Biology Just Might Have Insight Into Violence
May 10, 2013

Biology Just Might Have Insight Into Violence

Violence befuddles most of us. We cannot understand nor can we accept why people would commit any act of violence. In light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, the Boston Marathon Bombing, and several other recent examples of terrible violence, we have all been thinking about violence. We have been discussing it, researching it, crying about it. We wonder why. Adrian Raine, the Richard Perry University Professor of criminology, psychiatry, and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has just released a book called The Anatomy of Violence, which addresses violence and its reasoning. Raine wrote an opinion article for CNN explaining violence, his findings, and his book.

In short, as he put in his article, “Bad brains result in bad behavior.” He argues that as much as environment causes violence so does biology. In fact, he says that “A new body of knowledge is documenting beyond reasonable doubt that we need to put the brain on trial as a prime suspect. You’ve heard of neuroeconomics, and likely neurolaw. Now it’s time for “neurocriminology” — the application of neuroscience tools to dissect violence all the way down to its root causes.”

So, neurocriminology will explain why biology causes crime. Raine notes some pretty particular examples of biology’s effect on a violent person. For instance, he says that women who smoke or drink while pregnant will double or triple the odds of the baby becoming a violent offender because biologically the baby is not receiving the health and nutrition it needs. Furthermore, poor nutrition during pregnancy almost triples the rate of antisocial personality disorder in adulthood, and poor nutrition in childhood leads to more aggressive and antisocial teenagers. All of these are biological.

In addition, a child born with birth complications may also be predisposed to adult violence. And these are not even the beginning of the possible biological influences. As Raine told National Public Radio (NPR), being exposed to toxins throughout life, especially early in life, having prefrontal dysfunction, and a low resting heart rate are all biological issues found in violent psychopaths. In Raine’s words, “All of these early influences impair brain structure and function, and they contribute to the brain impairments we find in criminals and psychopaths in later life.”

Of course, any of these biological issues do not mean that a person will be violent automatically. In fact, most people with one of these biological predispositions are not violent. Most often, it’s when several of these start happening early in life, compounded by growing up in bad neighborhoods and living in poverty, the two main reasons for violence. Raine’s argument is that these environmental issues that cause violence are not the only issues that contribute to it. Biology plays a role.

“Biology is not destiny,” Raine told NPR. But if biology plays a larger role than we previously thought in violent psychopaths, then we have a new way to help them and, perhaps more importantly, avoid another tragedy like at Sandy Hook Elementary School or the Boston Marathon.

We must reduce aggression. We must stop violence. If looking at the science of violence will help us, then we should do this. Obviously, just focusing on the sociology of violence is not stopping it, so why not look in other directions?

Of course, neither sociology nor biology can replace responsibility, but if we can understand why people take violent routes, we can help them deal with their choices and perhaps in the future help others to avoid violence.

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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