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Related Topics
The Criminal BrainReview - The Criminal Brain
Understanding Biological Theories of Crime
by Nicole Rafter
NYU Press, 2008
Review by Roy Sugarman, Ph,D.
Mar 21st 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 12)

Across the years, there have been a number of studies of death row and general inmates in prisons.  The findings are pretty consistent that this is not a random group, but in a way, a pre-selected one.  Although they seldom claim this as a defense against guilt, or even in mitigation of sentence, there is compelling evidence that brain function problems lie, if not at the heart of, then certainly along the road to ruin that characterizes the criminal pathway through life.

Attention deficit disorder, and other disorders which may be considered as being of impulse regulation or disinhibition, are frequently diagnosed.  A study in submission now from Australia, by Leila Kavanagh and her colleagues, investigates the fact from previous studies that 75% of inmates in that population have mental health issues.  Sustained attention, impulsivity and executive function, along with depression and trauma, characterize this population.

Crimes consist of both run of the mill, and horrendous events.  Rafter takes a historical view throughout the book and begins by looking at two iconic crimes, the Van Nest slaughter at the hands of William Freeman, and Andrea Yates' murder of her five children.  Freeman was hanged, Yates was retried and found to be mentally ill.

Controversy reigns now as it did then, with liberals, according to Rafter tending to view biological theories as efforts to shift responsibility away from social factors that cause crime and onto criminal individuals.  Conservatives embrace biological theories but grow uneasy when one speaks (as Rafter does) of their history, with the inherent risk that scientific truths are contingent upon social factors prevailing at the time.  Sociologists try to protect their silo's and reject any non-sociological antecedents put forward as causal in crime. Rafter uses the term biocriminologists to describe those that produce biological theories of crime, and dismiss all sociological and historical analyses of the causes of crime (page 5).  This leads one to biopsychosocial theorists of course.  Rafter believes we may be on the verge of new discoveries that better explain crime, but at the same time cautions that this will be guided by how we view crime and biology's history, and the present dialogues around biological cause.

A barrier to this is that social histories of criminological knowledge date back to only around the late 19th century.  Rafter then organizes the book around the history of efforts to answer questions in criminology scientifically, an even later event post-dating the above.

The book thus begins at around 1800 in its analysis, when the western world began to question how moral insanity came about in persons who committed crimes, but were patently abnormal surely, not just evil.

The concept of evil is problematic for psychologists and other mental health professionals. One of the commentators at the trial of the arch-Nazi Eichman in Israel remarked that the only remarkable personality feature of Eichman was how normal he otherwise was, in the face of his crimes as evidence to the contrary: evil is so often otherwise banal.

James Butcher has examined multiple criminals using his MMPI-2 toolkit, and found often likewise.  I was involved in the defense team for Colonel Eugene de Kock, who murdered hundreds during the Apartheid years, and yet produced a perfectly 'normal' profile on the same toolkit.

Victor Nell, a recently deceased colleague, was fascinated by evil as a concept. He looked at the crowds in the Coliseum, and remarked on how the most frequented businesses immediately after the end of the Roman excesses each day, were the ever-present prostitutes.  If sex and evil and excitement were combined, then as Rafter begins, so were Darwin and Phrenology and eugenics, which enter the early chapters of the book.

The latter part, moving more contemporaneously, looks at the more informed biological theories of the 20th Century.  As the rise of the IQ test began, so did theories of the so-called weak intelligence theory of criminality, which as the reader can imagine, kept pace with the eugenics movement, and hence the first concepts of bad breeding in the genes.  As with the Nazi philosophy of the time, this was an anti-modernist movement.  This latter group would contrast sharply with the modern view of man, appealing, as the Nazi's did, to a more gloriously moral and crime-free 'good old days' scenario, including body type, or constitutional theories which reached their nadir in the racism of the Nazi's.  The natural end point of this was of course the concept of sterilization of so called inferiors and the eradication therefore of their genes. Not stopping here, genocide would follow naturally from prevention of the future unwanted, to the eradication of the present unclean and unwanted.

Biological theories of crime now had a new and murderous dimension.  An examination of history here put paid to the idea that these scientists could be divided into good and bad.  The harsh reality is that social mores and pressures DO shape science, and there was a large and unambiguous collaboration between the Nazi regime and their scientific institutions as numerous exhibitions and publications of Nazi medicine have uncovered and narrated.  Mengele was not alone by any stretch of the imagination, and the German criminal justice system likewise responded to both ideology and regime in how it dealt with criminals, and the concept of what constituted criminality.  The presumed biological rapidly became the established political, easy to do in a relatively new field looking for a return to pre-Modernist views.  The medical fraternity cannot bear the entire blame, but certainly has to own one aspect for the way eugenics and extermination were justified and operationalized.

This did not begin with the Nazis, but in the Weimar Republic, where new technology such as fingerprinting was gaining ground.  Peter Lorre starred in a famous horror story, based on a real life depraved sex murderer, Peter Kurten, (1931).  Peter Lorre was an outsider by German standards, a Hungarian, and a Jew.  Theories were thus supportive of an 'us-and-untermenschen' philosophy, and able to support the Nazi-sponsored belief that crime was set to overwhelm the State resources unless someone took control.  The causes of crime were in criminals, set in their biological material, not in crime itself, following on earlier non-German criminal anthropologists, such as the psychiatrist Lombroso, both pilloried and then copied by the Nazi apologists.  Criminals are thus incorrigible, and born that way.  Many still hold this view in mob mentality terms, today.

In this view, punishment does not fit the crime, but the criminal, which means taking them out of society for life, as the British did to populate Botany Bay in the early days of Australia as a criminal colony, no matter how petty the crime, the theory of social defense.  This was also paralleled by the growth of a new specialty, including Lombroso and later on Kraepelin, Kretchmer and others, namely, psychiatry, which regarded crime as a medicolegal entity within the framework of the new behavioral sciences.  Kretchmer alone can be credited or rather discredited with providing energy and impetus to the emerging 'bodytype' doctrines.  With ominous reference to twin studies, later coming to the interest of Dr Mengele, Lange published his Crime as Destiny, showed that criminality, as evidenced by imprisonment, was highly inherited. He only paid lip service to the environment in which the twins grew up as not dominating, if perhaps vaguely causal. 

By the time the Nazis sharpened their blades, the criminal biology movement was well established, and ready to identify exactly who and why the Nazis should target.  The first to raise his hand was Max Planck.  The prevailing ideology welcomed these doctors, and they welcomed it in return.  Eugenics now easily gave birth to the concept of racial hygiene, with fatal implications for Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, and anyone else who might qualify, medically or politically, but including criminals in the planned genocide.  Young Albert Einstein, who had had the gumption to publish on black body radiation although Planck had already proven the concept but who then vacillated as he had a reputation to protect, had to flee Germany, as did Freud and countless others, costing Germany some 24 Nobel Prizes in return.

Biology was thus held to be the only contributor to human behavior, and that since these parameters are never social, and only genetic, they are thus passed on inevitably to the following generations.   Not only this, but bad genes were out-breeding good genes, and thus this cemented the idea of threat.

Despite the fascists in Italy, Lombroso's influence there included his multiple views on the social and environmental antecedents of crime, and his followers picked up on those discrepancies.  At first however, Southern Italians caught the brunt of this, and then later, the Jews.  Ironically, Lombroso was a Jew. Mussolini was not very interested in persecuting the Jews anyway, and the country was historically only mildly anti-Semitic.  Finally, genocide would have to come to include criminals in its target in Germany and Italy.

Rafter finishes with chapters on modern biocriminology, a vastly more complex enterprise than before, with new technologies and understanding making short work of the old nature-nurture debate.  The emphasis for intervention may well now be psychosocial, or biopsychosocial, a splicing of biocriminology to sociology in an attempt to eradicate crime.

Rafter says that perhaps the best way to sign off at the end of the day, or of the book, is to offer a prayer that we may listen critically to scientific messages and avoid the temptation of quick fixes, recognizing our own ignorance (page 250).

© 2009  Roy Sugarman

Roy Sugarman PhD, Director: Behavioural Solutions, Brain Resource Limited, Ultimo, Australia


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