This has little to do with U.S. intellectual history. I could insult your intelligence with some clever argument about contextualizing this, problematizing that, analyzing our presumptions and so on. But the reality is that I just thought it was so damned interesting that I had to post it.
The following quote is from an article by David Eagleman, in the current issue of The Atlantic. Called “The Brain on Trial,” it argues that our current legal understandings of culpability and commonsensical notions of “free will” are collapsing under the weight of scientific evidence suggesting how much of what we do is determined by things outside of our control: in particular, the function and dysfunction of our brains. (He gives the example of Charles Whitman, who climbed the Tower at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 and shot and killed a large number of people. I attended UT and had heard all about Whitman. But I never knew that he had complained to doctors about his increasingly violent thoughts and wrote a suicide note asking that his brain be autopsied upon his death. The postmortem found a tumor pressing upon his amygdala; this condition would certainly account for the complaints that Whitman had made, and for his behavior. Had he lived and had the tumor removed, would we say that he was to blame for killing those people? If we determined that he was not culpable, would that be the same as declaring that he should be allowed to roam around free and unmonitored?)
“If you think genes don’t affect how people behave, consider this fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You’re three times as likely to commit robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder, and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death-row inmates do…By the way, as regards that dangerous set of genes, you’ve probably heard of them. They are summarized as the Y chromosome. If you’re a carrier, we call you a male.”