on The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime by Adrian Raine (Pantheon)

On June 25, Judge Carlos Samour agreed to give a Colorado state mental hospital more time to complete its examination of James Holmes, the 26-year old charged with killing 12 people and injuring 70 others in an Aurora theater last July. “I don’t think I have a whole lot of choice,” said the judge of the extension. Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

RaineBrain.jpegBut if you believe that our justice system now takes psychological and behavioral analysis into full consideration, Adrian Raine is ready to argue with you. He says, “You can hardly open a newspaper or magazine without reading about a new breakthrough in how genes and the brain shape our personality and influence the moral and financial decisions we make … So why would they not also influence whether we commit a crime or not?” For Raine, “genetic and biological factors interact with social factors in predisposing someone to later antisocial and violent behavior. So yes, individual genes are important -- but in a specific social context.”

By keeping his prose snappy, maintaining a familiar tone with while not talking down to the reader, Raine presents a trove of persuasive results from several studies. One may be convinced that “the less serotonin you have, the more rash you may be,” and that failure to produce an enzyme called MAOA may hamper “neurotransmitters involved in impulse control, attention, and other cognitive functions.” Studies of offspring from criminal parents suggest a genetic influence since they become criminals at a higher rate than children with legally abiding parents. For other children, poor nutrition, head trauma from abuse, and genetic factors lead to crime in specific socio-economic climates.

RaineCover.jpgIn one section, Raine discusses a study of spousal abusers who were found to “be slower in responding to emotional words … showed much greater activation of the emotional amygdala to negative-emotion words, together with less activation in the regulatory prefrontal cortex … [and] experience greater visual arousal when exposed to threatening stimuli.” He claims “spousal-abusers are constitutionally different from other men.”

Then comes his concluding assertion:

“I’m not saying that abusers are not to blame. And I’m not saying that all abusers are like this. But I do think that we need to recognize that there’s more to domestic violence than the traditional feminist perspective cares to admit. Feminists argue that the cause of spousal abuse lies in a patriarchal society that sanctions men’s using physical power to control women. We argue instead that neurobiology nudges some men to overreact at home and that we need to consider a contribution by the brain to spousal abuse. Why? Because traditional treatment programs to treat spousal-abusers based on the feminist perspective simply do not work.”

Raine admits to “something of a Jekyll-and-Hyde attitude about my work investigating the biological basis to crime.” The Anatomy of Violence is layered on a foundation of research, but extends outward on a lattice of disclaimers and cautionary sidebars. “We can question evolutionary theory because it can be too all-encompassing,” he writes. “We cannot take it too far in explaining violence.” But his passion for biology takes him as far as he can go and then some. If spousal abusers are “constitutionally different” from other men, then would not a “public health approach to violence” go looking for men with such characteristics? Raine envisions a time when men must undergo brain scans and DNA collection so that authorities may predict their propensity for violence and crime and treat them preventatively.

But as far as the short-term future goes, not only do Raine's data and incriminations not find an immediate application, but he never seems to entirely dismiss the potential in everyone to act violently since this behavior lurks in our genetic past and present.

Raine.jpegSome parts of Anatomy of Violence grow out of liberal orthodoxy: kids who do poorly at school get low-paying jobs and thus turn to violent crime for resources as dictated by their “selfish genes.” Thus, invest in education. Other times, as when discussing wife beating, he challenges the orthodoxy. Raine may also insist on the primacy of personal responsibility and envision Orwellian programs. In other words, he may be unpredictable and self-contradictory at times. His conflation of violence and crime, especially non-violent crime, can cause his arguments to become unfocused or too broad. What about state-sponsored violence and genocide? Are they attributable to “prefrontal cortex dysfunction”?

Some of Raine’s most engaging material concerns the behaviors of specific criminals, such as Richard Speck, Randy Kraft (“the freeway killer”), Ted Kaczynski, and Henry Lee Lucas. As I read, recent mass crimes like the Newtown school murders and the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords came to mind – and then also, Jack Ruby.

On February 17, 1964, Ruby went on trial for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Like millions of other Americans, ten of the twelve jurors had watched live television coverage of the shooting on November 24, 1963. His lawyer, Melvin Belli, structured his temporary insanity defense on the claim that Ruby suffered from “psychomotor epileptic seizures” causing him to behave violently and irrationally. Presenting the findings from electroencephalograph images of Ruby’s brain, Dr. Frederic A. Gibbs concluded that the recordings showed “seizure disorders of the psychomotor type.”

RaineRuby.jpegDr. Roy Schafer of Yale testified that Ruby "appears to feel not altogether in control of his body actions, as if they occur independently of his conscious will at times." A criminal psychologist, Dr. Manfred Guttmacher, testified that he believed Ruby's brain had been "damaged" but could not elaborate. Guttmacher believed that Ruby had suffered a "functional psychosis" at the time of the shooting, "a psychotic condition for which there is no known organic cause.”

On March 14, the prosecution presented its rebuttal of the defense’s medical assertions. Just two days later, the jury found Ruby guilty of “murder with malice” for which he received the death penalty. Outside the courthouse, a man and woman picketed with signs saying “A Person Who Does Wrong Is Not Insane” and “Psychiatry Is Not The Hope of Killers.”

In 1966, a Texas appellate court agreed to retry Ruby, but not in regard to his epilepsy claims. He died in January, 1967. Upon autopsy, his brain was found to contain multiple lesions, perhaps resulting from metastasized cancer. But perhaps not.

[Published April 30, 2013. 478 pages, $35.00 hardcover]

On Constitutional Difference

I just read your Raine's "Roots Of Crime" review. Very interesting. Thank you for such a thought-provoking piece. I'd have been jumping up and down too.

I know that some men are more inclined to violence than others; I've spent lots of time with men under considerable stress and some snap much faster than others. Now we've got the biological proof that some men are also genetically pre-disposed to violence. This will lead us into the very murky waters of how legally responsible a person is for their biology, i.e. could they and/or did they take reasonable steps to take that foot off the gas; could they have foreseen the consequences of their flawed character; and how guilty they should be found for following their true nature.

Years ago when I wrote rash letters to the editor, I once weighed in on the inadvisability of some people to have kids -- when the parents, obviously damaged products themselves, are clearly pre-disposed to mishandle their eventual offspring. Rights and morality and legality were all jousting on the day, the uproar was marvellous. But there too, it seems that a pre-disposition to neglect & violence might also be ascertained.

All of which carries the implication of whether we the people have a responsibility to protect we our people. To remove (or at least depotentiate) those who, by their unfortunate genes, will harm, maim, or kill the rest of us.

Though of course this then opens the box on what types of madness (or even difference) society will decide are unacceptable. I suspect that the community will declare it another scientific box of worms, largely unsupported by rights principles and legislation. Only my opinion.