THERE’S a riddle that has perplexed philosophers since the time of the Greeks: what comes first, the chicken or the egg?

As a criminologist, recent events in Moscow, Idaho, have made me think about something similar – what comes first, an interest in criminology, or the desire to kill?

This criminological riddle is prompted by the arrest and charging of 28 year-old Bryan Kohberger for the murders of four University of Idaho students in the early hours of November 13, 2022: Xana Kernodle and her boyfriend Ethan Chapin, Kaylee Goncalves and Madison Mogen who, along with two other students, lived together off campus in the same house close to the Washington State border.

Kohberger was a doctoral student in criminology at Washington State University – about 10 miles away from Moscow, and had previously received his Masters in Criminal Justice from DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where he studied under Professor Katherine Ramsland.

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Professor Ramsland, whom I have met, has written extensively about violence, murder and serial murder and is perhaps best known for her work about the Kansas serial killer Dennis Rader – known as the “BTK murderer” (bind, torture and kill) which she wrote up in Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader and was largely based on her correspondence with Rader.

Rader, like Kohberger, was a graduate in criminology and he too began his killing cycle by murdering four people in the one house – the Otero family in their Wichita, Kansas home in January 1974.

Off the top of my head, I can think of six other murderers and a serial killer who have also studied criminology – although I am choosing not to name them – and so you can see how the question that I have posed worries me.

Looking at Kohberger more closely gives me even greater cause for concern, as it would appear that his Master’s dissertation was based on asking convicted offenders about “your most recent criminal offense [sic], with an emphasis on your thoughts and feelings throughout your experience”. Other questions included: “Why did you choose that victim or target over others?” and “After committing the crime, what were you thinking and feeling?”

Were these legitimate research questions, or was he in fact asking for information that might help him to better select his own “targets” and to gauge how he might feel in the aftermath of having murdered? Of course, criminology students need to understand the criminal mind – there’s nothing pathological in that. What would be worrying would be a desire to understand the criminal mind so that you could better understand yourself.

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I have taught criminology students for 25 years and, while the vast majority are a pleasure to teach, I know that every year one or two of these students will give me the creeps. I can spot them coming – especially as they usually make themselves known very quickly and are eager to tell me that they are “serial killer junkies”, or that they “love serial killers”.

They will then go on to try and impress me with their detailed knowledge about the minutiae of their “favourite” serial killer’s offending behaviour and will then expect me to offer my own thoughts or, at the very least, applaud. What in fact I reply is that criminology is a theoretical as well as an applied discipline; that I expect them to understand that theory; and that serial murder is just a very small part of the course.

The Herald: 'I know that every year one or two of these students will give me the creeps. They usually make themselves known very quickly and are eager to tell me that they are 'serial killer junkies', or that they 'love serial killers''I know that every year one or two of these students will give me the creeps. They usually make themselves known very quickly and are eager to tell me that they are 'serial killer junkies', or that they 'love serial killers' (Image: Newsquest)

You can almost see them physically deflate and unsurprisingly they will often drop out of the course in the weeks to come.

There’s also an element of self-censoring going on here in how I reply, and that’s something that I have had to learn to do from bitter experience. In a Sky TV news interview that I gave in 2006 in Ipswich, at the start of a series of murders in the town, there had been a great deal of speculation that the killer must be religious – his victims were young, female sex workers and the bodies of the first two young women had been found in water and so, this reasoning went, he was “cleansing them of their sins”.

It was like a motive you’d find in Murder She Wrote. “Not at all,” I said. “He’s putting their bodies in water to flush away any forensic evidence – he’s forensically aware, which implies he’s killed before.”

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This was clearly criminologically accurate, as subsequent events would prove. However, imagine my surprise when a few days later the very next of his victims was found posed in a cruciform position. The killer had been listening to my interview and what better way to confirm a false narrative than by staging the crime scene to make it look like something that it was not, and committed by a perpetrator with a very different motivation to the actual killer.

From that moment onwards I knew that I had to be careful about what I said about offending, crime scenes and police investigations because some people would consume that information in ways that were, well, unexpected.

The chicken and egg riddle offers two possibilities, neither of which is clearly acceptable nor suggests a better answer. It’s a riddle asking us to assess which is the cause and which is the effect. Scientifically the answer points in one direction – the egg came first, as eggs pre-date the chicken.

However, that’s only a scientific answer about a broader question, as the specific problem at the heart of the riddle is does a chicken’s egg pre-date the chicken? That’s more complicated but, in essence, the first chicken did come from an egg but that egg did not come from the bird that we would now call a chicken.

My criminological riddle is complicated too, but I would suggest that what comes first is a desire to kill and then the killer uses the study of criminology to make that fantasy become real. Thankfully that’s very rare, but it’s nonetheless one of the reasons that I have to self-censor even with my students.

Professor David Wilson is giving a public lecture at the Gardyne Theatre in Dundee on March 17.