By Eric Olsen
Looking for some fresh insights into the criminal mind to help you develop that murderous villain in your next crime novel? Check out The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime by Adrian Raine (Pantheon, 2013). Raine is a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in the biology of crime, and especially violent crime, or “neurocriminology” as it’s called these days. Raine’s main idea is that there are not only sociological and environmental factors at play in the causes of violent crime, there are also biological factors, having to do primarily with wiring in the brain. Violent criminals, Raine tells us, have “broken brains,” and just what is broken in a particular brain, and how it got broken, has a lot do to with what sorts of violence might ensue.
Of course, there’s nothing particularly new in this idea, as Raine himself is quick to point out, and he begins his book with an account of the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who in the late 1800s declared that criminals were an “evolutionary throwback to more primitive species,” who could be identified on the basis “of physical characteristics from more primitive stages of human evolution, such as a large jaw, a sloping forehead,” and so on.
Such notions had disastrous consequences; Mussolini’s racial laws, Raine says, owed a “rhetorical debt” to Lombroso’s theories. And thus after WWII, the pendulum swung away from any biological explanation of criminal behavior to a sociological explanation. But now, it seems, the pendulum may be heading back the other way. Lombroso, stumbling as he did, was “on the path toward a sublime truth,” writes Raine.
Much of Raine’s discussion is based on the latest developments in neuro-imaging, something Lombroso didn’t have, which can allow researchers to see which parts of the brain are most active in specific situations, or inactive, as the case may be.
Is your character the sort of guy who’s always getting into fights in bars, for instance? Accidentally step on the scuffed toe of his alligator-skin cowboy boot and he wallops you with a pool cue? Check out his prefrontal cortex, if he even has one. The prefrontal cortex in good working order provides an “executive function” that overrides our more primitive urges, such as a pool cue upside the head. It’s the part of the brain that suggests you stop, take a deep breath, and ask yourself how 25 to life locked in a cell with a guy named Bubba sounds, and so now why don’t we put down that pool cue and have another beer? Among hot-blooded killers, aka “re-active” killers, malfunctions in the prefrontal cortex are more common than in the general population.
What can cause such malfunctions? All sorts of things, starting in utero. Did mom smoke or drink or take drugs while pregnant? Insults and injury after birth can also impact development of the prefrontal cortex, such as poor nutrition, and of course physical abuse and head trauma.
And some of us are simply born to be bad, it seems. There is a genetic component to violent crime. Raine cites the ubiquitous adopted twin studies that find that if the biological father was given to violence, even if his kids never met him, even if his kids were adopted by loving, caring families, just the sorts of “traditional” families Republicans are always going on about, those kids still have a higher likelihood of turning to crime compared with others raised in similar circumstances. This fact has long been observed, but what’s new is that genetic markers for violent behavior, which can be passed along from generation to generation, are now being identified.
But we’re all killers at heart, broken brains and genetic markers or not. We evolved to kill, and to kill not only other animals for food, so we can survive and mate and pass along our genes, but also kill one another, and also for gain… and ultimately to mate and pass along our genes. It’s all about getting some, it seems, and thereby spreading those genes. “Most criminal acts can be seen, directly or indirectly, as a way to take resources away from others,” writes Raine. “The more resources or status a man has, the better able he is to attract young, fertile females.” Even a random drive-by shooting makes a sort of twisted sense in this light, as it can be an attempt to gain advantage when it confers status on the shooter, at least among his own circle (and note that most of the time, Raine’s talking about men, since guys kill much, much more often than women).
These days, in what we think of as “civilized” societies, most of us don’t kill one another, no matter how our brains are wired. All sorts of moderating factors serve as a damper on our more primitive urges, including a functioning prefrontal cortex, but also early childhood socialization; most of us learn early on that it’s bad form to stick a crayon in your little playmate’s eyeball if he snatches your stuffed doggy, and that it’s also bad to snatch plush doggies.
This stuff about “mean genes” is old news, of course. Richard Dawkins wrote about such notions in The Selfish Gene more than three decades ago (30th Anniversary edition, Oxford University Press, 2006). But citing new information that comes to us thanks to developments in neural imaging, Raine takes the discussion to new levels, linking genetic factors directly to structures in the brain. And he’s not the only one going on about the genetic roots of this and that. Now there are books about the genetic basis of storytelling, for instance, neuro-literary theory — we tell stories and make art to get laid, and pass along our genes. And the urge to cooperate, even to share resources, is likewise now being viewed as a genetic trait — neuro-politics, anyone? — aimed ultimately at gaining resources and mates so we can get laid and pass along our genes. Forget lofty ideals such as altruism. [See below for a reading list.]
But of course the fictional killers that are most interesting are the psychopaths, the Hannibal Lecters, the Raskolnikovs, the cold-blooded killers who plot out their crimes with intricate care, the serial killers and assassins who’re much smarter than the cops and only your hero, the lone PI with a drinking problem and broken marriage, has the wit to bring them to justice. Psychopaths are the “pro-active” killers. A psychopath’s prefrontal cortex may be in fine working order, but it’s not unlikely there’s something awry with his amygdala, Raine tells us. This is the brain’s neural seat of emotion. In psychopaths, the amygdala shows little activity during what for the rest of us is an emotional moment of moral decision-making. These people are so emotionally flat that hurting others and even killing them may be the only way they feel anything at all; murder for pleasure. Interestingly, such killers tend to have slow resting heart rates. “Psychopaths,” Raine writes, “show lack of conscience, superficial charm, high verbal skills, promiscuity, and lack of long-term interpersonal bonds.”
Raine is clear about the implications of all of this. With tools such as real-time imaging of the brain at work, and data concerning heritability of violent tendencies, and the identification of genetic and physical markers associated with violent behaviors, the next step would be profiling and preventive detentions.
But wait. Next step? Nah, we already do all that…. Pass through an airport security check and you’re getting profiled. Walk down any street in New York City, and probably in any other large urban area as well, and you’re getting profiled by the cops (i.e., leave that hoodie at home). And what is Guantanamo, if not “preventive detention,” devoid of all due process?
Of course, no one’s imaging the activity of your amygdala or checking your genes. Or are they? Thanks to a recent ruling by the Roberts court (talk about malfunctioning amygdalas!), when the cops stop you just because they feel like it and due process be damned, they can now legally take a swab inside your mouth for a sample of your genetic material to check it against other samples, and you can bet it won’t be long before someone’s going to be taking a good, long look at genetic markers for violence in these samples, if they’re not already.
If crime fiction’s not your thing, though, there’s always sci fi; Raine’s book is full of material for possible plot turns in stories about a not-so-far-off future of oppression and surveillance, and while Orwell’s 1984 would be a hard act to follow, and the feature film “Minority Report,” and the TV series “Person of Interest” already explore this same territory, surely there’s always room for more. The tough part will be conjuring up a fictional scenario even more outlandish than what the NSA’s already up to.
Raine does suggest that these new findings concerning brains and behavior may and perhaps should in the future play more of a role in more humane sentencing and treatment of prisoners convicted of violent crimes. More importantly, Raine advocates for a “public health” approach to violence. Measures as simple and sensible as improvements in infant and maternal health and nutrition would go a long, long way toward cutting the crime rate in this country, simply by preventing the sorts of insults and injuries to a developing brain that can lead to violence later. But of course these are the very programs that the Republicans and their amygdala-compromised buddies in their top-floor suites are out to cut; psychopaths take pleasure in the suffering of others, and better yet, suffering among the most vulnerable among us.
Books about the genetic basis of art:
The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, by Denis Dutton (Bloomsbury, 2009)
On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, by Brian Boyd (Belknap, 2010)
Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, by Brian Boyd (Harvard, 2012)
Books about the genetic basis of ethics and politics:
Darwinian Conservatism, by Larry Arnhart (ImprintAcademic, 2005)
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt (Pantheon, 2012)
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt (Basic, 2005)
The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O. Wilson (Liveright, 2012)