Arrested Development

By Ian Leslie in the UK’s Times Online

We are used to hearing talk of “the criminal mind”. In future we can expect to hear more about “the criminal brain”. Recent scientific research suggests that criminality may be a trait that some people are born with or acquire very early in life. It’s an unsettling thought: examine the prefrontal cortex in the brain of a gurgling infant and you may see the signs of a potential future murderer.

Scholarly interest in the criminal cranium is by no means new. In 1871 the Italian physician and intellectual Cesare Lombroso was performing a post-mortem on the body of a notorious bandit named Giuseppe Villela when he became intrigued by the shape of the skull, which reminded him of those of “apes, rodents and birds”. Lombroso had a flash of insight. “I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal,” he later wrote. He concluded that criminals were bad because they were born bad; they were throwbacks to an earlier, more savage stage of our evolution.

Lombroso’s theories were soon discredited, and in the 20th century all attempts to link biology with behaviour were tainted by association with eugenics and fascism. So criminologists turned away from the study of individual biology and towards the social contexts of crime. The new discipline of criminology became a branch of sociology, which for the most part it remains. When politicians talk about “the causes of crime”, they usually mean factors such as poverty, unemployment and bad neighbourhoods.

In recent years, however, advances in neuroscience and genetics have returned us to the idea that our physical make-up exerts a profound influence on our behaviour. One result is the small but fast-growing field of neurocriminology — the application of neuroscience to understanding criminality. Its pioneer and leading light is Professor Adrian Raine, chair of the department of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

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