Imagine a man carries a gene variant called MAOA-L — also known called the “human warrior gene” because it has been associated with aggressive, violent behavior. Now imagine that he has committed a violent crime in the midst of an argument with his girlfriend. Can his actions be attributed to a genetic predisposition?
Ninth grade Biology and Biology Honors students put genes under a different microscope this week, as they explored how genetic traits can play out in real-life situations. Through the process of a mock trial — complete with judge, jury, witnesses, closing arguments, and a decision — the students looked at the different arguments that could be made to explain the violent actions of someone with the MAOA-L gene.
“We thought it would be a somewhat unexpected way to wrap up our unit on genes, environment, and behavior but in a way that would solidify a topic we have been working on all unit, with everything from bees and mice to humans,” explained Upper School Science teacher Heather Heenehan.
Here’s the scenario: on (mock) trial is “Martin Miller,” who has already been convicted of killing his girlfriend in a dispute over their child, but who now faces sentencing. Student “attorneys” were tasked with persuading a jury to decide whether it is fair to attribute Miller’s violent behavior to his MAOA-L gene and whether that behavior should be punished or (to an extent) excused.
The six ninth-grade classes conducted separate trials, each with their own legal teams, witnesses, experts, judges (who alternated between bio teachers Heenehan and Sue Teyan) and jury, made up of faculty/staff or students from their own class.
During breaks in the action, the students excitedly discussed how the trial was going, and were surprised to discover that they were all beginning to question their initial positions on the issue.
“My opinion was tested throughout the trial and I found I was questioning myself at times but maintained my views,” said freshman Griffin Gigliotti. “I personally agreed with what I was standing for but understood what it might feel like to fight for something you don’t believe in.”
After final arguments, the jury was asked to consider: “If there is a genetic causal component (or a gene x environment causal component) to behavior, does this take away a person’s free will; does it take away a person’s responsibility for their actions?”
“I think the most surprising thing has been that at the beginning of the unit the response to the question below was a resounding: ‘No.’ But most of the verdicts sided with a version of yes,” Teyan said.
Registrar and 12th-grade dean Justine Fellows — aka Juror No. 3 in one of the mock trials —was impressed by the students’ focus and passion during the exercise, especially since the trials took place the week before spring break. “In a time when students are ready to check out, they were engaged, dedicated and filled with knowledge,” she said.
As registrar, Fellows knows the GFA curriculum inside and out, and she was impressed that the exercise highlighted the cross-disciplinary nature of the GFA curriculum.
“The mock trial brings together multiple disciplines, incorporates research and planning, gives students a chance to speak publicly, and has multiple layers of learning the topic,” she said. “I can't imagine any student will forget the genetic lesson behind this case.
The mock trial exercise was created by Loras College biology and bioethics professors, respectively, Fred Schnee and Janine M. Idziak. Their objectives were modified by Heenehan and Teyan to include the following:
- Students will have a greater understanding of how genes code for proteins and affect behavior, in particular the idea that, although genes can influence behavior, they may be highly dependent upon environmental factors.
- Students will see science as part of a bigger picture and that it does not exist in a vacuum. Students will recognize that work in science, such as work in biology/human genetics, can have important implications beyond the realm of science itself, in this case, implications within the legal system.
- Continue to work on “claim,” “evidence,” and “reasoning.”
- Students will be able to engage in interdisciplinary integration, drawing on facts and concepts from biology, philosophical ethics, and law, in order to make a decision and justify it.
- Secondarily, students will have the opportunity to enhance skills in research, group work, and oral communication.
Heenehan said it reaches beyond even that, though. She elaborated: “I hope they take away the idea that science is relevant, and ninth grade Biology is relevant to the real world. I hope they also take away the multitude of different jobs and professions that utilize and build on the science they are learning.”
Gigliotti felt the objectives held up. In particular, he loved debating and using different tactics to sway others, but, he laughed, “My least favorite part was having to stay quiet sometimes, despite having a good point to make.”