The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

CSI, Science

published June 2013
When neuroscience meets criminology
magazine cover

IN HIS BEST-SELLING ESSAY entitled “Guns,” Stephen King contrasts a mass killer’s school yearbook picture, “in which the guy pretty much looks like anybody,” and the police mug shot of someone who looks “like your worst nightmare.”

Do criminals look different from noncriminals? Are there patterns that science can discover to enable society to identify potential felons before they break the law or to rehabilitate them after? University of Pennsylvania criminologist and psychiatrist Adrian Raine attempts to answer these and related questions his book The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime (Pantheon, 2013). Raine details how evolutionary psychology and neuroscience are converging in this effort. For example, he contrasts two cases that show new ways to look at the origins of wrongdoing. First is the example of “Mr. Oft,” a perfectly normal man turned into a pedophile by a massive tumor at the base of his orbitofrontal cortex; when it was resected, he returned to normalcy. Second, we learn of a murderer-rapist named Donta Page, whose childhood was so horrifically bad—he was impoverished, malnourished, fatherless, abused, raped and beaten on the head to the point of being hospitalized several times—that his brain scan “showed clear evidence of reduced functioning in the medial and orbital regions of the prefrontal cortex.”

The significance of these examples is revealed when Raine reviews the brain scans he made of 41 murderers, in which he found significant impairment of their prefrontal cortex. Such damage “results in a loss of control over the evolutionarily more primitive parts of the brain, such as the limbic system, that generate raw emotions like anger and rage.” Research on neurological patients in general, Raine adds, shows that “damage to the prefrontal cortex results in [increased] risk-taking, irresponsibility, and rule-breaking behavior,” along with personality changes such as “impulsivity, loss of self-control, and an inability to modify and inhibit behavior appropriately” and cognitive impairment such as a “loss of intellectual flexibility and poorer problem-solving skills” that may later result in “school failure, unemployment, and economic deprivation, all factors that predispose someone to a criminal and violent way of life.”

What is the difference between an aggressive tumor and a violent upbringing? One is clearly biological, whereas the other results from a complex web of biosocial factors. Yet, Raine points out, both can lead to troubling moral and legal questions: “If you agree that Mr. Oft was not responsible for his actions because of his orbitofrontal tumor, what judgment would you render on someone who committed the same act as Mr. Oft but, rather than having a clearly visible tumor, had a subtle prefrontal pathology with a neurodevelopmental origin that was hard to see visually from a PET scan?” A tumor is quickly treatable, but an upbringing— not so much.

We also need an evolutionary psychology of violence and aggression. “From rape to robbery and even to theft, evolution has made violence and antisocial behavior a profitable way of life for a small minority of the population,” Raine writes. Theft can grant the perpetrator more resources necessary for survival and reproduction. A reputation for being aggressive can grant males higher status in the pecking order of social dominance. Revenge murders are an evolved strategy for dealing with cheaters and free riders. Even child murder has an evolutionary logic to it, as evidenced by the statistic that children are 100 times more likely to be murdered by their stepfather, who would have an interest in passing on his own genes over a rival’s, than their natural father.

An evolutionary psychology and neuroscience of criminology is the next and necessary step toward producing a more moral world. In Raine’s concluding remarks, he exhorts us to “rise above our feelings of retribution, reach out for rehabilitation, and en gage in a more humane discourse on the causes of violence.” Al though some people may balk at the biological determinism inherent in such an approach and others may recoil from the preference for rehabilitation over retribution, we can all benefit from a scientific understanding of the true causes of crime.

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9 Comments to “CSI, Science”

  1. King Dave @ Newsvine Says:

    Excellent article once again from Michael Shermer.
    So ultimately, Michael must believe in free will, despite what his contemporaries Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne insisting otherwise. Decision making seem to be a major necessity, and the brains primary, evolutionary function. Although we consciously may not be choosing our decisions freely, our subconscious weeds out many poor choices, sometimes, like quoting your day job to start that singing career. In other words, our subconscious is us, unhampered by sensory overload, which is a good thing.
    Without free will, only random chance, and luck must be the case. And a brain tumor and head trauma would be simply bad luck.

  2. Randy Says:

    I fail to understand how you derive from this commentary that Michael believes in free will. Seems to me that the point he is making should and would lead one to the exact opposite conclusion. If a person is disposed toward criminal behavior by either a biological condition, such as a tumor, or as the result of environmental and/or biosocial factors, such as a really crappy upbringing, then how can one be said to have acted in the context of exercising free will? I think it is implied in Michael’s remarks that in either of these cases free will is not at play. Besides, MIchael has said on previous occassions and in different venues that he doubts the existence of free will. I am pretty sure he has written, I forget where, that it is a “useful fiction.” No where in this commentary has he said anything that indicates a change of mind.

  3. Douglas Martin Says:

    This is why “counseling” doesn’t help. How much counseling would it take to get you , the average person , to sexually abuse a child? And absurd notion, right? Pedophilia results from a physiologic process that manifests as behavior. It’s just as absurd to try to ” talk them out of it”.

  4. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    @Douglas. I disagree. History shows us it doesn’t take much ‘counseling’ to get the average person to help commit genocide. Also, Milgram’s famous experiment showed it merely took a gentle authority figure to get average people to ‘torture’ another human being.

    In any case the article does not claim that physiological problems make a person a complete slave to impulse, rather it weakens their control over it. It may well be that after a CT scan revealing the nature of the cause, proper counseling could “talk them out of it more or less”

    Also, one confounding factor – not everyone with prefrontal abnormalities is a criminal… so there must be more going on that just physiology.

  5. dickbd Says:

    Free will is a religious concept that helps let the Big Guy off the hook for some of the bad things that happen, and it also is supposed to be a justification for eternal punishment.

    I have no trouble with the term “autonomy,” but the term free will is meaningless, as it implies uncaused behavior.

  6. King Dave @ Newsvine Says:

    Well maybe Michael Shermer will check in and let us know how he feels about free will. Sam Harris claims we don’t have free will, that its an illusion. I would like to hear what Michael thinks. The two have debated together in the past.
    Perhaps Michael is too busy to read his own stuff?

  7. Fred Kohler Says:

    Free Will is an illusion, but we bring the illusion into operational existence by simply assuming it. The operational illusion is necessary for many purposes, the principal one is to hold people responsible for their behavior. We could not operate society without that assumption. Sometimes the roots of behavior no society could tolerate are fully clear, like in the case of a brain tumor Shermer cites. We may choose to treat such an obvious case, subject to the resources available at that time. Only a little over 100 years ago those resources were not available.

    Bad childhood experiences are to be judged on a gray scale, ranging from totally black to almost white. Our current ability to remedy negative experiences in one’s upbringing is far from certain. To what extent we want to apply resources to treat, or to isolate will always depend on the availability of resources and also be subject to judgment.

    Life unfortunately is not very fair and our ability to remedy this fact is limited.

  8. Paul Harrison Says:

    Part of the problem we are having here is that the term “Free Will” conveys an extreme. If our will is completely “Free’ it implies we have total control over our actions, and all our misdeeds are our fault. The review that sparked this discussion, and experience of everyday life, makes clear that we don’t have that. Normal, healthy and (hopefully) harmless people sometimes do unwise or even bad things, driven by emotions and desires that logic and socialization can’t suppress. To me it seems obvious that modern humans are more like the pilots of a ship or an aircraft. You have well-defined means of maintaining control and staying on course (call it upbringing, common sense, logic, self-interest, whatever), but these can be partially or wholly overridden by an environment that buffets you. For a ship or an aircraft, it’s waves and winds and fog. For humans, its leftover evolutionary adaptations, necessary internal biochemical reactions that sometimes play us false, peer pressure, and any number of other factors, up to and including a brain tumour. So, we can never meaningfully have Free Will, but we do have piloting skills that for most of us most of the time can keep us from doing serious harm to ourselves or others.

  9. King Dave @ Newsvine Says:

    Being as Michael Shermer will not read his own stuff.
    The illusion of free will is that our brain needs to run every decision by our conscious, cognitive part of brain. I clearly does not. I will reference the familiar term, “split second decision.” It is not instinctive behavior, as an animal eluding a predator, the direction it chooses to take is a decision. The outcome is irrelevant.

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