Introductory comments on: Bio/neurocriminology and The Roots of Violence


As you read Raine's book, keep in mind broader issues about bio/neurocriminology. Although his findings are new and exciting, and he is doing cutting edge research, there is a broader history and philosophy of science context of which you should be aware. Here are a few "big picture" points to remember.

Mistakes were made

1. The most important point to remember as you start thinking about biocriminology or neurocognitive criminology is that we have been here before. Criminology got started by more than a hundred years ago with the idea that there is something physically different between criminals and noncriminals (Gould, 1981).

As importantly, mistakes were made.

After this course is done, you really really really want to read what folks like the late Stephen J. Gould say about this. You want to understand what the reification fallacy is. And consider whether the current work is falling victim to those same issues.


"I'm drifting back" (apologies to Neil Young)

2. Not only have we been here before, We have been here before - repeatedly. Probably for two reasons.

The field occasionally reacts to "oversocialized" views of human nature (Suttles, 1972; Wrong, 1961). Secondly, developments in other fields percolate into criminology. This happened in the 1960s and 1970s with chromosomes and ethology. It happened in the 1980s and 1990s with behavioral genetics (e.g., Rowe, 1983). It is happening now with neuroscience and functional MRIs. The underlying ideas regularly recur in our field.

Same song, different singer

3. Have the responsible biological parameters changed? Yes. We have "progressed" from physical parameters like cranial capacities to extra chromosomes to more complex and less visible ideas like instincts to the current electrochemical fascination with functional MRIs and areas of the brain.

But, and this is the third point, despite a shift in mechanisms, the underlying idea is either that a measurement of the biological parameter, or an understanding of the biological/neurocognitive process, helps us understand *and predict* criminal behavior in ways that we could not do otherwise; and helps us do so with more precision and accuracy than we could do otherwise. There is some special insight that we gain when we measure these biologically based processes or attributes. The mechanism and measurement may change, but the basic idea is the same: we have a new window into what is happening that is better than the old windows we were looking through.

Did the Devil make me do it, or someone/something else?

4. All human behavior -- and as we are learning much human thought and emotion as well -- has physiological/biological/neurological substrates - underneath layers if you will.

But -- and this is the important point here -- the existence of these substrates does not mean that they are

* necessarily crucial in a causal sense

* or that they have priority in a causal sense

*or that they are exclusive in a causal sense. This last matter gets us into questions of biological reductionism. Ask me about the aliens looking at pedestrians. It also raises questions about human agency in causal theories.

Figuring out all these aspects of the causal status of these biosocial/neurological/cognitive factors depends on certain underlying conditions being met. This gets us into very heavy duty philosophy of science matters (Jepperson & Meyer, 2011). Let's skip it for now, and just ponder....

But the upshot is: Read Raine very carefully when he talks about causal status issues.

Maybe NOT deja vu all over again?

5. Finally, there is a chance that it could be different this time. A chance that scientists will figure out how to unpack the geneXenvironment interactions, and understand the interplay of genetic/neuro factors with social, behavioral, and cultural factors. A chance that we will understand what factors "activate" certain biological/genetic/neurological dynamics and, as importantly, how this influences cognition, emotion, and behavior, in specific ways. The field is most definitely moving in that direction (Rafter, 2008).

Straight biological over-prediction

6. If we focus just on biological/neurological structural or functional predictors, and try to predict outcomes like violent crime or antisocial behavior or serious delinquency, is there a danger of over-predicting these negative outcomes? If this happens, we have a problem with false positives. These can be a tremendous problem in prediction in many areas of criminology and criminal justice (Taylor, 1994: 307-309). As are false negatives. The cost of each, and the cost of one relative to the other depends on many factors.

Do we get the same false positive problem if our model is a Gene X Environment interaction model?


Gould, S. J. (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton

Jepperson, R., & Meyer, J. W. (2011). Multiple Levels of Analysis and the Limitations of Methodological Individualisms*. Sociological Theory, 29(1), 54-73.

Moffitt, T. E. (2005). The New Look of Behavioral Genetics in Developmental Psychopathology: Gene-Environment Interplay in Antisocial Behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 131(4), 533-554.

Rafter, N. (2008). The Criminal Brain: Understanding Biological Theories of Crime. New York: New York University Press.

Rowe, D. C. (1983). Biometrical genetic models of self-reported delinquent behavior: A Twin study. Behavior Genetics, 13, 473-489.

Suttles, G. D. (1972). The social construction of communities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, R. B. (1994). Research Methods in Criminal Justice. New York: McGraw Hill.

Wrong, D. H. (1961). The Oversocialized Conception of Man in Modern Sociology. American Sociological Review, 26(2), 183-193. doi: 10.2307/2089854