What is science revealing about the nature of the criminal mind? Adrian Raine, a professor at the university of Pennsylvania, is an expert in the expanding field of “neurocriminology.” He has written The Anatomy of Violence, a sweeping account of crime’s biological roots, including genetics, neuro-anatomy and environmental toxins like lead. He spoke with Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
Gareth Cook: The study of the links between biology and violence has a controversial and somewhat unsavory past. Can you tell me a bit about that, and what convinced you it is still a worthy topic?
Adrian Raine: Neurocriminology pushes a lot of peoples’ buttons for lots of different reasons. There’s the obvious historical misuse of biological research – think of the eugenics movement in this country when we sterilized mentally retarded people in an attempt to raise the overall IQ of the general population. Think of Hitler and the genocide that took place. So there’s always a potential for misuse, so of course we must tread carefully. But we also have to move forward to find new solutions to old problems, and neuroscience is offering us new vistas into the criminal mind that may in the future help us reduce violence. We need not resort to drastic measures to change the brain as we did in the past with frontal lobectomies.
There are other reasons for antagonism to a biological approach. Social scientists are concerned that shiningthe spotlight on the biological causes of crime will shift attention away from important social problems like bad neighborhoods, poverty, and racial discrimination. I can understand their perspective, and they are absolutely right that we need to eradicate these social inequalities. But unless we also tackle biology, violent crime is never going to go away.
The free-will debate also raises its ugly head. People are concerned about chalking up a good portion of crime and violence to genetics and biology — what does that say about choice and agency? Was it all determined from the get-go? Are we just gene machines destined to play out our programed nature in life? Let’s face it, nobody wants to hear that, do they?
And that brings us to politics. Conservatives don’t like my work because they think it will encourage a soft approach to crime – we’ll blame crime on the brain, not the person. But liberals don’t like it either because they think civil liberties are at stake – we’ll use biomarkers to identify who is at risk for violence and lock them up before they have committed a crime, the pre-emptive strike.
Then at the end of the day we get down to plain old interdisciplinary rivalries. Neurocriminology is a new approach that is attracting attention, and threatening the status quo. Other academics can get miffed that their own work doesn’t reach the spotlight. They’re human after all. They want to protect their own turf, and you can understand their frustration that their good science might not be getting the attention it deserves.
That’s a heck of a lot of baggage. So why, despite all this, have I thought for the past 35 years that it’s a worthy topic? Because science shows that 50 percent of the variance in crime is under genetic control. OK, so we could turn our backs on biology. Let’s pretend it doesn’t exist. Like an ostrich, we could bury our heads in the sand and pretend the hunter is not there. But the tragedy is that in our blind ignorance we’ll never have the biological insights to stop future violence. And you’d better watch out – the ostrich may get shot.
Cook: What are the strongest links between biology and violence, the results that are most widely accepted?