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
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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge