Are we born to be bad?: A new book explores the link between biology and breaking the law

Predicting who'll commit crime is a moral minefield, as Clint Witchalls discovers.

Clint Witchalls
Wednesday 29 May 2013 23:44 BST

Do you have high cheekbones, full lips and large eyes? If you do, you might consider yourself lucky. However, to the 19th-century Italian criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, these "atavistic stigmata" were signs that you were a throwback to an earlier stage of evolution. He would have said that you had the "ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals".

As a medic in the Italian army, Lombroso studied the bodies of war criminals. He identified a number of physical traits, such as a scraggy beard, sloping forehead, and large nose, which criminals had in common. If you had five or more atavistic stigmata, a life of crime was your destiny.

Lombroso's atavistic stigmata was the first "scientific" attempt to understand the biological traits that mark someone out as a criminal. These ideas may seem nutty today, but they were well-received in Victorian times, along with the equally nutty craniometry and phrenology.

Although the fascists and the Nazis embraced Lombroso's ideas, criminology was dominated by social scientists in the 20th century, and they continue to dominate the field today. Their view is that people aren't born criminal; they become criminal through social and environmental influences such as poverty, inequality, neglect, abuse and peer pressure.

Over the past two decades, however, scientists have begun to re-explore the biological roots of crime, only this time they're not examining external physical features, they're looking at genes, hormones, neurotransmitters, heart rates and brain scans.

Criminologist Adrian Raine, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, provides an authoritative and captivating survey of the latest research on the biological basis of crime in his book, The Anatomy of Violence. But it's not all research, there's a personal element too. Raine tells of the time he almost had his throat slit by an intruder in his hotel room while on holiday in Bodrum, Turkey. The incident, he says, left him with a "Jekyll-and-Hyde" attitude to criminals.

When I met with Raine, I asked him if the incident, in 1989, still shaped his views. "It made me more empathic to victims and people wanting retribution," he says. "I'm more dispassionate now. I tried to finish the book on a compassionate note for prisoners, taking a more rehabilitative approach. But about a month ago, my two boys, aged 11, were mugged and robbed outside a movie theatre and one was choked. Since July, our house has been burgled twice and there were another two attempted burglaries. I'm getting tired of it. I'm thinking, 'What the hell? I should be getting out of here'." "Here" being Philadelphia, where Raine lives with his wife and twin sons.

Raine is English, but he moved to America in 1987 because the field of criminology was dominated by social scientists and there was little hope of getting funding for the projects he was interested in. But getting funding on the other side of the Atlantic is no cakewalk either. The National Institutes of Health won't fund research on crime and violence and the National Institute of Justice only funds social and policy research. "They won't touch biological research with a barge pole," says Raine. "This whole area has, historically, been unpopular with the left and the right of politics."

The conservatives are concerned that it will endorse a soft approach to crime if scientists can prove it's not the criminal's fault – it's just bad genes or neurons misfiring. And liberals are concerned about a Minority Report-type future where people are locked up for pre-crimes because they possess biomarkers that mark them out as being at high risk of turning bad.

At the last annual meeting of The American Society of Criminology, Raine counted 957 symposia, 10 of which had anything to do with biology and genetics. "And yet, just taking the behavioural genetic studies, 50 per cent of the variation in antisocial criminal behaviour is genetic," says Raine. "So about half of it is genetic-biological yet only one per cent of criminologists are doing any research on it... even though the body of evidence is accumulating to levels where we can no longer deny the knowledge."

Raine feels that perhaps we have "guilty knowledge", that we are "burying our heads in the sand because we don't want to know that it's there".

That guilty knowledge includes his own study which investigated the link between low resting heart rate – which represents a lack of fear – and antisocial behaviour in boys and girls. He found the association is stronger than that between smoking and lung cancer. Raine says that low heart rate may be one of the heritable mechanisms that account for the transmission of antisocial behaviour.

So does that mean if your child has a low resting heart rate, they have a one-way ticket to a young offender institution? "The whole thing of 'biology is destiny' leads to a somewhat depressing perspective," says Raine. "Biology is not destiny. We can change the biological predispositions for later offending."

Early intervention in improving children's environment seems to have some impact on later offending rates. Raine cites a study he was involved in where 83 children on the island of Mauritius were selected for an "enrichment programme" at the age of three. For two years the children were given better nutrition, more physical exercise and enhanced education, compared with a group of similar kids. Children in the enrichment programme had lower scores for antisocial behaviour at the age of 17, and far lower rates of criminal behaviour at the age of 23 – 35 per cent lower.

Raine says that most of his research can be summarised in a simplistic way as "bad brain, bad behaviour". But he believes the "bad brain" can be repaired through the sorts of interventions mentioned above. "The environment is critically important in shaping brain function and structure. The message I'd get out to social scientists is: you needn't be scared about a biological approach."

Raine really wants to work with the social scientists to "solve the jigsaw puzzle of violent offending". So why do they seem so resistant to accept any biological role in violent crime?

"Their view is if we open our minds to a biological cause of crime, it will take the spotlight off important social problems such as the inequities in society, like rundown neighbourhoods, poverty, and income disparities." But, Raine adds, there is another problem. "At another level, we must recognise that there has been a terrible history of misuse of biological research, such as eugenics. We can't ignore that and we have to learn the lessons from history."

I can't help feel that Raine massively undermines this position in the final chapter of his book by mixing biology and public policy in the sort of way that would have social scientists running for the hills.

He imagines a bleak future where violent crime is out of hand and the government has introduced something called the Lombroso Program. It's 2034 and technology has advanced to the point where scientists can determine with 79 per cent accuracy whether you will commit a violent crime in the next five years by examining your biological make-up: your genes, brain anatomy and neurochemistry. As an aside, Raine mentions that social and environmental data is also taken into account, but they're not part of the "Fundamental Five Functions", which are biological.

All men aged 18 and over have to attend a hospital for tests. If they are found to be "Lombroso positive" (LP), they are banged up indefinitely, although they can be released if their risk profile changes due to aging or treatment. Raine describes these mass detention centres, that allow conjugal visits on weekends, as "homes away from home". "It sounds quite cushy," he says, "but remember that the LPs have not actually committed a crime."

As a result of this programme, homicide rates are reduced by 25 per cent. "Oddly enough," Raine writes, "many LPs are not too dissatisfied with their lot." Yes, very odd.

He admits that there are "civil-liberty issues" with locking people up who are merely at risk of committing a crime, but, he says, there are civil-liberty issues involved in not doing anything when you know someone has a 79 per cent chance of committing a serious violent act. Raine says that although some people will be locked up who do not pose a risk, "the harsh reality of daily life is that we have to balance risks with benefits".

Raine transcribes part of an interview with the BBC's Newsnight host, Jeremy Paxman, and civil liberties advocate, Shami Chakrabarti. Paxman asks Chakrabarti if she would approve of locking someone up if there was a 100 per cent chance that they would commit a violent crime. Chakrabarti says no, she would not.

Raine is clearly appalled by this answer. He writes: "In striking out for liberal democracy we must all look down at the blood we have on our hands – the blood of innocent lives that could have been saved had we only chosen to act."

One hundred per cent certainty about future events seems unlikely to ever be a reality – it would suggest zero per cent free will – but what per cent of risk would Raine accept before deciding to lock someone up?

"If someone said my kid had a 50 per cent chance of becoming a violent offender, I'd act," says Raine. "I'd have to. A 50 per cent chance of ruining his life, my life, his brother's life, the victim's life. For me, I feel it would be irresponsible for me not to do anything, to say, I'm going to take my chances, even if it was a residential programme for two years, even if it was a potentially stigmatising programme."

But Raine accepts that 50 per cent is not where everyone will draw a line. "I think those chances will vary for most of us," he says.

Indeed, they will.

'The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime' by Adrian Raine is out now (Allen Lane, £25)

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in