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

Unfortunately, as he discovers, many other murderers have perfectly normal activity in the prefrontal cortex. This is “the exception that proves the rule,” he says. Only hot-blooded murderers have underperformance in this area; cold-blooded, calculating murderers have abnormalities elsewhere — deeper in the brain. His argument then receives another blow: “normal” people, including Raine himself, have very similar brains to some serial killers. He keeps ahead of the cracks in the ice by moving around the brain, pointing the finger at the angular gyrus and the hippocampus, the amygdala, the striatum, the temporal cortex. He can even explain the bigger prefrontal cortex in pathological liars as being due to over-exercise of this structure. Everything can be made to fit, if there is the will to do so.

Raine is sufficiently savvy to know that if you test for enough correlations, something will turn up, particularly if (as often in his line of work) the numbers of subjects are small, rarely checked in repeat studies, and there is a publication bias that favors exciting positive findings over disappointing negative ones. And he knows that correlation does not imply causation: Finding differences in the brains of criminals does not mean that the differences explain criminal behavior. Even so, this does not inhibit him from precise claims about the role of different portions of the brain in the making of various kinds of criminal.

He takes little account of the many critiques of the use of brain-imaging in social neuroscience. The devastating overview by Katherine Button recently published in the prestigious Nature Reviews Neuroscience — which concluded that “the average statistical power of studies in the neurosciences is very low” — should make anyone who publishes in this field extremely cautious and anyone who reads them skeptical of their claims. Skepticism towards the idea of a “neuroanatomy of violence” is also justified by the fact, as Raine himself admits, that the vast majority of murderers kill only once and that “for 99.9 percent of their lives, murderers are just like me and you.” Like me and you, they have the same brain all the time.

Raine’s key notion that, good or bad, we are the playthings of our brains — “free will is sadly an illusion” (the return of the lumbering robots) — raises the question of why we should stop at the brain in our search for causes. Given that it is a material object wired into the material world, “my brain made me do it” (kill my spouse, write a book on neurocriminology) should translate into “the Big Bang” (ultimately) made me do it. In fact, the brain is but one player in the complex game of life, not the beginning and end of our destiny.

And Raine seems gradually to accept this.” He rows back from his initial “biology + genes + brain” thesis towards the kind of “environment (including junk food, toxic metals, maternal rejection, poverty, childhood abuse) + heredity + personal factors” truisms that the rest of us accept. Even so, he is determined to hold on to his brain-centered criminology: “Deprivation makes a big dent on the brain.”

Raine’s humane wish to persuade us that crime is essentially a clinical disorder or a public health problem is praiseworthy, but his belief that neuroscience should have an increasing role in determining criminal responsibility and sentencing policy is less attractive.

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