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Are Some Men Born Pedophiles? New Science Says Yes, But Sexologists Say Not So Fast

New discoveries are upending the nurture versus nature debate.
 
 
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Pope Benedict’s legacy will be forever tied to it. Penn State’s lawyers are offering legal settlements over it. Adults who knew perpetrators for years still struggle with it. And now new research suggests that some people are born with brains ‘wired’ for sexual attraction to children—or pedophilia—a propensity that’s further shaped by life experiences and often cannot be controlled.

“Whatever the chain of events is, the chain begins before birth,” said James M. Cantor, a University of Toronto professor of psychiatry whose research team has made a series of startling correlations finding that pedophiles are likely to share physical attributes, such as slightly lower IQs, shorter body height, left-handedness and less brain tissue.

“There is no way to explain the findings that we get for pedophelia without mentioning or without including biology,” he recently told Canada’s Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “It is inescapable at this point. We cannot rule out psycho-social influences, but we cannot have a complete theory that cannot explain these non-obvious but but exquisitely important biological findings.”

Cantor’s findings have become big news not just because pedophilia is seen as one of the worst crimes—and its scandals and cover-ups don’t seem to end, whether in the Roman Catholic church or football-protecting universities. The idea that moral—and immoral—behavior has a basis in biology is the latest twist in the age-old debate of whether nature or nurture drives human action. For much of the 20 th century, psychologists looked more to the nurture side of the equation. But 21 st century science, with brain-scan imaging and computing power to analyze big data, are suggesting that both factors—one’s genes and one’s upbringing—shape human sexuality.

“It’s another ride on the nurture-nature merry-go-round,” Cantor told AlterNet, when asked what his findings portend. “It comes to the same point. We can’t take them apart. For scientists, the question of what portion is nature and what portion is nurture is incredibly interesting… Ninety-five percent of men are attracted to adult women. But looking at the exception, we can better understand the dynamics of sexual attraction for all.”

Like all science, research like Cantor’s can be cited to bouy one’s political beliefs—that people are born with bad genes must be treated harshly, as those on right say; or if people cannot help their genes they must be helped to manage, as liberals say. But in the 21 st century, a new intellectual paradigm—or fad—is emerging implying that once scientists find a problem has genetic roots, then it will eventually be traced and fixed.

The New York Times magazine has this recent report on how teenage abilities to cope with stress may have a “genetic component” that turns on one gene that’s been identifid. This Canadian television show discusses how feelings of romantic love originate in specific brain regions, reducing that life mystery to mechanics. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, now at Google, has this TED Talk video—seen by 1.1 million people—describing how human illnesses will be cured in coming years by reprogramming one’s genes; essentially by treating cell-mutating diseases as a “software” issue.

Cantor’s talk to Canadian therapists who treat sex addicts and abusers held out a similar promise—that research was approaching a day where pedophiles could be identified early and prevented from acting out. He was mindful that such an ability was filled with political and legal implications, but he was bullish nonetheless.

“There is nothing in anything that we are learning that changes anybody’s right to treatment or right to refuse treatment,” he told colleagues. “Now it is my hope that as we go on, that we will pinpoint very precisely the exact place where things start to go off. And then we might have the greatest opportunity to change it… If the brain research is successful, then instead of preventing the second offense, we can prevent the first offense, which would be extremely, extremely exciting.”