On "Criminal Minds," by Josh Fischman (The Chronicle Review, June 17), from chronicle.com:
My mother was a kindergarten and elementary-school teacher for more than 30 years. She always said, without any of the scientific evidence presented in this article, that she could assess who the "bad seed" students were just by certain reactions they had (for example, to punishment). She stated that there must be a "violent gene," based on her observations in the classroom. After teaching for so many years, my mother could accurately predict which 5- and 6-year-old students would be long-term troublemakers (and, yes, criminals) and which ones would not. Of course, she tried intervention as best she could, but without scientific studies like this one to give her the correct tools, it didn't work very well. Anecdotal? Of course. But it may be worth talking to elementary-school teachers to see if such students can be identified at an early age, and then intervention measures could be implemented to potentially prevent later tragedies.
I can predict the likelihood of a person becoming a criminal without much error. Self-report studies of criminal behavior tell us that at least 90 percent of kids aged 12 to 18 have committed a crime for which they could have gone to jail. That means that at least 90 percent of us are criminals.
I'm sure Adrian Raine is well respected at Penn (I've got to admit that I've never heard of him, and I've been going to meetings of the American Society of Criminology since 1980), but I thought most of this kind of stuff was discredited about 100 years ago. Get real. There is no single good predictor of criminality, and there certainly is no single stand-alone theory that explains the propensity to engage in crime.
No, there is no theory, no single predictor of criminal behavior, just like behavioral abnormalities/psychological illness is never based on just one gene error. This is complex, and we are still in the dark ages of neuroscience, but you can be sure that future research will likely identify cluster genetic traits and their environmental interactions that lead to certain personality types or behaviors.
The fatal flaw with this research is that it is using criminality as a measure. Using that measure, then whiteness is associated with prison-avoidance behavior. Also criminality changes over time. Today it is illegal to own another person, but 150 years ago, that was legal. So have the genetics changed in 150 years to remove the slave-owner genes? Jaywalking is illegal in most cities, but not in most rural areas. Do my genetics change when I cross in the middle of a street in a city from when I do the same in the country? Has my brain changed? Certainly not.
When people start talking about genetics of behavior, I like to bring up dogs. We all know that different breeds of dogs have been selected for differences in temperament. Pit bulls and similar breeds are aggressive and make the best fighting dogs. Labradors and similar breeds are not aggressive and are great with kids.
But if given two average puppies from each breed, I could raise a good companion pet from each breed, and I could make a vicious attack dog from each breed—although it would be easier to make a companion pet of the lab and a fighting dog of the pit bull. When pit bulls are raised to be good dogs, the vast majority of them become good family pets. And I know from personal experience that labs can attack other dogs.
I believe that much of who we are and our abilities are developed in the first few years of life, and that there are genetic or physical differences that influence our abilities as we grow.
I was a special deputy sheriff for several years in the 1970s, and I had the opportunity to see firsthand the traits described in this article. One point that needs to be clear is that they exist on a continuum. To a certain extent, some of these behaviors are not uncommon among law-enforcement officers themselves. A moderate amount of relative fearlessness and insensitivity has certain advantages in their world, but when you encounter these traits at their extreme, it's a terrifying thing to behold. Some people are simply not able to exist in a civilized society, and they have little or no control over that fact.
Perhaps the solution lies in some form of medical or neurological intervention, but absent that, some people are simply wired to be in constant trouble of one kind or another, in or out of prison, throughout their lives. They remain an unexplained mystery to their parents and everyone who knows them. It's sad, but it's true.