Nature Versus Nurture: The Role of Genetic Influence on the Serial Killer

Updated on December 22, 2017

Jeffrey Dahmer

This paper explores the concept of nature versus nurture in the profile of the serial killer. Serial killers are considered to be individuals who have killed three or more people spanning three or more instances. The question remains whether it is inherent, genetic factors that form a serial killer or whether it is the environment in which that individual has been reared. The nature versus nurture argument has many historical foundations and numerous supporters on both ends of the spectrum. Those in favor of the nature argument are considered to be nativists and those in favor of the nurture argument are environmentalists. It is concluded that neither nature nor nurture have a profound effect on the criminality of an individual and instead a combination of many factors.

Keywords: serial killers, nature, nurture, nativist, environmentalist

Between the years of 1978 and 1991 Jeffrey Dahmer raped, murdered and dismembered 17 boys and men. Known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer is considered to be one of America’s most prolific serial killers. In his own words, he describes a compulsion to commit the crimes that he carried out. Dahmer says that he had a somewhat normal childhood with no abuse or serious neglect. This raises the abounding question of whether he committed his crimes because he was born with inherent qualities to make him do so or whether there was an aspect of his upbringing that set him on that path. This question gives rise to the argument of nature versus nurture, especially in the profile of the serial killer. When discussing the nature versus nurture argument, it is important to understand the difference between the two. The nature of an individual is who that person is and the integral qualities with which he or she is born. The nurturing of an individual is the environment in which he or she is raised. It is those people surrounding him or her as well as the societal influence on him or her. As Winkler and Jolly (2012) state, “Nature entails the genetic, inherited traits that a person possesses” and “nurture entails all of the environments, the variables outside the body, that a person experiences” (p. 146).

In His Own Words

The Nativist versus Environmentalist Argument

The nature versus nurture argument dates back to the early 20th century when the nature, or nativist, perspective became popular. At the time, the nativist view recognized this early period as a time of progress, meaning how accurately psychologists were able to measure one’s intelligence (Winkler and Jolly, 2012, p. 147). While the nativists believed this time was considered an era of progression in the advancement of psychology, the environmentalists deemed it immoral due to the violation of persons’ rights. They believed this strictly because early nativists had a eugenic standpoint and were considered to express sexist and racist views. As time has elapsed, more moderate points of view have emerged and the radical nativist and environmentalist perspectives have diminished.

As Jeffrey Dahmer stated, he felt a natural compulsion to kill. The widely understood definition of compulsion is an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one's conscious wishes. While more moderate views now exist of the nativist and environmentalist positions, the nature of an individual cannot be ignored in the profile of the serial killer, like that of Jeffrey Dahmer. Knight (2007) states, “We are all capable of being aggressive, of containing unimaginable aggressive fantasies of torture, sadism and murder, but we are not all serial killers (p. 21). There is a boundary that exists between fantasy and reality and serial killers have lost that. Serial killers are made, but we all have an innate capacity for destructive aggression (Knight, 2007, p. 22). As societal expectations remain the boundary to prevent the human population from acting out destructive aggression, those with the compulsion to kill—the innate and natural need to do so—face numerous and complex differences in their genetic make-up that disable them to have the necessary resilience to environmental pathogens (Wermter et al, 2010, p. 200). These environmental pathogens can include violence and dysfunction in the childhood home, all forms of abuse as well as the socio-economic factors of poverty and gang violence.

The argument to the nativist perspective, often from those who are more moderate, find that there are numerous influences involved when determining what constructs a serial killer. “It is for this reason that there is a consensus that what makes a serial killer is a combination of many complex and interrelated neurological, social, physiological, environmental and psychological factors” (Knight, 2007, p. 22). Trying to determine one causal factor in the development of a serial killer is impossible although many psychological theories indicate the nature of a serial killer is paramount in understanding the pathology.

Much of the pathology of the serial killer must be reviewed within the construct of mental illness as well. Where SPD is Sadistic Personality Disorder, psychiatrist Michael H. Stone (1998) states, “I hope I have shown, nevertheless, that SPD exists—certainly among the ranks of murderers, and in high concentration among the ranks of serial killers” (p. 349). SPD is one of many types of mental illnesses that a serial killer can exhibit. Often it is seen that serial killers have mental illness diagnoses such as narcissistic personality disorder, schizophrenia and anti-social personality disorder. Individuals with certain genetic traits are considered to be at higher risk for mental illness, therefore, it is not just developed within the environmental factors that can influence him or her. Just as hair color, eye color or height are genetic specific traits, mental illness has a tendency to find itself in the family tree as well.

Mental illness is but one concluding factor in the development of the serial killer. As the moderate nativists and environmentalists have found, the nature of an individual is just one aspect of the development of a murderous personality. The genetic influence cannot be understated, however, there are far more complex ideas and theories that abound in order to dissect what makes a serial killer into that persona. The nature versus nurture argument will not see a resolution so long as serial killers continue to evoke multiple characteristics that need to be evaluated and understood.


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    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 

      2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      Good article, but I have another point of view for you to consider. Humanity is more than the physical and mental, but also the Spiritual: Mind, Body and Spirit. All are interconnected. An imbalance in one may cause disruption in the other systems.

      Consider this article written by a psychiatrist.


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