The anatomy of violence: the biological roots of crime (Adrian Raine)

Written by Dave Clarke on .

Adrian Raine

Allen Lane (2013)

ISBN: 978-1-846 -14307-6

Adrian Raine is the Richard Perry University Professor in the Department of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. For the past thirty-five years his research has focused on the neurobiological and biosocial basis of antisocial behaviour, and ways to prevent and treat it in both children and adults. He will be delivering a lecture at the OUPS Conference in July.

‘My brain made me do it!’ For some time now US defendants have turned to science to try to explain crimes. In actual fact there is a real increase in the numbers of accused persons (or their briefs) arguing that their brains were to blame for their crimes and relying on scans of a dubious nature and other controversial or unproven neuroscience. The Defence position mount ever increasing forms of neurological evidence to show that there clients are not fully responsible for their criminal actions. This growing trend in the US is also the setting for Adrian Raine’s book.

Adrian Raine in ‘The Anatomy of Violence’ suggests that biology affects violence but realises that there is not one single cause or a single solution to the problem. He uses Phineas Gage as example of a changed person after a horrific accident in which a large metal pole went up through his jaw and continued up through his brain. After the accident Gage’s whole personality changed after removal of part his brain. Raine notes that ‘We are criminals, killers, liars and cheats because crime pays biologically’. In the book he goes from biology to behaviour mediated through genes and the brain, with biology being dominant. He also sees that criminal tendencies are strongly inherited.

Raine also points out that normal people (including himself) have brains very like the brains of serial killers and comments that we are the playthings of our brains and free will is nothing more than an illusion. Ultimately, it appears that he regards crime as a clinical disorder and that neuroscience should play an increasingly important part in the legal system, especially with regard to sentencing. This is extremely controversial as you would imagine.

In the introduction of the book Raines highlights the position that the dominant model for understanding criminal behaviour has been, for most of the twentieth century, one of predominately social and sociological model. His argument is that this single perspective is fundamentally imperfect. Biological aspects he suggests should also have a place in crime that affects our societies. He believes that this position is starting to play a part in public awareness.

The book is full of interesting and relevant research and he evidences some of the most prolific killers over the last hundred years or so. The book is partly shaped by each chapter looking at a different part of the brain and assessing crimes committed by those whose area of the brain is responsible for their misdemeanours. This is an interesting anatomic approach to say the least but it works. There are a few pages of colour plates which show the difference between a good functioning brain and those of the criminal or subfunctioning brains of murders and offenders. The bottom line, according to Raines, is that these people simply cannot help themselves.

Unfortunately Adrian Raines’s alternative recipe for these people by putting them on a medical footing and substituting conventional retribution by treatment will not sit too well with a lot of people. It is an interesting concept but sedatives, change of diet and a whole host of early interventions probably will not cut it with the well-established individuals of the justice system. I look forward to Adrian speaking at Conference in July..

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