Wed, May 15, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Mapping a killer’s brain

The idea that our genes, rather than our morals or upbringing, are mainly to blame for whether we become criminals or not is one of science’s biggest taboos. However, if we could identify would-be offenders at an early age and perhaps prevent a massacre, should we do so?

By Tim Adams  /  The Observer

The divisive thinking was developed further in 1876 by Cesare Lombroso, an Italian surgeon, after he conducted a postmortem on a serial murderer and rapist. Lombroso discovered a hollow part of the killer’s brain, where the cerebellum would be, from which he proposed that violent criminals were throwbacks to less evolved human types, again identifiable by ape-like physical characteristics. The political manipulation of such hypotheses in the eugenics movement eventually saw them wholly outlawed and discredited.

As one result, after World War II, crime became attributable to economic and political factors, or psychological disturbances, but not to biology. However, prompted by advances in genetics and neuroscience, that consensus is increasingly fragile and the implications of those scientific advances for law — and for concepts such as culpability and responsibility — are only now being tested.

Raine is by no means alone in this argument, though his highly readable book serves as an invaluable primer to both the science and the ethical concerns. As the polymath David Eagleman, director of neuroscience and law at Baylor College in Texas, recently pointed out, knowledge in this area has advanced to the point where it is perverse to be in denial.

What are we to do, for example, Eagleman asked, with the fact that: “If you are a carrier of one particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You are three times as likely to commit a robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offence. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death row inmates do ... Can we honestly say that the carriers of those genes have exactly the same range of choices in their behavior as those who do not possess them? And if they do not, should they be judged and punished by the same standard?”

Raine’s work is full of this kind of statistic and this kind of question. (One of his more startling findings is the extraordinarily high level of psychopathic markers among employees of a temping agency he studied, which came as no surprise to him.

“Psychopaths cannot settle, they need to move around, look for new stimulation,” he says.

He draws on a number of studies that show the links between brain development, in particular — and brain injury and impairment by extension — and criminal violence. Already legal defense teams, particularly in the US, are using brain scans and neuroscience as mitigating evidence in the trials of violent criminals and sex offenders. In this sense, Raine believes a proper public debate on the implications of his science is long overdue.

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