The Anatomy of Violence by Adrian Raine: Natural born killers?

Adrian Raine has a low resting heart rate, a highly active prefrontal cortex and a fissure down the centre of his tongue. Each of these can be risk factors for antisocial behaviour and violence. Should David Shariatmadari be worried about reviewing his bo

The Anatomy of Violence: the Biological Roots of Crime
Adrian Raine
Allen Lane, 496pp, £25

Adrian Raine has a low resting heart rate, a highly active prefrontal cortex and a fissure down the centre of his tongue. Each of these can be risk factors for antisocial behaviour and violence. Low resting heart rate, indeed, is more strongly correlated with psychopathy than smoking is with lung cancer. Should I be worried about reviewing his book, then? Thankfully not, as Professor Raine has a conscience. “I know I can’t follow through,” he writes, “no matter how much I’ve wanted to kill some of my critics”.

So what is it that makes Raine a productive, compassionate member of society and not a serial killer? It’s difficult for even a neurocriminologist to say. As Raine keeps reminding us, biology is not destiny. Environment plays a crucial part, as must other factors that remain obscure to us. No, biology is not destiny, but as The Anatomy of Violence attempts to persuade us, its significance has been grossly underestimated.

Raine bears the scars of years spent battling a consensus he sees as skewed towards a sociological model of crime. Though he’s always polite, you can detect a contempt for social scientists bubbling up through his prose. They are ostriches, as far as he’s concerned, wilfully ignoring mounting evidence of the biological bases of criminal behaviour. Academic brouhaha aside, it’s certainly true that society has yet fully to grasp advances in neuroscience and how they might be used to prevent crime. Raine shows us how the brains of violent criminals function differently. Murderers tend to fall into one of two categories: reactive and proactive.

The former tend to have reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, the most recently evolved part of the brain that allows us to make rational decisions and inhibit impulses. They’re unable to control the urge to lash out when provoked by a real or imagined slight. The latter, in contrast, can be clever, scheming, manipulative and bide their time before landing the fatal blow. Their prefrontal cortex glows bright in scans but look at their limbic system, the more primitive seat of emotion, and you’ll see that it is overactive, too. Their simmering aggression doesn’t boil over; it’s channelled into carefully planned cruelty.

The autonomic nervous system, which controls things like heart rate, digestion and sweating, also seems to function differently in killers. Raine gives examples of stimulation-seeking psychopaths who just can’t seem to feel anything unless they’re engaged in brutal violence. Their chronic underarousal leads to risk-seeking behaviour and, ultimately, since their blunted brains also lack empathy, torture and murder.

How much of this is fixed at birth, and what, if anything, can be done about it? It’s a shame that Raine begins his book with a discussion of evolution and genetics. If he’s looking to convince those wary of biological determinism, he is unlikely to coax them into a more receptive mood by discussing the evolutionary bases for rape and the fitness advantages of psychopathic behaviour in “primitive societies”.

The broader moral to be drawn from the evidence piled up here is that environment is pivotal. Abnormalities in the brain that make antisocial behaviour and violence more likely are fostered by poor nutrition, heavy metals, parental neglect and physical and sexual abuse. The pathway from brain to behaviour can be altered in all but the most severe cases by intervention.

In the final section of the book, as well as offering a fascinating discussion of how advances in neuroscience challenge notions of criminal responsibility, Raine imagines a future society in which violence is treated much as clinical diagnoses are today. He goes as far as envisaging a programme of mass incarceration of those whose brain scans show they’re more likely to offend, a licensing scheme for parents and a range of compulsory treatments. He admits the prospect will terrify many right-thinking people – but he believes that the gains outweigh the risks.

It is a shame he ends like this. If what Raine tells us in this book is true, great strides could be made without recourse to society redefining screening and detention. The message that ought to be taken from this book is that criminality should be seen as a public health problem. Excellent child nutrition, strict controls on the use of heavy metals, classes in parenting and extra learning support for children and parents from difficult backgrounds – these are all real-world solutions that have enormous potential for good. Raine’s book represents a compelling argument that they are not optional extras, boom-time luxuries, but measures that have the potential to save countless billions, and countless lives.

A knife amnesty in San Salvador. Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder