Bad brains: Did my DNA make me do it?

Criminal brains
1920s image attempting to associate brain types to criminal behavior. (Credit: Pennsylvania State University Libraries, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Can neuroscience shed light on why people turn violent? Are perpetrators of violence suffering from a medical condition that demands a public health reaction that might radically alter the way criminals—or those views warily—are handled? Did those genetically endowed lesions in my frontal lobe make me do it? Adrian Raine, author of the recently released new book The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime, believes that may be so. Raines taps into the emerging field of neurocriminology, which takes the current fascination with neuroscience —many sober scientists would say overhyped fad—into uncharted legal territory. The book has garnered interesting reviews, most notably in New Scientist (“makes a convincing case that violent criminals are biologically different from the rest of us”) and New York Journal of Books (“The Anatomy of Violence will convince even the most skeptical that there is a genetic or biological cause for the violence exhibited by psychopaths across all cultures.) Not so fast, says Michael Gazzinga in a provocative analysis in The Wall Street Journal. Gazzinga follows the logic of this emerging science as it has made its way into the legal system. In the UK, for example, a new law allows authorities to preemptively lock up as a preventive measure a person deemed suffering from “dangerous and serious personality disorder.” Certainly, as Raine suggests, new perspectives about how the brain works are both interesting and potentially important. Biology undoubtedly plays critical roles in violence. However, considering the current empirically frothy, loosey-goosey state of the ‘science’ of neuroscience, appeals for socially complicated preemptive public health responses and experimental legal interventions may be decidedly premature.

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