In his closing argument before jurors in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Deputy District Attorney Christopher A. Darden described Simpson as being “out of control” when he allegedly killed his former wife and Ronald Goldman. Mr. Darden pointed to a series of events in the hours before the brutal killings that, having ignited the short fuse of Mr. Simpson’s unstable temperament, turned a “homicidal fit” into a “rage killing.”

The renewed concerns over a recent University of Maryland conference on “The Meaning and Significance of Research on Genetics and Criminal Behavior,” cast new light on Mr. Darden’s metaphor. What ignites and fuels this short burning fuse? One’s environment or genes? Is there a predisposition toward impulsive violence or is violent crime simply a matter of poverty and oppression?

Sociologists like Dorothy Nelkin argue that “social factors” generate violent crime, although a growing amount of evidence shows that violent behavior stems from several interacting factors—both social and biological. Sometimes referred to as “criminogenetic traits,” the risk factors of age, gender, race, personality, intelligence, temperament, childhood development, peer influence, and socioeconomic status are solid and persistent correlates of crime.

By focusing upon social forces alone, critics continue to ignore other important factors that contribute to violent crime. The line of reasoning that indicts “society” for the conduct of violent predators is a fallacy of early 20th-century behaviorism, namely that the human mind is like a blank slate, that all human behavior is determined by social conditioning.

Critics also maintain that no one has identified a gene for “crime.” This is simply a red herring. Genes influence behavior indirectly. As Thomas Bouchard, director of the Minnesota Twin Studies Project, points out, genetic influences on behavior are mainly distal rather than proximate. Recent findings from twin and adoption studies confirm this. To contend that no “crime gene” exists does not discredit behavior genetic research, not to mention the fact that the discovery of a “crime gene” would astonish the scientific community.

Advancements in behavioral genetics over the past 20 years have changed the way researchers view the effects of heredity and environment on behavioral development. Once thought of as nature versus nurture, hereditary and environmental influences are no longer viewed as rivals but interacting forces, or quite simply nature via nurture. The outcome of this interaction takes the form of individual differences in personality traits and characteristics, which produces both social and antisocial behavior.

It is not enough for critics to explain away crime as merely the product of social conditions. They must clarify how these conditions produce violent behavior, why biological factors are irrelevant, and why behavior genetic research is unable to determine the “root causes” of crime. Arguably the most comprehensive study of “root causes” to date, a leading panel of experts under the auspices of the National Research Council found that both social and biological factors influence violent crime.

One of the findings corroborated by behavioral scientists (one which sociologists are reluctant to acknowledge) is that the demise of the traditional family environment acts as a catalyst for juvenile delinquency. As David Lykken, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, points out in his recent study of antisocial personalities, dysfunctional parenting plays a major role in violent crime. The lack of moral guidance, when combined with individual differences in personality and temperament, explains delinquent behavior better than economic status alone.

Although a disproportionate number of violent offenders are disadvantaged, not all disadvantaged people are criminals. What Columbia University psychiatrist David Abrahamsen noted 50 years ago remains valid today, that “so-called ‘poor-environment’ cannot be considered a sufficient explanation for criminal behavior, because a number of law-abiding citizens have lived and grown up under unfavorable conditions. A poor environment can only be regarded as causative insofar as it is combined with a certain disposition in the individual making latent criminal tendencies manifest.” By the same token, a similar set of circumstances may not always yield identical results. Anyone who unknowingly touches a hot stove will flinch in pain, but the difference between someone who immediately treats a blistered hand or someone who violently strikes a spouse for leaving the stove on may have as much to do with one’s predisposition as with sheer circumstance.

The same holds true for understanding the “root causes” of crime. Often, these so-called “root causes” reflect inaccurate assumptions about violent crime, such as that “society” is somehow responsible for crime because of failed social welfare policies. As Dwight Ingle once put it, lack of water is not the cause of fire. Individual differences in personality, intelligence, and temperament explain violent behavior more comprehensively than inadequate sociological theories.

Moreover, survey data presented by Lee Ellis, a professor of sociology at Minot State University, reveal that sociologists often view social problems through an ideological prism. Rutgers University sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz argues that sociologists promote outdated and questionable theories of crime. A once promising academic discipline, the demise of sociology exemplifies the toll of political correctness. Most social critics will never recognize the value of behavior genetic research for the simple reason that it challenges the deeply held egalitarian beliefs of social scientists. When scholars begin to claim that too much is made over the “validity of research data” rather than “real issues,” scientific research becomes hostage to the political agendas of social activists. By opposing a legitimate field of scientific study, ideologically driven scholars undermine not only their own work but the credibility of the behavioral sciences as well.

The message this sends is that, when it comes to examining socially sensitive issues, ignorance is better than knowledge. Such a narrow-minded view should concern anyone who values accuracy and academic integrity in the pursuit of scientific research.