New research suggests that some people have a stronger innate tendency towards violence than others. Should this change the way we think about crime and punishment?by Daniel Dennett / April 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert in a scene from the 1931 film M, in which he plays a child murderer tortured by his compulsion to kill © Everett/Rex Features
The Anatomy of Violence: The biological roots of crime by Adrian Raine (Allen Lane, £25)
Monsters have always fascinated us. As soon as we outgrow the spine-tingling dragons and ogres of fairytales we turn our rapt attention to the celebrity monsters of real life: Jack the Ripper, the Unabomber, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Adam Lanza. We know their names, don’t we? Behind the voyeurism that tempts even the most “mature” minds there lurks a nagging suspicion that there might be something deeply wrong in our righteous reaction to wrongdoers. Who are we to condemn them? If they’ve got a screw loose, shouldn’t they get treatment instead of punishment? And aren’t we just lucky not to have the same urges that drive them?
Then there is the question of how to explain the violent actions of human beings. Do our genes make us do it? Does an abusive childhood and poverty make us do it? Does a culture that glorifies violence make us do it? Whatever long-range effects can be attributed to these background conditions, when push comes to shove, our brains make us do it. All the causes have to be squeezed through the bottleneck of our nervous systems one way or another and aren’t we learning from the triumphant march of neuroscience that we don’t have the minds we thought we did? Tom Wolfe, as always an astute commentator on the current scene, has observed: “The conclusion people out beyond the laboratory walls are drawing is: ‘The fix is in. We’re all hard-wired’ and ‘Don’t blame me; I’m wired wrong.’” And the comic strip Dilbert, another sensitive barometer, more recently opined: “Free will is an illusion. Humans are nothing but moist robots. Just relax and let it happen.”
Are they right? Will there be nothing left of our freedom and dignity, our responsibility, our autonomy once neuroscience explains the networks of causation inside our brains? When autopsies reveal clear signs of damage in the brains of monsters, what does that portend for the rest of us moist robots? And does this mean our vaunted edifice of law and order is no more defensible than witch trials and exorcisms?
It is hard…