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See Inside December 2008/January 2009

MIND Reviews: December 2008/January 2009

Reviews and recommendations from the December 2008/January 2009 issue of Scientific American MIND

BORN TO OFFEND?

The Criminal Brain: Understanding Biological Theories of Crime
by Nicole Rafter. New York University Press, 2008 ($24)

In the sci-fi movie Minority Report “Precrime” police units stop murders before they happen by relying on the visions of people who can see the future. Clairvoyants who possess precognition will likely remain fiction. But the idea of preventing individuals from committing crimes may be on the threshold of becoming reality, according to Northeastern University criminologist Nicole Rafter. Recent scientific advances, such as the decoding of the human genome and, growing out of that, studies that examine gene-environment interactions, have opened new avenues to explore the biological bases of character traits, including the propensity to commit crimes. As a result, Rafter says, criminologists are now shifting their attention toward biological reasons for delinquent behavior after decades of trying to define crime mainly on the basis of sociological factors.

In The Criminal Brain, Rafter warns of the potentially dangerous consequences of this trend: “We already have genetically modified crops; maybe gene policing and genetically modified criminals are not far behind.” Whether we will head toward such a brave new world scenario, however, depends on how specialists and the general public evaluate research and policy in the booming field of biocriminology, she explains. Rafter provides the tools to do just that.

The book takes readers on a fascinating journey through the history of criminology and details where the field stands today. Even though we still do not know what exactly a “criminal brain” is, current research suggests that some people are more genetically predisposed to offend than others, Rafter says. Still, “no one is destined to commit crime,” because environmental factors also play a role, even for those who are most at risk.

Rafter illustrates nicely how science develops in different social and political contexts. In the past, theories of a link between low intelligence and criminal behavior, for example, sparked a movement of “coercive eugenics,” which resulted in forced sterilizations in the name of crime control. Today theories of links between genetics and behavior have led to what Rafter calls “ ‘new’ or ‘liberal’ eugenics” that involves the elimination of “bad” genes by choice, such as the abortion of fetuses that test positive for mental retardation. From here the step to “eugenic criminology” might be small, Rafter argues, particularly if “manipulative politicians and ignorant citizens” took charge of such a movement.

The Criminal Brain is a wake-up call that highlights the need to think hard about which direction we allow biocriminology to move, especially “now that memories of Nazi eugenics have faded.”

BLESSING OR CURSE?

Obsession: A History
by Lennard J. Davis. University of Chicago Press, 2008 ($27.50)

Admit it: at some point in your life, you’ve been completely obsessed. Obsessed with a particular project perhaps, or a great author, or that hot senior who smiled at you once when you were a freshman. Obsession is common and typically harmless, often a powerful motivator and a source of artistic inspiration. Yet its extremes are also feared and reviled, because they form the foundation for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a disease that has apparently exploded in prevalence in recent decades. How exactly can we reconcile two conflicting notions of the same phenomenon?

Perhaps we can’t—but we can glean some insight by taking a closer look at society’s complex history with obsession, Lennard J. Davis posits in his new book. Since the 18th century our understanding of obsession has evolved from believing it to be an incurable “madness,” thought to afflict a small number of people who were typically poor, to a potentially curable disease afflicting many, including the upper classes.

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