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The Anatomy of Violence:

The Biological Roots of Crime

by Adrian Raine

Adrian Raine had spent 10 years studying violent criminals and their motivation when he suddenly found himself the victim of one. An intruder broke into the Turkish hotel room where he was asleep next to his girlfriend, and in the fight that followed, Raine was stabbed in the body and the throat. In the weeks that followed, he found that his liberal humanitarian interest in understanding the roots of violence had been replaced by a fierce, instinctive desire for revenge. He just wanted to see his assailant punished, and at moments he wanted that punishment to exactly match his own terrifying experience.

Raine, now a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, found his reaction shocking and illuminating because the whole thrust of his research and thinking has been to argue that violent criminals are shaped by a combination of biological and social factors that are largely beyond their control. Birth trauma, genetics and poor nutrition can damage the brain, combining with cruel or incompetent parenting, social disadvantage and official neglect to create a lethal pool of potential offenders.

Raine’s research, as laid out in this book, implies that many criminals can’t be held responsible for their actions in the same way as you or I would be if, one afternoon, we turned round from our desks and decided to shoot our irritating colleagues. Their reshaped brains don’t work as ours do. The urgent question that has preoccupied Raine for 35 years is whether, in the light of this growing understanding, we are right to follow our instincts for retribution. Should we be condemning criminals for their savagery if they don’t share our ability to exert self-control and free will? Or do we need a completely new approach to offenders, which understands that they are trapped by the limitations of their malfunctioning minds?

When Raine started his career in the 1970s, it was completely unacceptable to suggest anyone could have a biological tendency to commit crime. Academics who did so could be hounded out of their jobs. The sociological explanation, that people were purely the products of their environment, was the only permissible one.

Not only has that approach done nothing to stem the worldwide tide of violence, Raine observes, but both longitudinal studies and scientific advances have demonstrated why the physical reality of what goes on within the body can no longer be ignored. Take resting heart rates. I had always supposed that a low one (anything below 60 beats per minute when we are still) indicates nothing but good health. It’s more complicated than that. A low rate can leave an individual in a chronic, life-long state of under-arousal, slow to feel fear or empathy and hungry for excitement. Transgression and danger can provide it. The effect starts young: three-year-olds with low rates grow up to be much more aggressive than their classmates at age 11. They don’t necessarily become rule-breakers — bomb disposal experts have very low resting rates — but if the social setting does nothing to channel their restlessness, they may. The relationship between a low rate and antisocial behaviour turns out to be stronger than the relationship between smoking and lung cancer.

The ability to develop a conscience appears to be startlingly physical, too. Raine points out that we learn to behave well as children because we are scolded, slapped or disapproved of when we do something naughty, such as stealing a biscuit. Once we have tried this several times the mere thought of stealing makes us uncomfortable. It’s the accumulation of these experiences, and our desire to avoid the upsetting ones, that creates a conscience.

Future criminals, though, don’t learn from bad experiences as normal people do. In an experiment on almost 1,800 three-year-olds in Mauritius, children were measured on their bodies’ ability to anticipate that a particular tone would be followed by an unpleasant sound. It took only three trials for most children to sweat in anticipation of the harsh noise.

Twenty years later, criminal records showed that 7% of this group had convictions. A search of the original experiment, though, offered an astonishing result. At three, the bodies of most of the criminals-to-be had not anticipated the unpleasant sound to follow. They did not sweat. Raine theorises that they had been unable to learn from negative experiences or construct a conscience because a part of their brain had never developed normally.

This discovery fits with Raine’s own research on the brains of criminals. They are biologically abnormal. PET scans conducted by him on convicted murderers show that their prefrontal cortex is strikingly inactive. That’s critically important because this is the area responsible for anger, self-control, planning, problem-solving and judgment of risk, and yet it functions extremely badly in these people. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, for people diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. Their prefrontal cortex is 11% smaller than that of normal people. Fearless psychopaths, similarly, show almost no functioning in the amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain.

Raine’s argument is that broken brains are a reality we must recognise, whether their origins are genetic, accidental or social. Twin studies indicate that half of our tendency to antisocial behaviour comes from our genes. Shockingly, he shows that the adopted children of criminals are not only far more likely to commit crime than other children, but that the more convictions the biological parents have, the more offending there is in their adopted offspring.

Raine wants us to take the biology of the brain into account, but he is also clear that biology is not destiny. It is the interaction with society that counts. He himself, it turns out, has a low heart rate and a brain scan similar to that of a murderer, and yet he is not, he assures us, an offender.

In the last part of his book he suggests that, armed with our new knowledge, we might wish to take a more interventionist approach to crime. Some of these suggestions are benign: excellent nutrition, enriched teaching and more exercise for small children have a powerful effect on crime rates in adulthood. Others are frankly ­terrifying. Should we take 18-year-olds into luxurious protective custody if the combination of genetic, behavioural and physical evidence indicates they have an 80% chance of committing murder or a 51% chance of carrying out a sexual assault? Should we release sex offenders if they agree to be castrated first?

Raine suggests we consider these suggestions seriously before our kneejerk liberal instincts kick in. I am convinced by his powerful and well-written argument that we seriously misunderstand and mistreat violent criminals now, and that simple ­retribution doesn’t work. For this liberal, though, these particular proposals seem to be replacing one horror with another. I commend his intellectual courage in suggesting them, but I don’t think they will fly.

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