Saturday, May 25, 2013

Biologically Bad

King's Castle Wood, an ancient iron age hill fort reserve, is a peaceful haven packed with wild flowers in spring and summer and just a walk away from the beautiful historic city of Wells, the smallest city in England. We were there this afternoon in the sunshine: it could have been early summer.

Clare enjoys the sun at King's Castle Wood near Wells

From The Times today.
"Brain imaging should be used to guide parole decisions for murderers and violent offenders, according to a leading British criminologist.

Adrian Raine, who is based at Pennsylvania State University, said that recent research had proved, in principle, that brain scans could help to assess the risk of reoffending, creating a powerful argument for using these techniques when deciding between custodial sentences and probation, and eligibility for parole.

In one study, published in the journal PNAS, scientists analysed the brain activity of 96 male prisoners, who underwent MRI scans shortly before they were released and were followed up four years later. The team showed that men with lower activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain area linked to regulating behaviour and impulsivity, were 2.6 times more likely to reoffend than those with higher activity.

The brain imaging data was as much as 4.5 times as helpful as standard variables, such as age, psychopathy or drug use, which are currently used in the UK and US to predict the risk of recidivism."
Prof. Adrian Raine has written a book, The Anatomy of Violence, on this topic.
A common politically correct response  is to deny that brains, biology and anatomy could have anything to do with penal policy. So later in the same article we have the following idiotic remark:
'Vaughan Bell, a neuroscientist at King’s College London, said: “This study was good science, but to suggest it could be even slightly useful in the real world is an exaggeration."'
For those of us who inhabit the real world, the issue is what to do with this information. Biologists interested in the way environment channels gene-directed development use the concept of a benign environment. This is an environment with adequate food, shelter, affection, care and lack of traumatic stress so that the individual's genetic potential has full developmental capability. In benign environments, the differences between people are largely driven by their different genetic programs (for those traits under genetic control).

In a non-benign environment, even people with a good genetic endowment can grow up stunted and wrong: a childhood steeped in starvation, neglect and abuse would be an example.

Criminals tend to exhibit low IQ, poor impulse control, lack of planning, aggression, inability to hold down jobs - all traits which tend to result in a non-benign environment for their children. So it's difficult to decide how many of the results Adrian Raine sees can be put down to genes and how much to a pretty rubbishy upbringing. Still, studies can be designed which separate out these factors.

Back to social policy.

1. If a non-benign upbringing leads to brain changes associated with criminality, then more aggressive adoption ought to be considered.

2. If criminals present with 'criminal brains' then on release they need to be more closely monitored than their 'more average' counterparts. If you had to release an unreliable and dangerous machine amongst the public you would do no less.

3. 'My brain made me do it' is not a criminal defence because it's a truism. We all secretly knew that anyway.