A NEW book I’ve just read has reminded me of the oldest question in criminology: are the roots of criminality in our biology and genes, or instead fashioned in how we’ve been socialised within our family, and thereafter by our friends? Are offenders born, or are they made? Is it in their nature to commit crime, or a result of how they’ve been nurtured?

The book is called The Old Man and Me and is written by Jason Wilson, the son of a Coventry bank robber and international drug smuggler called Tony Spencer. In it Wilson tries to understand what made his father the way he was, and how he himself managed to just about avoid following in his old man’s footsteps.

The question at the heart of The Old Man and Me has perhaps taken on greater urgency since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2000, with one leading forensic psychologist, Professor Adrian Raine, convinced “beyond reasonable doubt” that we will find a “criminal gene”. Raine’s confidence follows in the wake of research by Han Brunner in the Netherlands which identified a genetic disorder associated with a mutation in the MAOA gene, and which is now sometimes called Brunner Syndrome or Monoamine Oxidase A Deficiency.

This mutation means that there is insufficient MAOA, which leads to behavioural problems such as impulsivity, ADHD, alcoholism and other forms of risky behaviour. This deficiency was noted in 2006 as being particularly prevalent within the New Zealand Maori population when compared to the native Caucasian population. This all became more popularly known as a “warrior gene” – the existence of which was used to explain higher rates of criminality amongst NZ’s indigenous peoples.

Raine in particular wants to know why “it’s always men” who are the murderers, and why “women tend to be worriers, rather than warriors”. His own research used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to look at the brains of murderers, and Raine argues that they don’t look like our brains because there is a “striking lack of activation in the prefrontal cortex”. As a result these individuals will lose emotional control and get angry much more easily than you and I might; be risk-taking and rule-breaking; have poor social skills and problem-solving abilities, which means that they will often turn to violence.

This genetic and biological search for the roots of criminality has a very long history.

In the Victorian era Cesare Lombroso in L’Uomo Delinquent believed that offenders were inferior, “atavistic types” – just like apes – and that it was possible to view an offender’s distinctive physique. Based on his study of the facial features of more than 4,000 prisoners, Lombroso concluded that you could predict that someone would become an offender if they had large ears, sloping foreheads and prominent jaws, and suggested that murderers would have bloodshot eyes, and curly hair.

Lombroso’s work had a major impact on how people started to think about offending, and offenders especially after L’Uomo Delinquent was translated into English in 1911. In the 1940s, for example, William Sheldon linked crime to body types – somatotyping, and argued that body types were related to temperament. He divided the human race into three different types of bodies: the endomorph, ectomorph and mesomorph. The endomorph was chubby and round, the ectomorph was skinny and frail, but neither of these types would be offenders. On the other hand, the mesomorph would be heavy and muscular, and it was someone with this body type who would be an offender.

A little later twin studies – initially carried out by Karl Christiansen in Denmark – compared criminality amongst identical twins with criminality between fraternal twins, so as to determine whether there was a genetic basis for their offending behaviour. There was evidence of a slightly higher rate of similar criminality (concordance) amongst identical twins – monozygotic twins are created when a single egg is fertilised by a single sperm cell but then splits in two – than between fraternal twins, or dizygotic twins, who are the result of the fertilisation of two separate eggs with two different sperm during the same pregnancy. Even if concordance rates were low, overall this type of research does suggest that there might be some genetic link to criminality.

More controversially in the 1960s it was suggested that murderous men had an extra “Y” chromosome – in other words they were “XYY”. XYY’s relationship to violence emerged with the publication in the 1960s of a paper in the respected science journal Nature which suggested that blood tests from Scottish prisoners, held at the state asylum Carstairs Hospital, showed that four per cent were XYY – a figure which related to seven out of the 196 male prisoners. This really hit the headlines in the wake of the murders of eight nurses in Chicago by an American serial killer called Richard Speck who was supposedly XYY, although this was later proven not to be the case, although by then the popular association between crime and genetics had been made.

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However, let’s take stock – beyond laughing at Lombroso – and do so by asking better questions than those posed by Adrian Raine.

After all it’s quite clear that not all men are murderers, and a better question might be to ask “which men become murderers, and in what circumstances?” Perhaps we might also want to question why some women kill – some can be “warriors” as much as “worriers” – and we should also note that eight out of 10 men are the victims of murder across the globe, no matter the appalling rates of femicide.

Beyond violence and murder, is it really possible to imagine that there exists a single genetic cause for every type of criminality that occurs? We might have some genetic predisposition to behave in all types of ways, but that predisposition is usually ameliorated and improved by how we’ve been socialised and raised. Frankly it is neither nature nor nurture, but a messy combination of the two unique to that individual, which creates our behaviour and our life chances. Thank goodness it does, or society would have even bigger problems to contend with if we ever did find a criminal gene – should a foetus with such a gene be aborted? Could we hold someone accountable for their violence if the cause of that violence was beyond the individual’s ability to control?

In Jason Wilson’s case he did not end up in prison like his father, but he did transport money and drugs in support of his father’s smuggling operation. However his unease, and his own overwhelming desire not to go down that same criminal path meant that he escaped any genetic inheritance he might have received from his "old man" – and that should give us all cause for quiet celebration.

David Wilson is emeritus professor of criminology at Birmingham City University

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