Lori Anderson: Jailed, because you might commit crime

Pre-screening 'potential' criminals has long been a subject of science-fiction. Picture: TSPL
Pre-screening 'potential' criminals has long been a subject of science-fiction. Picture: TSPL
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LORI Anderson is intrigued by the idea of a future in which those genetically inclined towards violent offending are taken off our streets

‘There’s a killer on the road, his brain is squirming like a toad.” So sang the snake-hipped, leather-clad rocker Jim Morrison in Riders on the Storm and so writes, in his own more measured manner, Professor Adrian Raine in his chilling new book, The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime, my cosy, night-time reading this week, nightmares guaranteed.

The idea that there is a biological component to crime, that some people are more predisposed than others to end up as violent offenders, has finally gained traction over the past 20 years, ever since its low point when the National Institute of Health in America withdrew funding for a conference on genetics and crime after complaints of eugenics. Today, researchers say at least 100 peer-reviewed studies show genes do play a role in crime, and, while there is no single “crime gene”, researchers are finding more and more genetic traits that, like links in a pair of handcuffs, connect our biology to criminal behaviour.

Studies show the sons and daughters of violent criminals who were adopted as babies into safe, non-criminal homes have been found to have greater likelihood of demonstrating antisocial behaviour than control groups. Studies have also claimed that non-aggressive antisocial behaviour was 48 per cent heritable, whilst aggressive behaviour was 65 per cent heritable. The bleak answer to the age-old question of “nature versus nurture” is that, whilst both have a bearing, nature is by far the stronger of the two. As Prof Raine explains: “Dark genetic forces can overshadow the power of environment.”

So what are the “mean genes” that appear to be linked to violence? In the Netherlands, Han Brunner studied four generations of males with a history of violence and impulsive aggression and discovered a single genetic trait, which was that they had little or no MAOA gene, whose enzymes metabolise several neurotransmitters involved in impulse control, attention and cognitive functioning.

In laboratory tests, when MAOA is knocked out from mice, they become ferociously aggressive. Scientists are also looking at four or five other genes that regulate serotonin, which, when raised, can fuel aggression, and dopamine, which acts as a biological brake on impulse control.

The brain scans of murderers have revealed poor pre-frontal functioning, which can lead to loss of control over the more primitive part of the brain, the limbic system, which generates anger and rage. Among those tested was a murderer who had led a blameless life until he was beaten over the head with a metal bar and whose brain trauma was blamed by the defence counsel for making him more foolhardy, less risk-averse and eventually leading him into a life of crime, with fatal consequences. It was a factor the jury took into consideration and spared him the death penalty.

When I was young, the future was going to be like Logan’s Run, where women ran around a sybaritic pleasure palace in diaphanous Greek togas before being bumped off when they turned 30. Sadly, the future imagined in this new book involves no such silk raiments, but features instead the authoritarian presence of LOMBOSCO – Legal Offensive on Murder Brain research Operation for the Screening of Offenders.

By 2034, Prof Raine postulates that everyone over the age of 18 will be subjected to brain scans and genetic screening by government-sanctioned social scientists who will then factor in the subject’s environment and use powerful algorithms to determine their risk factors for sexual assault and violence.

Those with an LP-V (LOMBOSCO positive-violence) of 79 per cent and those with an LP-S (sex) of 82 per cent – in other words, those with the highest propensity to murder or rape – are then taken into restrictive detention centres, more comfortable than prison, with conjugal visits and the like, but where potentially dangerous individuals are treated with drugs to enhance their pre-frontal functions, taught anger management techniques and released only if an annual screening reveals a drastic drop in risk factors.

Those who score slightly lower in their LP tests – individuals not high enough to warrant detention but whose risk remains considerable – are placed on a police database and so become the prime suspects should a rape or murder occur in their vicinity.

If successful, the author imagines a National Child Screening Programme to identify those pupils most likely to launch spree killings in the school cafeteria and who can then be taken into preventative custody and given the appropriate treatment.

The government would argue that, just as doctors screen bodies for cancer to prevent deaths, so they are now screening the population for violence in order to prevent a similar loss of life.

How would we feel about such a future? Relieved that rape, murder and violent assaults plummet, or chilled that Big Brother, having first peered into our brain and body cells, has chosen to lock us up, not because we’ve committed a crime, but because a computer says the likelihood that we might is currently too high?

I don’t doubt that some form of this prophetic future will come to pass. The weight of evidence that links biology, DNA and brain activity to crime is growing with each passing decade. If half of the answer to why some of us are antisocial while others are not is due to genetics and the other half is environment, then, as the mysteries of the human genome are further unravelled, scientists will find ways to correct errors in DNA. As Prof Raine says: “Can we control the physiological effects that give rise to basic cognitive, emotional and behavioural risk factors that spawn violence? In theory, we could be developing drugs in the same way they are currently being developed to treat some forms of cancer.

“The future promise is that a new generation of medications can be developed to block the functioning of the faulty proteins that will be identified in the future as the genetic and biological bedrock of violence.”

For those who still insist there is no biological link to crime, that it remains solely a matter of free will and an individual’s wicked choice, the author asks us to remember Oliver Cromwell speaking to the Church of Scotland about their proposed alliance with King Charles II: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you might be mistaken.”