Two weeks ago Prof. Adrian Raine spoke at the regular All Souls criminology seminar. His fascinating and at times controversial presentation, based around his recent book The Anatomy of Violence: Biological Roots of Crime, elicited two contrasting responses from Centre students. In a linked pair of blogs they provide both reports and critiques.

First, Natalia Toh, MSc candidate.

On the 27th of February, former Oxonian Adrian Raine addressed the All Souls seminar on neurobiological and social roots of crime in violent offending.

Do we exercise free will over our life choices, or are some of us genetically predisposed to violent crime? The answer, Raine suggests, lies somewhere in between. Importantly, he opened his talk with the caveat that his theory does not purport to account for all types of criminal offending: not all types of crime are rooted in biological predispositions. To some extent, this view reinforces extant criminological perspectives on the differing motivations to different types of crime. In Raine’s view, the relationship between genetics and violent crime is correlational, not determinative.

The distinctiveness of the criminal brain: all roads lead to Lombroso

Prenatal risk factors No account of neurocriminological research is complete without a revisitation of Lombrosian physiognomy and the proposition that you could identify the “born criminal” by his sloping forehead and unusually large ears. Notwithstanding that these ideas received a warm reception in parts of nineteenth-century Europe and the United States, the mere mention of ‘genetics’ and ‘predispositions to criminality’ today justifiably sets off alarm bells given its close association with eugenics and the Third Reich. But sans the racism and head circumferences, is there potential for biology to provide solutions to criminology (or in Raine’s words, a “social horse dragging the biology cart”)? Raine took the audience through extant research on the effects of maternal-foetal health on future risk of offspring offending - from the effects of wartime famine on expectant mothers and increased risk for offspring’s antisocial behaviour (Neugebauer), smoking and effects on the unborn child (Brennan et al), to the effects of foetal alcohol syndrome on increased risk of juvenile delinquency (Streissguth et al). Thus far, the proposition that smoking, alcoholism, or an unhealthily restricted diet can have harmful effects on the unborn child’s neurological development seems relatively innocuous. The idea that these harmful effects specifically predispose an infant to violence is altogether a more contentious one, since the ‘neurological predisposition to violence’ seems to relegate to the sidelines critical non-biological factors that influence human behaviour, such as Shaw & McKay’s ecological factors.

Brain mechanisms Raine explained that poor frontal function in the brain, thought to be responsible for impulse control, is typically associated with antisocial behaviour and criminal offending. Interestingly, scans of serial killers’ brains were not found to have this type of frontal impairment, lending scientific resonance to the legal separation of the concept of “premeditation” and “malice aforethought”, as opposed to a mere “loss of control”. So Raine’s hypothesis appears to be concerned with a very specific type of violent offending - the one-time murderer with poor impulse control.

Moral decision-making in psychopaths He is particularly interested in the amygdala, an almond-shaped region of the brain thought to play a pivotal role in producing fear. In behavioural psychiatry, it is widely hypothesized that deficient “fear conditioning”  (our instinctive ability to form Pavlovian-type warning stimuli) has a role to play in determining future criminality. Raine’s longitudinal study of Mauritian children measured their ‘fear responses’ by attaching them to sweat electrodes at ages 3 and 23. Results obtained supported his theory: abnormally low emotional reactivity (measured by physical manifestations of fear, such as sweating) in children signalled a higher risk of future criminality. According to Raine, the “normal” crime-averse individual avoids situations and behaviour which their brain associates with future punishment and feelings of fear. The ‘fearless’ individual is less likely to do so.

In 2009, researchers compared 27 psychopaths (those with severe antisocial personality disorder) to 32 non-psychopaths, observing that psychopaths experienced an 18% volume reduction in the amygdala region - in their view tantamount to structural deformation - all other variables being held constant. Psychopaths, Raine says, “fundamentally cannot understand emotion”. Should we consider emotion alongside cognition in criminal responsibility?

‘Neurolegal’ implications: do we hold irresponsible parents to account? the offender? or neither?

The science, Raine says, is easy. It is what to make of this knowledge that presents ethical conundrums. Should invasive intervention programs be designed? Are there strong ethical reasons for not using “neurobiological markers”, however well-intentioned, as predictors for future criminality? What kind of safeguards could realistically be put in place to avoid stigmatization, ostracization and Brave New World-type screening processes to weed out the undesirable?

Pardini found that amygdala volume was an accurate predictor of a person’s predisposition to future violence . Assuming brain imaging gave us an accurate predictor of tendencies for later violence and future offending, are we under a duty to use it in certain situations, such as in sentencing and parole hearings?

This research strikes at the heart of our beliefs regarding blameworthiness, mental impairment and punishment. He told of the curious case of ‘Michael’, a dutiful husband and father who exhibited no sexually deviant behaviour or psychiatric abnormalities, who suddenly seemed to be within the grip of a full-blown case of ‘acquired paedophilia’. A causal link between his sudden perversions and the later discovery of a brain tumour was suggested.

Raine contrasted this with the conviction of violent murderer Donta Page, whose mitigation revolved around a panoply of ‘risk’ factors such as extreme neglect, homelessness, and sexual abuse - but more importantly lead exposure and head trauma throughout his early life. Page’s brain scans (above) showed significantly reduced functioning in the prefrontal cortex compared to a normal person’s (the right hand image). What then, he asks, do we do about others with equivalent brain dysfunction which is not as strikingly obvious, not treatable, but present? Understandably, gory details of horrific rapes and murders are unlikely to predispose even the least trenchant of retributivists to open-heartedly embracing understanding and mercy in punishing these offenders.

However, implicit in his two tales of Michael’s ‘before and after’ account and the heart-wrenching circumstances surrounding Page’s childhood was the inextricability of a single neurobiological factor that could readily be held to account for criminality. Disadvantage begets further disadvantage, and whilst Michael was fortunate enough to have had access to medical expertise documenting his return to ‘normality’, the sad reality is that children growing up in circumstances similar to Page’s are often exposed to multiple “seeds of sin”: economic disadvantage, unequal access to professional care and counselling, violent childhoods and negative parental influences that make it near-impossible to isolate and test for a specific ‘cause’ of criminality.

In spite of his role in Page’s mitigation, Raine is on the fence as regards how neuroimaging data should be utilised in the criminal justice process to influence jury opinion. “The problem,” he says, “is that images are too persuasive”.

He proceeded to close his potent presentation with this thought: “it is uncomfortable,” he says, “to believe that we don’t have free will”.