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Published: Wednesday April 16, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday April 17, 2014 MYT 8:37:03 PM

Wired for violence?

A new book explores the biological roots of crime.

Almost a century and a half ago, the Jewish Italian psychiatrist and prison doctor named Cesare Lombroso stared at the base of a criminal’s skull and had an epiphany.

What if the basis for crime originates in the brain, he asked himself?

He came up with a list of traits he thought indicative of a more primitive human state – a sloping forehead, large jaw, a crease in the palm – creating an evolutionary hierarchy of peoples.

However, the arrival of the fascist Benito Mussolini marked the beginning of the end for a biological approach to understanding crime in the 20th century.

In his racial laws of 1938, Mussolini infamously adopted Lombroso’s principles, conveniently tweaking it to place Aryans at the top, and Jews at the bottom of the ladder; a foreshadow of the notorious eugenics movement to come.

It’s no wonder then, that the concept of a biological root for the criminal mind remains taboo, even today.

Scientific advancements in the last decade or so are wearing down the resistance to this concept. Modern brain imaging techniques and breakthroughs in our understanding of genetics and molecular biology have transformed our understanding of the role genes and the brain play in shaping human behaviour. But the picture isn’t black and white.

Neurocriminologist Adrian Raine, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Criminology is a case in point.

The Anatomy of Violence by Adrian Raine takes a look at the biological roots of crime.

Research has associated a number of attributes – difficult birth, early childhood vitamin deficiency, low resting heart rate, abnormal brain structures characteristic of those found in serial killers – with certain types of crime.

Raine ticks all those boxes, but instead of murdering people, he studies murderers, and is one of the word’s most eminent biological criminologists.

He confesses to going through a period of delinquency himself.

At the tender age of 10, he used to brew his own liquor and sell it to relatives and visitors.

He’d use the profits to back horses (supposedly for his mother) at the local corner shop, whose owner was a bookie.

But it didn’t take a lot for him to eventually find better ways of focusing his talents.

“For me, I think it was parents whom I felt loved me,” Raine says in an e-mail interview with Star2. “A consistent, safe and secure home environment. Some stability that grounded me.”

In other words, there are multiple factors – both biological and environmental – that make up the biosocial jigsaw puzzle that marks a life of crime.

We still don’t have all the pieces, or fully understand how they fit together.

But research has given us enough to know that there is, at least, much we could do to improve our current strategy of relying on incarceration.

Overcrowded prisons and a failure to stem the tide of violent crimes, are a sign that a fresh perspective is needed.

And decades of research have given Raine a lot to say about the matter.

Biological roots

Raine’s new book The Anatomy Of Violence is a crash course on killers: what makes them tick, what makes them different from us.

First, he offers a bird’s-eye view.

The !Kung bushmen live in the Kalahari desert, where harsh conditions force people to work together in order to secure their survival.

The only genes or cultures that get passed on are ones that have favour the survival of one’s offspring.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that anthropologists have found that !Kung bushmen place a high value on prosocial traits such as cooperation and reciprocal altruism.

Not so, in the bountiful tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin, home to a tribe called the Munduruku.

The !Kung bushmen live in the Kalahari desert, where harsh conditions force people to work together in order to secure their survival.

The only genes or cultures that get passed on are ones that have favour the survival of one’s offspring.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that anthropologists have found that !Kung bushmen place a high value on prosocial traits such as cooperation and reciprocal altruism.

Not so, in the bountiful tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin, home to a tribe called the Munduruku.

There, less time is occupied with the basics of survival – gossip, fighting, warfare and often violent competition and jostling for best place among the social hierarchy.

And what’s more, being good at the latter is associated with a higher chance of reproductive success.

Same goes for another similar tribe that inhabits a separate area within the Amazon basin, the Yanomamo.

There, aggression is prized. About 44% of all Yanomamo men over the age of 25 have killed. And when you kill, you achieve the status of Unokai and – get this – Unokais on average have more wives, and more children, than non-killers.

In other words, there is a macro view for how some conditions may, over evolutionary spans of time, favour traits we might consider to be “prosocial” – such as good parenting or monogamy.

Others seem to foster behaviours more aligned with psychopathy – manipulation, fearlessness and fighting.

These examples present an interesting case of how environmental conditions across the world may shape the evolution of cultural and behavioural traits.

Obviously, care must be taken in the extrapolation of such qualitative anthropological data in drawing wider conclusions about the human condition.

Such cultural trends would, however, seem to dispel the theory of violence as an anomaly to the human condition, and indicate that sometimes, crime pays, from an evolutionary perspective.

In fact, 98% of all homicides are killings of people who do not share the killer’s genes.

Most deaths resulting from domestic violence, for example, involve a non-blood-related spouse.

In other words, when we kill, we kill smart. In the evolutionary game, we ensure that the selfish gene – our genes – prevail, albeit subconsciously.

Despite the fact that only 1% of babies in England live with step-parents, 53% of all baby killings are perpetrated by one.

So what is it that tips the scale – making some people more likely to commit such crimes than others?

Biosocial recipe for disaster

Raine shows us research indicating genes have a clear role to play.

Variants in genes coding for monoamine oxidase A, neurotrophin, serotonin and dopamine – enzymes and neutrotransmitters involved in the regulation of impulse control, attention and other cognitive functions – are often found in individuals who exhibit violence and aggression.

The same goes for people who exhibit a lower resting heart rate; scientists believe this may lead to a greater sense of fearlessness, resistance to social stressors, and an increase in stimulation-seeking behaviour.

And then there is the brain itself. Modern tools such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography experiments (PET) have shown that criminal brains differ structurally, and in their activity patterns, from the brains of control groups.

All this research may be fascinating, but its implications extend beyond humanity’s perpetual curiosity about the gruesome.

Understanding the biosocial jigsaw puzzle that predisposes someone to a life of crime gives rise to a myriad of sociological implications.

There are multiple factors – both biological and environmental – that make up the biosocial jigsaw puzzle that marks a life of crime. 

There is another important factor to be aware of: different types of criminals differ biologically.

For example, psychopaths are an entirely different species to your run-of-the-mill hothead.

Psychopaths engage in premeditated crimes, and exhibit what scientists call “prosocial aggression”.

Their brains, heart rates and even genetic make-up look different from that of criminals who display reactive aggression, associated with a lack of impulse control and low IQ.

Another important finding is that the environment – something as simple as the “love” Raine felt he received from his parents – is vital.

The emerging new field of epigenetics is beginning to shed light on the complex interplay between social and genetic factors.

Even though 50% of the variation in antisocial behaviour is genetic in origin, the expression of those genes is not fixed.

Social influences, such as maternal care in mice, have been found to actually result in changes in the molecular machinery in control of such gene expression.

Scientists have only just started to uncover how changing conditions in the environment can modify molecular machinery, potentially resulting in varying levels of gene expression that may account for the variation in individual behavioural and personality traits.

Aside from that, other environmental factors affecting the development of criminal behaviour include nutrition, as well as exposure of the baby to harmful chemicals resulting from smoking, or alcohol consumption in a pregnant female.

>The Anatomy of Violence is published by Penguin Books.

Related Story:

A history of violence

Heading off criminal behaviour

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Science & Technology, Science & Technology, violence, neurocriminology, adrian raine

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