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Are criminals born or made?

This article is over 8 years, 7 months old
John Parrington looks at new research that claims to show that biology, rather than circumstance, causes crimes
Issue 2357

Are criminals born or made? This question is at the heart of a new book, The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime, by psychologist Dr Adrian Raine.

Raine claims we have neglected the role of biology, rather than environment, as a major factor in determining whether a person will end up a criminal. 

He argues that we will only tackle crime effectively if we treat such biological “defects”, or isolate the individuals possessing them.

Thus Raine suggests that screening programmes could be used to detain, possibly indefinitely, people judged at risk of committing a violent crime in the future.  

But a problem I have with this, apart from this obvious attack on human liberties, is whether his claims stand up to serious scientific scrutiny.

One problem is Raine’s tendency to extrapolate from extreme cases to the general population. 

Thus, he claims that brain imaging has identified differences in the brains of violent criminals. He argues that this could be used to identify potentially violent individuals in the future. 

Some people diagnosed as psychopathic do appear to show particular brain abnormalities. 

But many so diagnosed have no such abnormalities. And many who are not violent do.

Another factor that Raine identifies as a determinant of criminality is an abnormally low pulse rate. 

Individuals with a reduced heart rate are supposed to be less stimulated naturally, and thus seek out trouble to provide such stimulation. 

And indeed Raine cites evidence showing a link between low pulse rate and anti-social and criminal behaviour in teenagers.

I must admit I was personally interested in this claim, as I have always had a low pulse rate. At school I was a disruptive child and for several years took part in shoplifting sprees. 


Ironically, Raine himself shares both this physiological difference and a disruptive past.

But in what sense can such a biological difference determine criminal behaviour, since both Raine and I did not grow up to be criminals but university academics? 

Personally, I see a more obvious connection between my teenage behaviour and the fact that taking part in classroom disruption and petty crime were the best way to “fit in”. 

It meant not being bullied at my Bradford comprehensive, where so many had switched off.

My life changed in a radical way when I gained a place at Cambridge University and began to devote my life to scientific study. 

But I can only imagine how different my life might be if I had been labelled at a young and vulnerable age as a born troublemaker.  

Another problem is Raine’s focus on everyday crime. 

Vastly greater crimes are carried out in City offices by investment bankers making decisions that wreck the lives of millions. 

Or by politicians signing orders to rain death and destruction on countries like Iraq or Afghanistan.

Yet we don’t hear calls for brain scans of Tony Blair or David Cameron. 

I am less bothered by the possibility that such analysis might reveal psychopathic tendencies, than the fact that such power lies in the hands of a few individuals. 

It’s conceivable that biological differences affect who, among those at the bottom of society, is more likely to respond to frustration and lack of opportunity with petty crime.

But the vastly greater crimes that go unchecked at the top is a more serious issue.

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