The Anatomy of Violence

I read The Anatomy of Violence by Adrian Raine, all 373 pages, for the trivia.  The book was interesting enough by itself, but the most engaging part of the book, and the reason I kept reading, was the little criminological factoids sprinkled throughout.  You are more likely to be killed on they day you are born than any other day.  Stepfathers are much more likely to murder their children than biological fathers.  Men are better able to detect infidelity than women.  Men who murder are more likely to be single.  You are more likely to be killed in your home by someone you know than by a stranger.  On and on.  The longer your ring finger relative to your index finger, the more testosterone in your body.  Yes, the crime-stopping effects of Omega-3 fish oil are interesting, but just not enough without the trivia.

I picked up an electronic sample of the first few chapters to read while waiting around in court.  I followed Raines’ argument (a recitation of Dawkins’ selfish gene theory) but I was most interested the little facts and statistics he flavored it with.  I kept telling other lawyers about them.  By the time I was carpooling home, I had noted ten of the best and was going through them.

Raines clearly set out to write a book that was accessible to general readers.  His book is peppered with examples of killers, serial or otherwise.  His prose is lofty and often hyperbolic, which is totally necessary when you are talking about the left ventral prefontal cortex.  Otherwise your eyes would dry up.  And Raine even talks directly to the reader at times, speculating about why they bought the book and whether their purchase was predetermined by their biology.

Raine’s work on early childhood development is another area where the book really shines.  He identifies things that can happen in the womb and in the first years of a child’s life that will increase the chances of criminality later on down the line.  Head injury has to be at the top of the list.  Maternal rejection, or just bad parenting during the first months, is another huge factor.  Birth complications like hypoxia, preeclampsia, and maternal infection can all lead to neurological problems and then on to violence.  Shaking your baby, failing to feed your baby, the list goes on and on.

It would be pretty uncontroversial to say that we should focus public policy on avoiding these problems.  Parenting classes, better obstetrics, and safer playgrounds are all areas of improvement that would probably get wide agreement.  But what about the implications or Raines’ work on the biological factors predisposing someone towards crime?

If the government finds out that someone is biologically predisposed to crime, should it label them and treat them differently?  Maybe we should surveil them constantly.  Maybe we should forbid them from having children, or force them to get a license.  Maybe we should lock them up for our protection?  Raines, originally from the UK, may not know that we have “Equal Justice Under Law” written above our Supreme Court.  He does seem to know that many of these ideas are an anathema to the politically liberal.  So he flirts with these ideas rather than marrying them.  Even though his whole book is built around the idea that there are biological markers for violence, Raine is not willing to recommend that we do anything about it.  Reading this book is kind of like reading about boat design by an author who doesn’t recommend sailing.

At the end of his book, Raine recommend that we treat violence as a public health problem.  In my view, this approach ignores the moral aspects of crime, which would have a real, measurable effect on the crime rates.  Crimes are crimes, not symptoms.  Crimes are voluntary acts, not involuntary results of an unwanted disorder.  We may learn a lot from Raines’ book, and take many of his suggestions, without medicalising crime.


The Nazis were in favor of sterilization to prevent “unsound progeny”.

This farrago of pseudoscience written by a criminologist is everything that’s wrong with “evolutionary” theories about human behavior wrapped up and deposited between two covers. Jam-packed with dubious speculation based on misperceptions of how evolution works, “Anatomy of Violence” is all the more alarming because Raine seems to think the ideas in it ought to have a role in public policy. Not just a bad book, but a potentially dangerous one.

-Laura Miller in Salon.


Surrounded by the Worst

“Most big city officers see the citizenry as at best uncooperative and at worst hostile.”  That’s a line from Thinking About Crime, which I heard about on a podcast and decided to read.  It’s written by James Q. Wilson, who also wrote my government textbook in high school (and probably yours).  The author is most famous for originating the “broken windows” theory of policing, used by Bill Bratton in several cities.  This theory was famously discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.  But the book has been influential in other ways.  Thinking About Crime was written in 1975, before the “evidenced based policing” movement, and before there was much good data in criminology.  There are a lot of interesting passages in the book, but one in particular spoke to my experience as a prosecutor.

By the nature of his job, the police officer is disproportionately involved with the poor, the black, and the young, partly because young males, especially poor ones, are more likely to be involved in criminal activities and breaches of the peace, and partly because even the law-abiding poor (who are, after all, the majority of the poor) must rely on the police for a variety of services which middle-class families do not require or, if they require them obtain from nonpolice sources.

This explanation for why officers tend to have a negative view of their communities it what we must digest.  Many prosecutors and police, myself included, do not live in the communities that we serve.  This may be a wise choice, given the feelings that our work inevitably produces, or an unwise choice, because the stakes are lower when it’s someone else’s community that you are working with.  For those of us who do not live in the community, our only interaction with it is during the course of our work.  Prosecutors see the citizens of their jurisdiction in court.  Sometimes, they see victims, but overwhelmingly they only see defendants.  Defendants in custody, defendants in the gallery, defendants in the hallways, defendants in the restrooms.  People who do not want to be there.  People who are angry and frightened.  And more than that, people that the police believe have committed crimes.

The point is that prosecutors generally don’t see normal community members; they almost exclusively see the worst people in the community.  It can be tempting to assume that the entire community is like that.  If you never thought about it, you might unconsciously make this kind of assumption.  After all, you drive home at night without any other community contact to change your mind.  Seeing only the community’s criminals, and seeing them in court, at what can reasonably be assumed to be some of the worst moments of their lives, may lead to a misconception about everyone else – those people that don’t have to come to court.

This misconception can be dangerous.  The role of the prosecutor is to punish the wrongdoer, of course, but it is also to protect the community.  We must give all our efforts to this work.  Protecting the community doesn’t just require hard work and legal knowledge, it also requires our compassion for the community.  It requires our sincere desire to help the people we serve.  That compassion can be extinguished and replaced by cynicism if we fall into the trap of believing that the community is like our defendants.  They are not.  On the other hand, our compassion for our communities can be strengthened if we pause to remember that the people outside of our courtrooms, though they may never come through the door and tell us, truly appreciate our swift and competent legal work.  And as bad as it is to deal with some of our defendants in court, it is far worse to deal with them on the street.