Review: The promises and perils of bioprediction
THE ANATOMY OF VIOLENCE: The Biological Roots of Crime. By Adrian Raine. Pantheon. 478 pages. $35.
Society has long been interested in predicting and preventing criminal behavior. Given the widespread emotional and economic costs of crime, this interest is understandable.
However, as researchers continue to learn more about the “biomarkers” of criminality, that is, the neurological, psychological, genetic and environmental factors that can be predictive of criminal behavior, we must proceed with extreme caution. The search for the biological roots of crime has a dark history.
In his thought-provoking book “The Anatomy of Violence,” Adrian Raine does an excellent job familiarizing readers with some of the cutting-edge research from the exciting new field of neurocriminology.
As one of the world’s leading authorities on violence, Raine is perfectly situated to shed light on the potential promises and perils of using bioprediction for the purposes of crime prevention.
Raine begins in the late 1800s with Cesare Lombroso’s theory that some criminals can be identified via both physical abnormalities (sloping foreheads and oddly shaped ears, for example) and behavioral abnormalities (e.g., impulsivity, absence of remorse and even excessive tattooing).
As Raine readily admits, Lombroso’s once influential views about the origins of criminality “turned out to be socially disastrous.”
By the early 20th century, biological theories of crime started finding tragic expression in the “racial purity” laws of Hitler, Mussolini and others. Once individuals (or even entire races) are “diagnosed” as biologically regressive, inferior, antisocial or morally “feebleminded,” we are only a few precarious steps removed from apartheid, slavery, eugenics and genocide.
So, needless to say, the history lesson Raine teaches us in his book is an especially important one.
Raine also does a good job familiarizing readers with some of the fascinating yet troubling recent findings on the biomarkers of violence and crime.
Many of the risk factors he explores may be common knowledge to some: Men are more likely to commit violent crimes than women; childhood abuse confers an increased risk for future violence; childhood poverty and poor nutrition can often lead to adolescent and adult criminality; and brain damage can make people more impulsive and thus more likely to engage in antisocial behavior.
Other variables, however, are likely to be more surprising: people with naturally low resting heart rates are more likely to be violent than those with normal rates; children who are exposed to lead and similar toxins are far more likely to be violent later in life than those who are not similarly exposed; and people who have diets rich in fish (and hence, omega 3 fatty acids) are less likely to engage in anti-social behavior.
In addition to these risk factors, Raine also discusses several studies involving identical twins that provide compelling evidence that some people are born with specific genetic markers that make them more prone to antisocial behavior than people lacking these markers.
Moreover, when these genetically at-risk individuals also experience hardship, neglect or abuse in childhood, the gene-environment interaction that results can make these children several hundred times more likely to commit violent crimes later in life than children who do not have these risk factors.
While these and similar findings are both profound and promising, they nevertheless generate a number of unanswered questions.
For example, who should have the power and authority to screen for the biomarkers of violence and criminality? When should such screening be carried out and who should be screened? What are we supposed to do with people who “test positive” for criminality or those we deem to be “born bad”?
Finally, what legal protections, if any, should we put in place to protect our basic civil liberties, including our right to be innocent until proven guilty?
Anticipating these and related concerns, Raine has us imagine a future society that has adopted a purely public health approach to antisocial behavior. The government has initiated a program called Legal Offensive on Murder: Brain Research Operation for the Screening of Offenders (LAMBROSO) whereby all men over the age of 18 are screened for the biomarkers for violence and criminality. Those who have a sufficient number of risk factors will be humanely but indefinitely “quarantined” in the name of public safety.
Some readers will surely recoil at the very thought of a LAMBROSO-style pre-crime unit, evoking as it does the sort of dystopian futures portrayed in Philip K. Dick’s “The Minority Report” and Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange.”
Others will think that a preventive approach to crime like the one suggested by Raine, for all its problems, is still preferable to the antiquated retributive approach of our current legal system. Which (if either) of these two responses to crime is better is for each of us to decide on our own.
But before we take sides in the debate about bioprediction and crime prevention, we must first pay close attention to the most compelling cautionary tale in “The Anatomy of Violence,” namely, Raine’s own life.
As he candidly confesses from the start, not only has he been the victim of a brutal attack, but Raine also has several of the biomarkers of criminality discussed in his book: early childhood adversity, low resting heart rate, structural brain abnormalities that are consistent with those found in psychopaths, etc.
So, if we had already adopted a LAMBROSO-style approach to crime, Raine may never have written such an important and timely book. In this way, he serves as a stark reminder of just how slippery the slopes of bioprediction and crime prevention can be.
Reviewer Thomas Nadelhoffer is an assistant professor of philosophy at College of Charleston. His research focuses on interdisciplinary issues at the crossroads of philosophy, psychology and the law.