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The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime

Adrian Raine
New York, NY: Pantheon Books. 2013

Are crime and violence a result of biological or social forces? According to Adrian Raine, this classic criminological debate resembles a pendulum, one which has been stuck on the social explanation side for far too long. During this time, Raine argues, biological arguments have been brushed aside. At best, they have been considered bad science, at worst contributing to racist eugenics. But now, the pendulum is slowly swinging back towards biological explanations.

The Anatomy of Violence brings together the contemporary strands of biological explanations of crime in an attempt to explain why the pendulum is swinging back. Raine’s main argument is that there is a biological basis to crime, and so relying on social explanations alone is fundamentally flawed. He argues that it is important that researchers move away from one-sided social explanations because new research strongly suggests that such explanations provide only a partial truth, and because biological research offers potentially powerful treatments for crime.

Chapters one to five present the bulk of the research which Raine uses as support for his argument that there is a biological basis to crime. These chapters present five main arguments: (1) crime can make sense from an evolutionary point of view; (2) criminality is hereditary and has a genetic component; (3) criminals have different brain structures from other people; (4) they also have different brain functioning; and, (5) autonomic nervous systems function differently between criminals and non-criminals. The central argument running through these chapters is that criminals’ brains are an important cause of criminality, since they differ fundamentally from those of non-criminals.

The next two chapters present research showing prenatal, perinatal, and subsequent social and environmental influences on neurological structures, functioning, and other aspects of biology. In these chapters Raine begins to flesh out another central argument, which is elaborated upon in chapter eight: he is not a biological determinist and genes are not destiny. Rather, biological and social forces exist in complex relationships in determining criminal outcomes. His argument is that moving beyond biological or social explanations to a combination of both should not be conceptualized as a simple additive effect. Rather, social/environmental forces can cause biological changes, and vice versa. The combination of certain biological and social/environmental risk or protective factors may interact to greatly alter the risk of offending compared to their independent effects additively combined. Raine argues that this “biosocial” model of violence and crime offers greater explanatory power than biological or social models considered separately.

The remainder of the book focuses on the practical implications of biological research on crime. This includes a short discussion of legal issues, and a more lengthy discussion of biologically-based treatments. The discussion of treatments is divided between existing methods and those that may become possible. Raine suggests that in the future it may be possible for programs to identify individuals who are at risk of committing violence before any crime is committed so that they may be treated.

Raine does well to anticipate and counter several of the objections that can be raised about his work. Despite this, I found three aspects of the book to be particularly problematic. The first is the whole of chapter one, in which Raine argues that people who commit certain crimes increase their chances of reproductive success, leading in turn to a genetic predisposition in some people to commit those same crimes. The largest problem with such an account is that it is almost completely unfalsifiable. Most of Raine’s evolutionary account of criminality cannot be studied empirically.

A second problem is the extent to which Raine uses current scientific knowledge in support of future research outcomes. He suggests that it may soon be possible to determine with great accuracy who will commit a crime. This optimistic speculation puts Raine in the odd position of suggesting the results of research which has not yet been carried out. Making predictions about scientific breakthroughs that are just around the corner is superficially interesting. However, it is also deeply problematic in that any field can assert that it is about to conduct breakthrough research, but doing so adds nothing to the validity of current arguments and evidence.

A third problem with the book is that many of the studies which Raine cites are not as convincing as his rhetoric would suggest. Though he occasionally acknowledges research limitations, many of the research designs are rather questionable, the total amount of research on any given topic tends to be small, and modest effects are often put forth as substantively very important explanations for crime. However, the rhetorical magnification of results is just a tendency, and the book contains a good deal of insightful research.

The Anatomy of Violence, most social scientists would likely accept that there may be some biological basis to crime. However, this is unlikely a novel revelation to most social scientists. Herein lies Raine’s fundamental flaw: characterizing the biological versus social debate in criminology as a pendulum that is stuck on social explanations because scholars deny the possibility of biological influences misses the mark. In reality, most social scientists who study crime are aware of most of the arguments put forth in this book. Social scientists are not in a state of denial or ignorance, as this book suggests. Rather, they demand further convincing evidence showing that biology really does exert a substantial influence on the criminality they tend to study, relative to the strong social forces which they focus on. The Anatomy of Violence is a lucid and engaging survey of contemporary biological arguments about crime and violence, and it may (and should) open the mind of the reader to the possibility that biological forces matter. However, it leaves much to be desired in terms of the central issue at stake: how much do such forces really matter?

McGill University

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