements in conjunction with truly engaged scientists which, of course, has never been tried in the U.S.), has now allowed focus to shift to exclusively genetic and medical “solutions.”

Radicals, however, in the 1970s managed to beat back attempts by William Shockley and others to lay a pseudo scientific basis for the racial inheritance of intelligence, and the disastrous policy implications being pursued at the time, by refuting each and every “scientific” assertion they made, as well as by exposing their funding sources. So too with the Violence Initiative Project, at least initially. “The ensuing protest caused NIH to freeze conference funding—temporarily. The objections were led by enraged African Americans concerned that, in these dangerous times, such a project could easily be transformed into directed genocide. Their concern was not assuaged when it was revealed that Reagan appointee Marianne Mele Hall proclaimed that black and brown people are culturally or even genetically inferior. They have been conditioned, she said, ‘by 10,000 years of selective breeding for personal combat and the anti work ethic of jungle freedoms’ and were therefore unfit for civic life. Great Society programs just ‘spoiled’ them, she argued, encouraging a sense of entitlements that led to laziness, drug use, and crime, particularly crime against whites’.”

Which brings us back to Goodwin. Dr. Horne writes: “By associating African Americans with monkeys and ‘hypersexuality,’ Goodwin tapped into a wellspring of racist sentiment.” Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan joined many others and criticized Goodwin’s remarks. But Goodwin’s disfavor lasted, oh, around a week. Shortly thereafter, Sullivan in effect rewarded Goodwin by appointing him head of the influential National Institute of Mental Health—a post not requiring Senate approval.

Goodwin’s first project as head of the National Institute of Mental Health: approval of funding for the National Violence Initiative.


The Results Are In

The long awaited results of the “studies” on young children are now in. They are exactly the reverse of what had been expected. The children, genetically and hormonally “predisposed” to aggression and violence due to low serotonin levels and bad parenting, turn out to have normal or elevated serotonin levels. (Remember: the researchers hypothesized that low serotonin levels led to aggression and violence.)

Case closed? Guess again. Since Wasserman, Pine, et al. had determined in advance what their conclusions were to be, and since their golden egg laying goose needed to be coaxed yet again for further funding, they “explained” these results by inventing, out of thin air, the conclusion that serotonin has the opposite effect in children as in adults. Perhaps, they continued, high serotonin in childhood leads to low serotonin in adults. Thus, they took a group of Black and Latino kids with no history of trouble, in whom no expected abnormalities were found, whose serotonin levels were basically normal or slightly higher than expected and waved their magic wand, to draw more funds for their research.

Similar projects are underway throughout the city and, indeed, throughout the country, as is resistance to them. CAVI has targeted the NY Psychiatric Institute on a number of occasions. Last year, a small group from the Coalition decided to take their protests directly to the source. They picketed the “Mood & Anxiety Disorders in Children” conference at the Hotel Pennsylvania (New York City), where Daniel Pine was a featured speaker (topic: “Psychobiology and Pharmacotherapy of Anxiety Disorders in Youth”). In incestuous arrangements that are growing increasingly common, the “scientific” program was supported in part by a grant from Solvay Pharmaceuticals. Two CAVI activists were arrested and dragged out of the proceedings after attempting to hang a banner from the balcony.

The Coalition fears that those most affected by Wasserman, Pine, et al.—the parents and children—remain largely uninformed about the nature and outlook of the studies being conducted on them. CAVI remains as skeptical as ever about the labeling of a large number of children, disproportionately minority and poor children, as having mental illness, and about the role of genetic explanations in legitimizing racial supremacist ideas and behavior—in the name of “science.” Those honestly concerned with children’s mental health should take action to heal their environment, in the familial as well as broader sense, rather than looking for genetic, hormonal, and other causes of children’s distress within the kids’ biological makeup.                                       Z

Mitchel Cohen organizes with the Brooklyn Greens/ Green Party of NY State, the Red Balloon Collective, and the Direct Action Network to Free Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier.