Tue, Jun 25, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Book review: The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime

Do criminals have different prefrontal cortexes? Do murderers have an unusually low pulse rate?

By Raymond Tallis  /  The Guardian

The Anatomy of Violence:
The Biological Roots of Crime
, by Adrian Raine

The crudity of Adrian Raine’s opening arguments in The Anatomy of Violence — his manifesto for neurocriminology — is curiously refreshing. It is a long time since evolutionary psychology was served so neat. Life, he says, has only one aim: to make more of itself. This is as true of humans as of tigers. The selfish gene replicates through lumbering robots called organisms that stop at nothing to survive in order to reproduce.

We are criminals — killers, liars, cheaters — because crime pays biologically. “Men are murderers. The simple evolutionary explanation is that women are worth fighting for. They are the valuable evolutionary resource men want to get their hands on.” This explains why men are rapists and why they prefer to rape women of childbearing age rather than, say, nonagenarians. If women in the main eschew violence, it is because they have “to bear the children, worry about their health and make up the bulk of parental investment.” Female aggression is more subtle, relying on gossip rather than guns, warning potential mates off rival females by hinting that the latter are promiscuous and therefore likely to propagate someone else’s genes.

The fact that rather more men are, say, teachers than serial murderers is a bit awkward for his evolutionary stance. The standard fallback position that reciprocal altruism is just another trick by which the selfish gene ensures its own replication makes one wonder just what observation could threaten Raine’s thesis. We need to challenge his all-too-familiar vision of persons as naked apes rather than embodied subjects operating in a community of minds. Many features distinguish us even from our nearest primate kin: We are beings, as Hegel said, for whom desire for personal recognition is important; we operate with complex, long-term goals (such as writing books on neurocriminology), which make sense only within abstract or institutional frameworks; we are capable of empathy not seen in animals; and, most important, our lives are lived as explicit narratives that go beyond mere organic continuation.

The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime

By Adrian Raine

496 Pages

Allen Lane

Hardback: uk


As he follows the path from biology to behavior mediated via genes and the brain, Raine’s story becomes more nuanced, though biology still rules. He examines the genetic “seeds of sin” and finds that criminal tendencies are strongly inherited. He cites studies of twins brought up in similar and in different environments, to separate the effects of nature and nurture. According to one of his own research papers, genetic factors on the most reliable measures explain an eye-popping 96 percent of the variance in antisocial behavior. He cautions against overestimation of the importance of inheritance, but little remains, it seems, for caution to work on.

After a digression into the heart (and a discussion of the fact that psychopaths are literally cold-blooded, having a low resting heart rate), we move to our genes’ key lieutenant and Raine’s central character, the brain. Like his hero Cesare Lombroso, he believes that the criminal brain has distinctive features. He scanned the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain supposedly key to self-control, in murderers recruited from death row and found that they paid less attention to the tasks he set them — there was reduced activity in the relevant area. His conclusion is that they were predisposed to violence by their lackadaisical prefrontal parts.

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