So hear me out: In psychology, one gene is not the key for solving the behaviour mysteries. Only with the complex relationship between genes, environment, and individual development we can grasp a bigger picture of one’s psyche. This may sound completely nonsensical, but stick with me, I have a reason to start this way.

Assassin’s Creed (2016) was a bad movie. I doubt many people here will be startled by this statement (or even watched it). There are many reasons why; but one in particular rubbed my brain. You see, I happen to be a psychologist student, and inevitably my behavioural-sciences-bullshit facts’ radar pointed my attention towards a dialogue excerpt from the movie. I would like to discuss that scene, not because I believe my criticism would stack this gloated piece of consumption right in its heart, but rather to outcry for yet another trend present in our days: Shitty science mythos.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise of Assassin’s Creed ( originally a videogame saga), part of the setting is based upon the concept of genetic memories. That is, the notion of actions from our ancestors being carried upon future generations. I do not want to argue about that; mind you, this is not the crime committed by the movie. The sage places a creed of assassins, a group sworn to protect mystical artifacts from an ancient era. Taking this notion of genetic memories, the movie describes how all the assassins, on constant fight against the Order of Templars for many centuries over the possession of those relics, have an inherent predisposition towards violence. The chief scientist and daughter of one of the modern-day Templar leaders, Sofia, bases this information in order to search for Assassins descendants. According to Sofia, her organization wishes to eliminate violence from humankind. To that end she needs to find individuals with violence predisposition as part of her research. The protagonist of the movie, Callus, is one of those assassins descendants. Sofia recollected Callus’ life history registers so that she could prove a link between genes and violence, and later on analyzed Callus’ DNA. In the scene of importance that I’d like to discuss, she reminds him of his allegedly aggressive tendencies: foster homes, antisocial misdeeds, a killing he committed in the past. Critically, according to Sofia, Callus possesses a mutation of the MAO-A gene, which then she matches with his past tendencies. Her conclusion is clearly exposed as she describes it to Callus: “you are the living proof of the link between heredity and crime”.

This was the point I cried. To my view, her sentence was so wrong that it boasted me writing this piece. Because the thing is, the film does not discredit anything about Sofia’s thesis. Usually the trope of “you carry in the blood” goes either in the direction of empowering the characters’ own conscious decisions, above and beyond a destiny which would mark their future, or tragically leading a character towards the “evil” compass or their downfall in whatever they were faffing around. But Assassin’s Creed ignores all the implications of Sofia’s statement. It is simply used as a way to bridge the different set pieces the plot needed to be included. And a lack of discussion of those ideas perhaps would leave the audience just grasping that notion, inattentively, but dormant in their realms. At the end, this belief may very well be attach to some other misconceptions of human’s behaviour, leading people towards the idea that humans are inherently “bad” or “good”.

What is more, Sofia considers the presence of said MAO-A gene mutation as the only cause of his violent inclinations. No further mentions of personal experiences that would mold Callus, or particular social interactions from which he grew antisocial behaviours. The fact hereditability, particularly MAO-A mutations, was the single factor used to explain Callus’ violence is the most worrying aspect from Sofia’s thesis.  It is true that she mentions foster houses and youth centers as part of Callus´ troublesome history. However, I would argue that those are considered by her as products of genetic roots, rather than another causality factor. She hugely focuses in hereditability when describing causes of violence, and she does not describe what exactly happened in those foster houses, or how his troubled family could had influenced him.

Let’s be honest here. I’m quite confident it was not the movie writer’s willing intention to educate the audiences with behavioural genetics and seed onto them the notion of humans being inherently one way or another. I believe that they simply used the “carry on your blood” trope in order to articulate the plot. Since the original source relied upon genetics to explain the ancestors memories recovery, the plot was already in this direction. I suppose the need to create an evil entity in which a powerful organization masked from society’s scrutiny as Templars required a façade of good intentions: “we want to eradicate violence”. In order to do so, the Templars would aim to seek control of the humans. In the first videogame, the artifact literally exerts total dominance over people and negates their free will. Perhaps the writer’s logic was that this might break the suspension of disbelief; meaning the internal consistency of the movie’s setting would lose its logic and audiences could not continue following the story. So they went for a plot device by which the control over humans would be carried upon the discovery of the violence roots; hence the use of genetics. However, I consider artistic licenses should be acceptable so long they do not spread misconceptions, especially about human behaviour. Yeah, I’m that kind of asshat. So for me it’s rather uncomfortable seeing this particular topic of the MAO-A being used to indirectly lecture the audiences on wrong conclusions of scientific discoveries. And the MAO-A mutation is a quite specific topic within genetics, in fact, far more complicate as the movie addresses it (Fowler et al., 2016, Godar et al., 2016, Kiser et al., 2012). However, my impression is that this scientific term became part of the “popular science” or “psycho-mythology” at some point: an everyday knowledge of psychology based upon misconceptions, collective stories, and learned traditions, coming from a vast array of sources, which ultimately are held contrary to known evidence (Furnahm & Hughes, 2014; Schwarz, Newman & Leach, 2016).

The unfortunately reality is, however, that my worries about people misinterpreting scientific research are not just products of my imagination. A survey carried upon scientists (cited from Nisbet et al, 2002) revealed that 75% of them considered media portrayed a negative view on science, focusing on the risks, the trendy breakthroughs, and sensationalism rather than the truth. Indeed, Nisbet and colleagues (2002) found in another survey that negative perceptions of science were linked to higher consumption of television.  It has been assessed empirically that there is a segment of population who believes on such myths (Furnahm & Hughes, 2014).  For instance, a study assessed future psychology students on psycho-mythology and found that half of them held misconceptions and myths about psychology. You would think that holding these myths would be innocuous, but not. Scudellari (2015) argued that false believes do end up hurting science, as resources get misplaced on ineffective techniques instead of factual useful interventions. For example, in 1997 southwest of Korea began implementing an early thyroid cancer detection program, soon to be applied to all the country. While the detection of thyroid cancer increased, it was found that the program did not reduce the mortality rate. Some physicians recommended to stop this produce but the Korean Thyroid Association argued against that (cited from Scudellari, 2015). Likewise, the Canadian National Breast Screening Study (BMJ, 2014) found that annual mammograms did not reduce breast cancer mortality. This is explained because some tumors will sadly lead to death, irrespective of the detection time. Some others will not harm the individual if left alone. Yet the necessity of removing early the tumor entails aggressive screenings and surgical operations, which negates any possible benefit the population may have from early detection procedures. Or let’s go in another precedent, closely related to aggression and genetics. Forzano et al (2016) discussed a case developed in the Italian court, in which “an Italian judge reduced the prison sentence of a person convicted of murder by 1 year –from 9 to 8 years- because he was found to be a carrier of a few genetic variants thought to be associated with a predisposition towards aggressiveness” (cited from Forzano et al, 2016). In the current state in genetic research, there is no firm conclusion regarding a link between genetic variants and aggression predisposition. In fact, most of the analysis done in this field are only carried in research environment, meaning that they do not have a formal assessment of their clinical validity and utility. This is crucial, because the standards and goals between research and clinical (“real-world”) application are somewhat different. Laboratories may find a gene can be linked to a certain tendency, but the group studies are unique in that they aim reduce variability between the subjects (in order to better demonstrate the experiment’s manipulation had an effect). But the “real-world” has a lot of grey areas; lots of singular cases, which could influence the actual relation between a gene and one’s predisposition towards a certain attitude. There is no gene which can predict crime, and the court’s decision was argued by the authors to discriminate individuals as being a risk for others.

And this is for just a couple of misconceptions. Imagine how many myths we carry on our lives and how influenced are we from them. Strangely, it seems that merely refuting the misconception does not help erasing it; actually, the believe strengthens (Scudellari, 2015; Schwarz, Newman & Leach, 2016). So in order to damage control with what I just did, allow me to explain the main idea which should get stuck in to your head. Please refer to the beginning of the article, now you understand the reason that paragraph was there.

So the take home message is: it’s depressing to want to become a scientist in this putrid world of entertainment. I would say that we the audiences should be more critical on these kinds of psycho-mythologies being employed under artistic license, but for that to happen first we ought to be more literate in science. Either way, critical-thinking may be the best shot.

Adrià Tapia Córcoles

References

Forzano, F., Borry, P., Cambon-Thomsen, A. Hodgson,  S. V.,  Tibben, A., de Vries, P., …,  & Cornel, M. (2010) Italian appeal court: a genetic predisposition to commit murder? European Journal of Human Genetics 18, 519–521. doi:10.1038/ejhg.2010.31

Fowler, S.J., Alia-Klein, N., Kriplani, A., Logan, J., Williams, B., Zhu, W.,…, & Wang, Gene-Jack. (2007). Evidence That Brain MAO A Activity Does Not Correspond to MAO A Genotype in Healthy Male Subjects. Biological psychiatry. 62. 355-8. DOI:10.1016/j.biopsych.2006.08.038.

Furnham, A., Hughes, D. J. (2014) Myths and Misconceptions in Popular Psychology: Comparing Psychology Students and the General Public. Teaching of Psychology, 41(3), 256-261. DOI: 10.1177/0098628314537984

Godar, S. C., Fite, P. J., McFarlin, K. M., Bortolato, M. (2016) The role of monoamine oxidase A in aggression: Current translational developments and future challenges. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 69, 90–100. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pnpbp.2016.01.001

Kiser, D., SteemerS, B., Branchi, I., Homberg, J. R. (2012) The reciprocal interaction between serotonin and social behaviour. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 36, 2, 786-798, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.12.009.

Nisbet, M. C.,  Scheufele, D. A., Shanahan, J., Moy, P., Brossard, D., Lewenstein, B. V. (2002) Knowledge, Reservations, or Promise?: A Media Effects Model for Public Perceptions of Science and Technology. Communication Research, 29, 5, 584 – 608 https://doi.org/10.1177/009365002236196

Miller Anthony B, Wall Claus, Baines Cornelia J, Sun Ping, To Teresa, Narod Steven A et al. (2014) Twenty five year follow-up for breast cancer incidence and mortality of the Canadian National Breast Screening Study: randomised screening trial. BMJ; 348 :g366 doi: 10.1136/bmj.g366
Schwarz, N., Newman, E., & Leach, W. (2016). Making the truth stick & the myths fade: Lessons from cognitive psychology. Behavioral Science & Policy, 2(1), pp. 85–95. DOI: 10.1353/bsp.2016.0009

Scudellari, M. (2015) The science myths that will not die. Nature 528, 322–325. doi:10.1038/528322a