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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Essayism is ultimately about how literature can make a difference

Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is a beautiful and elegiac volume – having read it, I re-read it.

It is somewhat unseemly for a critic to confess that their immediate reaction to a book is one of unremitting envy. But Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is so careful and precise in its reading of a constellation of authors – Derrida and Barthes, Didion and Sontag, Browne and Burton, Woolf and Carlos Williams, Cioran and Perec – that my overall feeling was jealousy.

Dillon is a writer on art and culture and a tutor at the Royal College of Art, and the author of an award-winning memoir from 2005, In The Dark Room, about losing both his parents in his youth. A remarkable meditation on memory, it shares with his other work – an examination of hypochondria, Tormented Hope, and his writing on the cultural significance of ruins – a wide and nimble range of reference as well as a sense of personal grief and literary anomie.

 In Essayism, Dillon deals, with a kind of weary shrug, with the etymology of “essay”. But more than just sauntering through “attempt”, “try” and “test”, he digs much deeper: from essayer he goes to examen, the needle of a scale, an image of control. The essay is both a proposition and the judge of it. What truly comes across in this book is that the essay may well be a sally against the subject, but what is tried, in the final reckoning, are the authors themselves. And, of course, found wanting, in both senses of the word. The essay, in Dillon’s account, is both erotic and absent, lapidary and profuse, and is at its best when always concerned with its own realisation of its inherent sense of failure. Before this discussion of etymology, though, comes a bravura cadenza of topics, placed to make us realise the essay is never about what it claims to be at all.

The close readings of various essayists are counterpointed by chapters headed “On Consolation”. This is some of Dillon’s most autobiographical writing to date. In Essayism he both excoriates and exorcises, using the essay as a flail and a balm. In other
essayists he finds mirrors of his own joys and despairs, particularly in a wonderful piece about Cyril Connolly, which deserves commendation simply for not mentioning the pram in the hall.

Essaysism resists defining its subject. As the critic David Shields has said, you don’t have a drawer labelled “non-socks”; and “non-fiction” is a singularly slippery notion. Dillon’s “essays” range from aphorism to such glorious sprawls as Robert Burton’s 17th-century treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy. Some are journalistic, others are philosophic. To an extent, it is the very fluidity that Dillon admires; but above all he claims to admire style, and he is exceptionally good at defining the styles he likes. He reads more into the placing of a comma in a piece by Elizabeth Hardwick than most critics might find in the whole of her work.

This neatness, as it were, typifies the book. It is about noticing, and scrutinising, and reflecting. He has a keen ear for when a sentence has a word that is somehow out of key – “porcupine”, “broccoli” – yet possesses a strange beauty.

The book shifts into a higher gear when Dillon writes about his own depression. There is never a moment where he asks the reader to feel sorry for him. There is a steeliness in his descriptions of the nebulous haze that anti-depressants led him into; a stoic willingness to face one’s own sadness. Books, and the tiny curlicues of beauty he notes in them, were a kind of redemptive force for Dillon, far more so than Prozac. That at one point he found consolation in the pages of the NME is remarkable.

His account of depression is reflected in thinking about the essay. Is it something composed of fragments and shards? Is it a coolly organised progression? Is it about confession? Is it about concealment? The book’s excellence lies in the way these paradoxes are held suspended.

It seems churlish to mention omissions, but I do so because I would like to read what Brian Dillon would have to say about figures such as William Hazlitt, Richard Steele, Matthew Arnold or Iain Sinclair (perhaps our most essayistic novelist). And Dillon’s assertion about the absence of a literature of sickness is unjustifiable if one considers Thomas Mann, Knut Hamsun, Céline. His canon is, as all are, arbitrary: they are the pieces of writing that mattered to him when they mattered most.

The book, ultimately, is about how literature can make a difference. It is a beautiful and elegiac volume. I can give no greater compliment than to say that having read it, I re-read it. 

Essayism
Brian Dillon
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 228pp, £10.99

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