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.
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.
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.
Exculpating criminals by medicalizing their crimes, replacing retribution by treatment, might not result in “a safer and more humane society.” While most of Raine’s medical remedies for violent criminals are fairly benign — sedatives, proper diet, parenting lessons and other early interventions — judges and juries might be persuaded by his arguments that more radical biological treatments are appropriate. Brain surgery, castration or indefinite preventative detention are other approaches consistent with his biological stance. Lombroso would have approved, but they have little appeal to the liberal mind.