Criminal minds

The impact of biological factors on violent behaviour. Julian Baggini reviews ‘The Anatomy of Violence’, by Adrian Raine

The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime, by Adrian Raine, Allen Lane RRP£25 / Pantheon RRP$35, 496 pages

What are the best predictors of violent crime? If you’re looking at a societal level, the answers are socioeconomic. The lower a country’s gross domestic product and the higher its inequality, the more violent it is. But what if you’re looking for individuals within a society? In The Anatomy of Violence, “neurocriminologist” Adrian Raine argues that your best bet is to look for neurobiological markers.

For instance, the “best-replicated correlate of antisocial and violent behaviour” is, he claims, poor functioning of the prefrontal part of the brain. And adoption studies suggest that “genes give us half the answer to the question of why some of us are criminal, and others are not”. Perhaps most surprisingly, the relationship between a low resting heart rate and antisocial behaviour is stronger than that between smoking and lung cancer.

Such ideas were until very recently almost taboo, with their echoes of Nazi eugenics and discredited phrenology. As recently as 1988, Wouter Buikhuisen had to resign as chair of the criminology department at Leiden University in the Netherlands after a media storm provoked by his claim that there was a psychophysiological basis to crime. In 1994, the journal Science reported on a “unified and outspoken assault” on Raine by other scientists at a conference at which he had presented a study suggesting that a combination of birth complications and maternal rejection predisposed babies to be violent offenders later in life.

Now, however, Buikhuisen has been given an apology, brain scans are being used as evidence in homicide trials and few deny that biological and neurological factors are involved in violence. The question that remains is, how much? A lot, argues Raine, although he insists that “social factors are critical both in interacting with biological forces in causing crime, and in directly producing the biological changes that predispose a person to violence”.

Nevertheless, Raine is adamant that “repeated violent offending is a clinical disorder”, which we are learning how to treat. Some of the interventions this diagnosis suggests appear quite benign. It does not take Orwellian measures to address some of the causes of violent tendencies, such as smoking and drinking in pregnancy, lead absorption, or low iron in the diet. Similarly, mindfulness training and perhaps even increased omega-3 oil consumption might reduce antisocial behaviour.

Other interventions are more radical. Castration for sex offenders, for example, is offered in Germany where the best study so far has shown it results in a 3 per cent recidivism rate, against 46 per cent for non-castrated offenders. Seventy per cent of the offenders who opted for the treatment said they were satisfied by it. “I can finally live knowing that I am no harm to anybody,” says one rehabilitated offender.

But when Raine concludes this book with some predictions about what this approach might mean, it gets more uncomfortable. He sees a future of screening programmes in which those at high risk of committing violent crime are pre-emptively detained and treated. “It sends shivers down my spine to think I could be convicted without committing a crime”, Raine admits. But he argues that we ought to accept “the harsh reality” of cost-benefit analysis, even if that means “some people will be detained who may not pose a risk”.

Despite his insistence that both social and biological factors are at work, Raine sometimes seems too optimistic about what the biological approach might achieve. He says, for instance, that “treating the physical causes will work more quickly and effectively than repairing the complicated social factors that also contribute to criminal behaviour”. But, on the basis of current evidence, this confidence appears premature. He himself offers examples of where the difference between psychopathic dysfunction and a good, productive life comes down to the support of others, not just brain chemistry.

Perhaps because Raine has experience of being demonised for his ideas, the distinction between the ones he entertains and the ones he endorses is not always clear. He admits to a Jekyll and Hyde attitude to criminal violence, especially evident since a brush with an armed burglar who could easily have killed him. “It broke through my outer façade of liberal humanitarian values and put me in touch with a deep, primitive sense of retributive justice.”

Overall, however, Raine is surely right that we cannot ignore the evidence that points to the importance of neurological factors in violent crime. If he shouts a little too loudly about the brain’s role, it is because that voice needs to be heard. In The Anatomy of Violence, it comes across clearly, powerfully and often persuasively.

Julian Baggini is author of ‘The Ego Trick’ (Granta)

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