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The place where the paths of neuroscience and criminology cross

In Stephen King's best-selling essay, Guns, he compares the photo of a mass murderer that appeared in his school's yearbook, in which "the guy looks pretty much like anyone else," to a police "photo-murder" photograph of that person, in which he looks "like your worst nightmare."

The cover of the book "Guns" by Stephen King
The cover of the book "Guns" by Stephen King

Do criminals look different than non-criminals? Are there patterns that science can discover so that society can identify violent offenders before they break the law or so that it can rehabilitate them afterwards? Criminologist and psychiatrist Adrian Raine from the University of Pennsylvania tries to answer these questions, and similar ones, in his book "The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime" (Pantheon Publishing, 2013). Raine details in his book how research in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience is coming together in an effort to solve the issue. For example, he compares two cases that demonstrate new ways of understanding the origins of crime. The first case is that of "Mr. Opt", a completely normal person who became a pedophile due to a large tumor at the base of his frontal cortex. When the tumor was removed, he returned to being a full human. The second case discusses a rapist-murderer named Donta Page who had a terrible and terrible childhood: he lived in poverty, malnourished and without a father, he was abused, raped and beaten in the head until he needed to be hospitalized several times. Page's brain scan "showed clear signs of reduced activity in the medial and temporal regions of the prefrontal cortex."

The importance of these examples becomes apparent when Ryan describes brain scans he conducted on 41 murderers. In all of them he found significant defects in the prefrontal cortex. Such brain damage "causes the loss of control over the more evolutionarily primitive parts of the brain, such as the limbic system, which produce bare emotions like anger and rage." In general, Raine adds, studies of patients with neurological problems show that "damage to the prefrontal cortex causes [increased] risk-taking, irresponsibility, and breaking the law," along with personality changes such as "impulsivity, loss of self-control, and inability to change the behavior or to restrain it according to the need". In addition, cognitive impairments are caused such as, "loss of mental flexibility and lesser skills in solving problems" which may later cause "dropping out of school, unemployment and financial deprivation, all factors that tilt the course of life in a criminal and violent direction."

Boston Marathon victim Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone, August 2013
Boston Marathon victim Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of "Rolling Stone", August 2013

What is the difference between an aggressive brain tumor and a violent childhood? It is clear that the first case is biological while the second is due to a complicated network of biosocial factors. And yet, says Rein, both raise disturbing moral and legal questions: "If you agree that Mr. Opt was not responsible for his actions because of the tumor in his brain, how will you judge a person who is accused of the same acts that Mr. Opt committed, and instead of a clear and visible tumor, suffers from a subtle brain defect, which results from neurodevelopmental, and that it is difficult to detect by eye through a tomographic brain scan?" Growing up can be treated quickly, but not the consequences of childhood violence.

And to explain violent behavior we must also use the evolutionary psychology of violence and aggression. "From rape to robbery and even theft, evolution gives an advantage to the antisocial and violent behavior of a small minority of the population," Raine writes. Stealing gives the thief more resources needed for survival and reproduction. A reputation for aggression may give males a higher status in the social hierarchy. Blood revenge is an evolutionary strategy for dealing with cheaters and social parasites. And even the murder of children has a certain evolutionary logic, as can be proven from the statistics showing that the chances of a child being murdered by a stepfather, who has an interest in passing on his own genes, are 100 times higher than by his biological father.

Evolutionary psychology and the neuroscience of criminology are the next necessary step towards a more moral world. In his concluding remarks, his son Rain urges "to rise above our feelings of reward and punishment, to turn in the direction of rehabilitation and to engage in a more humane discussion of the roots of violence." Even if there will be those who will object to the biological determinism inherent in such an approach, and those who will shy away from the possibility of preferring rehabilitation over punishment, we can all benefit from a scientific understanding of the real causes of crime.


About the author

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine ( His latest book, The Believing Mind, is out now in paperback. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelshermer

One response

  1. Rein recommends "to rise above our feelings of reward and punishment, turn in the direction of rehabilitation and engage in a more humane discussion of the roots of violence."
    How exactly will you make a thief not steal if there is no threat of imprisonment hovering over him? Scare him with a soul talk and a psychologist? The next day all the banks are robbed - not by someone outside, by their employees.
    And by the way, when the author gives examples of the evolutionary advantage of violence, he also mentions "blood revenge is an evolutionary strategy for dealing with cheaters and social parasites. ” This pretty much knocks Rain's recommendation regarding rehabilitation, and is more encouraging in the direction of prisons.

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