In 1987, Adrian Raine, who describes himself as a neurocriminologist, moved from Britain to the US. His emigration was prompted by two things. The first was a sense of banging his head against a wall. Raine, who grew up in Darlington and is now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was a researcher of the biological basis for criminal behaviour, which, with its echoes of Nazi eugenics, was perhaps the most taboo of all academic disciplines.
In Britain, the causes of crime
were allowed to be exclusively social and environmental, the result of
disturbed or impoverished nurture, rather than fated and genetic nature.
To suggest otherwise, as Raine felt compelled to, having studied under Richard Dawkins
and been persuaded of the "all-embracing influence of evolution on
behaviour", was to doom yourself to an absence of funding. In America,
there seemed more open-mindedness on the question and, as a result, more
money to explore it. There was also another good reason why Raine
headed initially to California: there were more murderers to study than
there were at home.
When Raine started doing brain scans of
murderers in American prisons, he was among the first researchers to
apply the evolving science of brain imaging to violent criminality. His
most comprehensive study, in 1994, was still, necessarily, a small
sample. He conducted PET [positron emission tomography] scans of 41
convicted killers and paired them with a "normal" control group of 41
people of similar age and profile. However limited the control, the
colour images, which showed metabolic activity in different parts of the
brain, appeared striking in comparison. In particular, the murderers'
brains showed what appeared to be a significant reduction in the
development of the prefrontal cortex, "the executive function" of the
brain, compared with the control group.
The advancing understanding of neuroscience
suggested that such a deficiency would result in an increased
likelihood of a number of behaviours: less control over the limbic
system that generates primal emotions such as anger and rage; a greater
addiction to risk; a reduction in self-control; and poor problem-solving
skills, all traits that might predispose a person to violence.
two decades ago, these were difficult findings to publish, however.
When Raine presented a far less controversial paper in 1994 to a peer
group, one that showed a combination of birth complications and early
maternal rejection in babies had significant correlation with
individuals becoming violent offenders 18 years later, it was denounced
as "racist and ideologically motivated" and, according to Nature
magazine, was simply further strong evidence that "the uproar
surrounding attempts to find biological causes for social problems will
continue". Similarly, when, 15 years ago, at the urging of his friend
Jonathan Kellerman, the child psychologist and crime writer, Raine put
together a proposal for a book on some of his scientific findings, no
publisher would touch it. That book, The Anatomy of Violence, a clear-headed, evidence-based and carefully provocative account of Raine's 35 years of study, has only now appeared.
reason for this delay seems mired in ideological enmities. For all
Raine's rigour, his discipline of "neurocriminology" still remains
tarnished, for some, by association with 19th-century phrenology, the
belief that criminal behaviour stemmed from defective brain organisation
as evidenced in the shape of the skull. The idea was first proposed by
the infamous Franz Joseph Gall, who claimed to have identified over- or
underdeveloped brain "organs" that gave rise to specific character: the
organ of destructiveness, of covetousness and so on, which were
recognisable to the phrenologist by bumps on the head. Phrenology was
widely influential in criminal law in both the United States and Europe
in the middle of the 1800s, and often used to support crude racial and
class-based stereotypes of criminal behaviour.
thinking was developed further in 1876 by Cesare Lombroso, an Italian
surgeon, after he conducted a postmortem on a serial murderer and
rapist. Lombroso discovered a hollow part of the killer's brain, where
the cerebellum would be, from which he proposed that violent criminals
were throwbacks to less evolved human types, again identifiable by
ape-like physical characteristics. The political manipulation of such
hypotheses in the eugenics movement eventually saw them wholly outlawed
As one result, after the second world war, crime
became attributable to economic and political factors, or psychological
disturbances, but not to biology. Prompted by advances in genetics
and neuroscience, however, that consensus is increasingly fragile, and
the implications of those scientific advances for law – and for concepts
such as culpability and responsibility – are only now being tested.
is by no means alone in this argument, though his highly readable book
serves as an invaluable primer to both the science and the ethical
concerns. As the polymath David Eagleman,
director of neuroscience and law at Baylor College in Texas, recently
pointed out, knowledge in this area has advanced to the point where it
is perverse to be in denial. What are we to do, for example, Eagleman
asked, with the fact that "if you are a carrier of one particular set of
genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four
times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You're three
times as likely to commit a robbery, five times as likely to commit
aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder and
13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offence. The overwhelming
majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1% of death row inmates do…
Can we honestly say that the carriers of those genes have exactly the
same range of choices in their behaviour as those who do not possess
them? And if they do not, should they be judged and punished by the same
Raine's work is full of this kind of statistic and
this kind of question. (One of his more startling findings is the
extraordinarily high level of psychopathic markers among employees of a
temping agency he studied, which came as no surprise to him.
"Psychopaths can't settle, they need to move around, look for new
stimulation," he says.) He draws on a number of studies that show the
links between brain development, in particular – and brain injury and
impairment by extension – and criminal violence. Already legal defence
teams, particularly in the US, are using brain scans and neuroscience as
mitigating evidence in the trials of violent criminals and sex
offenders. In this sense, Raine believes a proper public debate on the
implications of his science is long overdue.
Raine was in part
drawn to his discipline by his own background. In the course of scanning
his murderers, Raine also examined his own PET profile and found,
somewhat to his alarm, that the structure of his brain seemed to share
more characteristics with the psychopathic murderers than with the
He laughs quickly when I ask how that discovery
felt. "When you have a brain scan that looks like a serial killer's it
does give you pause," he says. And there were other factors: he has
always had a markedly low heart rate (which his research has shown to be
a truer indicator of a capacity for violence than, say, smoking is as a
cause of lung cancer). He was plagued by cracked lips as a child,
evidence of riboflavin deficiency (another marker); he was born at home;
he was a blue baby, all factors in the kind of developmental
difficulties that might set his own researcher's alarm bells ringing.
he says, "I was on the spectrum. And in fact I did have some issues. I
was taken to hospital aged five to have my stomach pumped because I had
drunk a lot of alcohol. From age nine to 11 I was pretty antisocial, in a
gang, smoking, letting car tyres down, setting fire to mailboxes, and
fighting a lot, even though I was quite small. But at that age I burnt
out of that somehow. At 11, I changed schools, got more interested in
studying and really became a different sort of kid. Still, when I was
graduating and thinking 'what shall I research?', I looked back on the
essays I'd written and one of the best was on the biology of
psychopaths; I was fascinated by that, partly, I think, because I had
always wondered about that early behaviour in myself."
began to explore the subject more, he began to look at the reasons he
became a researcher of violent criminality, rather than a violent
criminal. (Recent studies suggest his biology might equally have
propelled him towards other careers – bomb disposal expert, corporate
executive or journalist – that tend to attract individuals with those
"psychopathic" traits.) Despite his unusual brain structure, he didn't
have the low IQ that is often apparent in killers, or any cognitive
dysfunction. Still, as he worked for four years interviewing people in
prison, a lot of the time he was thinking: what stopped me being on
their side of the bars?
Raine's biography, then, was a good
corrective to the seductive idea that our biology is our fate and that a
brain scan can tell us who we are. Even as he piles up evidence to show
that people are not the free-thinking, rational agents they like to
imagine themselves to be – entirely liberated from the limitations set
by our inherited genes and our particular neuroanatomy – he never
forgets that lesson. The question remains, however, that if these
"biomarkers" do exist and exert an influence – and you begin to see the
evidence as incontrovertible – then what should we do about them?
we should do nothing, simply ignore them, assume, when it comes to
crime, that every individual has much the same brain, the same capacity
to make moral choices, as we tend to do now. As Raine suggests: "The
sociologist would say if we concentrate on these biological things, or
even acknowledge them, we are immediately taking our eyes off other
causes of criminal behaviour – poverty, bad neighbourhoods, poor
nutrition, lack of education and so on. All things that need to change.
And that concern is correct. It is why social scientists have fought
this science for so long."
The implication of neurocriminology,
though – where it differs from the crude labelling of phrenology, say –
is that the choice it presents is not an either/or between nurture and
nature, but a more complex understanding of how our biology reacts with
its environment. Reading Raine's account of the most recent research
into these reactions, it still seems to me quite new and surprising that
environmental factors change the physical structure of the brain. We
tend to talk about a child's development in terms of more esoteric ideas
of mind rather than material brain structures, but the more you look at
the data the clearer the evidence that abuse or neglect or poor
nutrition or prenatal smoking and drinking have a real effect on whether
or not those healthy neural connections – which lead to behaviour
associated with maturity, self-control and empathy – are made. The
science of this is called epigenetics, the way our environment regulates
the expression of our innate genetic code.
One result of
epigenetics might be, Raine suggests, that "social scientists can
actually win from this. I mean, if a child experiences a murder in his
or her neighbourhood, we have found that their test scores on a range of
measures go down. There is something happening in the brain as a result
of that experience of violence to affect cognition. So social
scientists can have their cake and eat it. They can say look, we can
prove that these environmental social factors are causing brain
impairment, which leads to some real, measurable problems."
difficulty of embracing this "epigenetical" idea of crime is the degree
to which such factors should be taken into account in courts of law.
There have been several landmark cases in recent years in which
particular neurological disorders caused by blows to the skull or
undetected tumours have resulted in arguable changes in character and
behaviour – and the violent or sexual crime is blamed on the disorder,
not the individual. In most of these cases, it has been argued by the
prosecution that brain imaging is prejudicial, that the brightly
coloured pictures are too compelling to a jury and more emotional than
scientific. But if neural scanning becomes more routine, and
neuroscience more precise, will there not come a point where most
violent behaviour – that of the Boston bombers, say, or the Newtown
killer – is argued away in court as an illness, rather than a crime?
believes that there might well be. He even likens such a shift to our
change in perception of cancer, until fairly recently often deemed the
"fault" of the sufferer because of some repressive character trait. "If
we buy into the argument that for some people factors beyond their
control, factors in their biology, greatly raise the risk of them
becoming offenders, can we justly turn a blind eye to that?" Raine asks.
"Is it really the fault of the innocent baby whose mother smoked
heavily in pregnancy that he went on to commit crimes? Or if he was
battered from pillar to post, or even if he was born with a, abnormally
low resting heart rate, how harshly should we punish him? How much
should we say he is responsible? There is, and increasingly will be, an
argument that he is not fully responsible and therefore, when we come to
think of punishment, should we be thinking of more benign institutions
But then there is a further thought, that if you
start to see criminality as a biological illness, where does a sense of
retributive justice stand?
Raine himself was forced to face this
dilemma when he became a victim of violent crime. As he recounts in his
book, while on holiday in Turkey several years ago, a burglar entered
his bedroom and in the struggle that followed tried to cut Raine's
throat with a knife. He fought the attacker off, but when the following
morning he was presented with two possible suspects by police, he admits
to not only choosing the one who looked most like a thug [the man later
admitted the crime, under duress], but also to wanting to visit on him
the terror he had felt himself.
"I wasn't proud to discover I was a
bit Jekyll and Hyde – perhaps we all are in that situation," Raine says
when I ask him about his response. "The rational Dr Jekyll knew that if
I took this man's brain scan and found he had prefrontal dysfunction,
low resting heart rate, a background of neglect, then of course I should
cut him some slack. With understanding comes mercy. But the Mr Hyde,
the emotional voice in my head, was saying nothing of the sort: he was
saying, he cut my throat, I want to cut his. That event changed me from
someone dead set against the death penalty to someone who wouldn't be
ruled out of a jury on a capital case in America. I think now my mind
will always go backwards and forwards on this, the scientific
understanding of the causes of crime versus being a human in society
with all these gut reactions to people who commit awful crimes."
the neuroscience raises as many questions as it answers about
culpability after a crime has been committed, what about its role in
crime prevention? Here, the questions seem no less fraught.
One of them was posed a couple of years ago by the arch-inquisitor Jeremy Paxman of Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, on Newsnight.
"If science could predict with 100% certainty who was going to commit a
violent crime, would it be legitimate to act before they commit that
Chakrabarti was in no doubt: "I would have to say that in a
liberal society of human beings, and not animals, my answer to your
question would be 'no'."
But if such intervention could prevent
Newtown, you wonder, or Dunblane, would any of us be quite so certain?
The fact is that the reality will always be a much greyer area because
even the most nuanced neuroscience will never produce a perfect
prediction of human behaviour. But is there a point at which the science
– in identifying the possibility of repeat offending, for example –
will be accurate enough to warrant routine scanning of those on the
sexual offenders' register?
"The fact is," Raine says, "parole
boards are making exactly these kind of predictive decisions every day
about which prisoner or young offender we are going to release early,
often with crummy evidence. At the moment, the predictors are social and
behavioural factors, marital status, your past record. What is not used
are biological measures. But I believe that if we added those things
even now into the equation, we could only improve the prediction."
cites two very recent brain-imaging studies to back this up. One is a
study in New Mexico in which prisoners are scanned on release. "What
they are discovering is that if the functioning of the anterior
cingulate, part of the limbic system, is lower than normal before
release, they are twice as likely to be reconvicted in the next three
years. And that marker is more accurate a guide than all other social
factors," Raine says. A second study apparently shows if a released
prisoner has a significantly smaller volume in the amygdala, the
almond-shaped part of the brain crucial for processing memory and
emotion, he or she is three times more likely to reoffend. "Now, this is
only two studies, but what they are beginning to show is proof of
concept, that if we added neurological factors into the equation we
could do a better job at predicting future behaviour."
At the end
of his book, Raine suggests various possible Orwellian futures of such
science, an ethical "slippery slope" of interventions that ultimately
imagines a society that assesses the biological risk of all individuals –
a wide-scale version of We Need to Talk About Kevin – and
pre-emptively locks up those at the extreme end of the curve (a sort of
evidence-based Guantánamo). He by no means advocates any of it, though
when I ask if he would have his own children, two boys of 11, scanned,
he suggests he probably would.
"If there was the opportunity for
screening at school or through a GP programme, would I do it? Well, if
my kids had problems, as a parent I would want to know about them and I
would want to know how I might deal with them. If you brought in such
things as emotion regulation and impulse control, which we know are risk
factors for behaviour, then to me, as a parent, I would sort of want to
know what could be done to help with those."
It is perhaps not
too wildly far-fetched to imagine that such scans will one day be as
routine as immunisation programmes; the bigger question then will be how
we begin to react to the results. Raine rather likes the idea of public
health programmes as crime prevention: "The teenage brain is still very
malleable. There is good evidence from randomised control testing that
omega-3 [fish oil] has a positive effect on young offenders, and even
mindfulness seems to improve behaviour and brain structures."
You can't help thinking: if only it were as simple as that.