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Adrian Raine Reckons He Can Predict if You'll Be a Criminal

He can give you a brain-scan to work out if you're going to murder someone.

by Memphis Barker
05 June 2013, 9:00am


Dr Adrian Raine. (Photo courtesy of the University of Southern Carolina.)

The future that psychologist Dr Adrian Raine predicts – from a civil liberties perspective, at least – falls somewhere between Philip K Dick's most outlandish speculations and a genuinely serious cause for alarm. Here are the basics: come 2034, with the economic cost of crime spiralling and a public sick of murder headlines, the US Government introduces a programme of mandatory brain-scanning for 18-year-old men and women.

The scan cross-references every young person against a database of criminal genetics. It looks out for matches in three areas: violent assault, sexual assault and murder. A score above 79 percent in the first category, 82 percent in the second and 51 percent in the third will, in Raine’s dystopia, see the so-far-innocent 18-year-olds locked up in luxurious preventative "prisons". Indefinitely. Until some kind of therapy reduces their score or they’ve been subjected to a Ludovico technique of Minority Report so many times that they flick their own kill switch. 

Perhaps the strangest thing about all this is that Raine isn't an Infowars-addled conspiracy theorist, but a tenured professor, working at the University of Pennsylvania with 35 years’ experience studying the biological roots of crime. I met Dr Raine a few weeks after the publication of his new book The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime, and not long after some important new research, to talk about his theory.

VICE: Hi Adrian. What’s happening in your field at the moment?
Adrian Raine:
These two studies have just come out. One, I’m a co-author on. Both of them are very similar. The first focuses on the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that’s involved in emotion and decision making. What the researchers were doing was brain-scanning a group of offenders about to be released. They found that if offenders had lower-functioning in the anterior cingulate, they were twice as likely to reoffend in the next three years.

What was the second study?
That study was done by my group. What we documented there was that males with a smaller volume of the amygdala – which is the emotion part of the brain and generates feelings like conscience, remorse and guilt – those individuals are four times as likely to commit an offence in the next three years. That’s over and above social background, past history of violence, etc – which we controlled for. Both studies are showing us that brain imaging can give added value in the ability to predict future criminal offending. A word of caution, of course – these are just the first two. They need replication and extension.

Isn’t it a bit morally dubious to keep someone in jail just because of their brain chemistry?
Well, take a step back. Every single day in England and America – and all countries throughout the world – we make probation and parole decisions. Which prisoners do we let out early because we don’t think they’re at risk of future offending, and which ones do we keep in? Every day we make decisions on their future behaviour.

In California, for example, they take 20 indicators to try to predict dangerousness. They’re social and behavioural things. They'll look at questions like what’s your age? At age 20, you know, that’s the peak age for violence. Age 60? You’re far less likely to be an offender. What’s your gender? Males are far more likely to offend. Do you have a job?


Dr Raine conducting a lecture on the intersection of neuroscience and crime.

Okay, I see.
Imagine 20 indicators like that. But none of them are genetic or biological. What these studies I’ve just mentioned are showing us is that we could be adding in biological factors to enhance the parole and probation decisions we have to make on a day-by-day basis right now. If that research can be proven to be useful, isn’t it wrong not to use that information?

It’s a controversial area, though.
I've always been on the fringe of things. Back in the 1970s, when I started my research, the whole perspective on crime was exclusively social – bad homes, bad neighbourhoods, that’s the cause. At that time, there was a controversy on IQ: is it partly genetic? That was really heated. But I thought to myself, 'Well, if intelligent behaviour could be partly genetic, then what about anti-social behaviour?'

And the controversy followed you around?
Yes. In 1994, I was showing that babies with birth complications, combined with a bad home environment, triples the rate of violent offending in those children 20 years later. I was publicly called a racist. The paradox is that I did that study in Denmark, where the population is largely white. I was at a panel discussion when one commentator called me racist. I objected, then they called my research racist. Five minutes after that, protesters broke into the conference claiming it was all racist. This conference was on genetic links to crime – the protesters thought it would target ethnic minorities unfairly.

There is a history of genetics being used for racist means.
Yeah, there's a danger here; biology has been misused in eugenics, by Nazi Germany, etc. So the work I do isn’t popular with everyone. The right wing doesn’t like it because they think it’s going to let violent offenders off the hook: “They’re not responsible, it’s bad brains and bad biology that cause them to become violent.” The liberals don’t like it either, because they’re concerned we might use neuroscience to start brain-scanning people – and what about the civil liberties implications of this? So you can’t win, really.


Dr Raine conducting a lecture about predicting anti-social behaviour.

Do you think the right wing have a point? If people’s brains make them likely to commit crime, are they still responsible?
I’m a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on this issue. The scientist in me says, for some kids, they’re cast a bad hand, even aside from genes – and I say 50 percent of violence is genetic. Mums who smoke during pregnancy, that raises the odds of violence; drinks caffeine, that raises the odds of violence; bad nutrition, that raises the odds of violence. A baby who has foetal alcohol syndrome – that baby is 19 times more likely to be convicted in later life. Dr Jekyll says we can’t ignore that. Dr Jekyll says we can’t ignore poverty and social factors, and when we combine them with biological factors – well, it’s almost like some kids are walking time-bombs waiting to explode.

What about Mr Hyde?
The Mr Hyde in me rants and rages; where goes responsibility here? Isn’t this a slippery slope to Armageddon where there’s no responsibility and everyone’s going to have some excuse? I had my throat cut in Turkey on holiday in 1989, after a burglar invaded my room. That changed me. That changed my perspective on retribution. And that’s nothing compared to what other victims go through – rapes, homicide, paedophilia – so that really made me think about the victims. I felt the instinctive desire for an eye for an eye. I began to really recognise that we want people to be protected.

Which side, Jekyll or Hyde, is more powerful in you?
On balance, after 35 years of research, I’m more the Dr Jekyll.

You talk about free will in your book. Doesn’t a biological basis for crime undermine the very idea of free will?
I think our legal system – which makes this assumption of free will – I think they’ve got it completely wrong there. Because, as I said, for some people the dice are loaded in life, even if we buy into the assumption of free will. Okay, there’s free will, but some people have more free will than others.

I think it’s a spectrum. There’s a spectrum of free will, a spectrum of responsibility. Some of us are more responsible than others. Others are less responsible for their actions because of a conspiracy between genes, biology and the early environment, including child abuse, including poverty. It doesn’t make them destined to become a criminal felon, but it sure as heck raises the odds.

So how would you recommend our justice system changes to adapt?
I don’t know. I’ve talked about indefinite detention before in my book. One of the problems I have is that I can give the science, but I can’t make a decision for society. This is a question of, do we want to protect society? Or do we want to protect civil liberties? And what’s the balance going to be? From all the research I’ve seen, the best investment society can make in stopping crime and violence is investing in the early years of the child. The problem is that we have to wait 20 years for the payoff. And, in the lifespan of politics, that’s too long.

Thanks Adrian.

Follow Memphis on Twitter: @memphisbarker

More stuff about the future of crime:

The Future of Crime

2012 Is Bullshit; 2020 Is When We'll Really Be in Trouble

Everyone in Britain Is Getting Nastier

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