Researchers are challenging the "society-as-cause" conventional wisdom on crime by exploring biological differences between criminals and noncriminals. They believe that early intervention and treatment could reduce the likelihood of antisocial behavior.
In the movie The Bad Seed, a mother reluctantly comes to realize that her angelic-looking little girl is a cold-blooded killer. That was fiction, of course - a story that built on the notion that someone could be "born bad" - and was overly simplistic as an explanation of evil. But new research is suggesting that that notion might be closer to truth than previously believed.
Scientists have begun to ask whether there is something biologically wrong," or different, about people who become violent criminals. And they are disclosing intriguing answers. Moreover, they say, criminal behavior can be spotted at a very early age - even as young as 6 years old, the age of the girl in the movie.
Theories about the causes of violent crime go all over the intellectual map, drawing from sociology, psychology, philosophy and religion. The question bedevils law enforcement workers, prison counselors, the criminal justice system and an increasingly frightened public. Is crime rooted m poverty, poor upbringing, exposure to "the underclass" or lack of exposure to moral teachings? Is evil, pure and simple, the "bad seed" come to life? And more disturbingly, is violence an innate drive, something held at bay by a fragile line separating most of us, perhaps only temporarily, from a violent few?
"It isn't all that hard to understand why some people use violence," says Robert Hare, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of Without Conscience The Disturbing World of the psychopaths Among Us. "It's much more difficult to understand why we're so well-socialized not to."
According to Hare, most violent criminals, particularly "cold-blooded" psychopaths (see sidebar), are just living examples of natural human behavior carried to a logical extreme. "Criminals have not acquired the norms of society," he says. "To them, criminal behavior just makes sense. They haven't made a conscious choice to be bad, they're just doing what comes naturally and what most benefits them. They are doing what we all would do if we didn't have social controls."
In 1986, an international group of social scientists and biologists meeting in Spain issued the historic Seville Statement on Violence, which emphatically declared that aggression is not an innate human drive. Heralded as an optimistic about humanity, especially for its implication that war is not a necessary evil, the Seville Statement also helped to give scientific authority to the society-as-cause theories that have held sway in studies of crime for the past few decades. These theories indict society itself for peoples' violent choices and pin the blame on everything from unemployment and poor schools to television violence and rap-music lyrics.
"The conventional thinking is alive and well," states Stanton Samenow, an Alexandria, Va., psychologist who works closely with different prison systems and has authored numerous books on crime. "It seems people are ready to blame everything but the federal deficit for crime - and that may be next."
Maybe not. A brave new field of genetic research is debunking those theories and unearthing evidence that the propensity for violence is, in fact, an elemental human trait - one of which some people just happen to have more.
"Of course this is all very |un-PC.' But to say that all criminals are made and not born is nonsensical," says Hare. "People are born with all kinds of different propensities: fear, timidity, cheerfulness, as well as different physical traits. Why should it be any different for this particular trait?"
"Violence is a normal human predisposition that exists to a higher degree in people who eventually be come criminals," asserts psychologist Adrian Raine, whose groundbreaking studies are among the first to confirm what many criminologists an associate professor at the University of Southern California, recently completed a series of studies that show differences in genetic composition and brain functioning between criminals and noncriminals. …