In the second of a pair of linked blogs (the first can be found here), DPhil candidate Sylvia Rich presents her thoughts on Prof. Adrian Raines recent All Souls criminology seminar.

Theorising Visual Data

On 27th February, Adrian Raine spoke at the All Souls Criminology Seminar Series in connection with his book The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime (Pantheon 2013). The lecture presented research into biological features of humans as perceived by brain imaging technology and other visual and numeric data, and linking these to criminal or antisocial behaviour. He divided his talk into three headings: prenatal risk factors, brain mechanisms, and what he termed neurolegal implications.

Raine began by describing evidence that he has found that minor physical anomalies, such as lower-set ears, come about as a result of disruption to foetal development at the third or fourth month of gestation. Some research has correlated these anomalies with antisocial behaviour. In the same vein, the more mothers smoked in pregnancy, the more their children were accused of criminal behaviour later on. Raine commented that he did not want it to come across that he was blaming pregnant mums, since that wasn’t what he was doing, but that it just so happened that they were the people who gestated the babies. One might find the logic of that explanation puzzling, but nevertheless, if the results are there, they are an interesting insight into sociobiological contexts that have an effect on people’s lives.

The next section of the paper presented results of brain imaging studies in which people convicted of crimes were shown to have different brain scans than people not convicted of crimes. His first datum under this heading was that males pleading not guilty by reason of insanity had less glucose metabolism in their prefontal cortexes than the control group. He noted that serial killers do not show this dysfunction.

Hearing this, I paused to reflect that it is not surprising that people who make a serious claim to mental dysfunction would have different brain scans than people with no claim to dysfunction, since ‘mental dysfunction’ is just another way of saying ‘brains that function badly (or differently).’ Of course the fact that the results are unsurprising does not in any way speak against them, and was, perhaps, a reason to trust them better than had they been surprising. As I reflected on this I also thought back to the first part of the presentation and again thought, babies who suffered from such things as foetal alcohol syndrome (one of the conditions Raine talked about) would have greater problems adapting to social life than those with healthy development.

After extending his results of brain imaging studies (this time in the amygdala) to children with antisocial behaviour, Raine suggested that this kind of result could have great predictive value, allowing the state to identify and target these children for ‘help’ before they develop into criminals. Raine suggested that we might not be willing to change people’s brains, even though he assured us that we would not have to do anything so invasive as a prefrontal lobotomy to change these ‘deviant’ brains, and that in fact nutritional supplements might sometimes do the trick, and would be non-harmful. Raine suggested that perhaps we had a responsibility (to future victims of crime) to intervene if we could, though he left this very much as a question rather than arguing for one or another side of this obviously extremely contentious issue.

Lastly, Raine broached punishment. He presented two case studies. The first, a seemingly moral man who developed a brain tumour and then molested his step-daughter. After the tumour was removed, his behaviour appeared to improve, at least until the tumour grew back (a second removal seemed to trigger the same improvement). The second case study was of a man who had suffered tremendous neglect and abuse as a child, and then, as an adult, raped and murdered a young woman. He told us he had a stark dilemma for the audience, and asked us to consider two points of view: first a kind of biblical-style ‘eye for an eye’ type of retributivism, and then a more merciful conception of punishment, in which the state would consider these men’s pasts and perhaps lessen the amount of punishment they receive.

In the question period, Julian Roberts, an expert on sentencing, asked Raine in what respect the case studies he posed presented a dilemma. Courts routinely and uncontroversially accept brain injuries and the like as mitigating factors at sentencing whenever evidence of their causal relationship to the offense occurs. So where was the new legal problem being presented? Raine replied that the other side of the dilemma was the victim’s own perspective that punishment ought to be harsh, to which Roberts replied simply, that is why we do not have victims sentencing their own offenders.

I confess that on my way to the lecture, I already expected to feel some hostility towards the presentation, simply based on the title of the book. However, the discomfort I left with was of a different sort than that which I had anticipated. I thought Raine would offend our morals with genetics-based, racist arguments for criminality. But the research he reported often uncovered social explanations for phenomena that were observable with biology’s instruments, and as such, could have been pressed into the service of a less essentializing narrative about good and evil in humanity.

The discomfort I felt was in the theoretical parts of the paper, rather than in the test results. I felt Raine was setting up false dichotomies, for instance between free will and biology: Raine suggested that those who resisted his biological conclusions might do so because it would expose their perceived free will as an illusion, which is at best a highly controversial take on how free will might operate. Another false dichotomy came out in the explanation of punishment, in his setting up of a fictional sentencing regime in which brain injuries would have no bearing on the sentence someone receives for a crime in which the brain injury was causally implicated.

I was dismayed by the theoretical paucity of Raine’s presentation of the idea of ‘crime’ as a category into which someone either enters or avoids. His evidence about people with markers indicating impaired foetal development committing crime is nothing more than the well-known problem that people with intellectual disabilities are caught in the snares of the criminal justice system, which one might problematize as being as much a problem with the system as with the mentally ill.

The data that were presented here could as easily be turned into critiques of a system as to questions of whether to predictively target children with biological markers for socially undesirable behaviour. But in the same way as he failed to problematize ‘crime’ he also accepted too simply an idea of ‘normal’ brains and ‘normal’ behaviour, setting these up against brains and behaviour that were simply deemed wrong. And yet his evidence about some brains tending more towards violent responses may be taken as evidence of difference, but it would serve us well to remember that different societies have differing notions of what levels of aggression are appropriate in response to certain behaviours,[1] and that therefore it might not be so clear-cut which the brain image represents a standard and the one representing deviation.

Someone might respond that a scientist like Raine needn’t be responsible for having sophisticated theory to accompany his study results. One could advance a division of academic labour argument, that it is too much to ask one person to run a lab with MRIs and also to steep themselves in the theoretical literature and find sophisticated arguments within it. But Raine and his defenders are foreclosed from making this argument because Raine chooses to enter into discussions on the implications of his work for prevention and punishment. In my opinion, a serious scholar must choose either to stick to MRIs and leave the interpretation to others, or be willing to invest the time to draw out the theoretical implications in some kind of sophisticated manner.  In the absence of a richer theoretical understanding of the issues at hand, we are left with a rather crude picture where individuals are presented as either broken or whole.


[1] This observation is due to Ben Bradford, private correspondence on 11 March, 2014.