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15 May 2013updated 12 Jun 2013 9:18am

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

By David Shariatmadari

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.

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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.

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