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Christianity, Culture, Politics, science

Psychopaths, God, and Crime

Neuroscience is fast becoming a major thorn in the side of conservative religious politicians.  Oh, they don’t admit it, but can you recall the last time theists changed their core theology for the sake of science?  It’s a once a half-millenium or so occurrence.  (It was 1979 when they finally got around to forgiving Galileo for being right.)

New research is demonstrating conclusively that the brains of criminals and psychopaths are substantially different than those of “normal” people.

Brain scans of the antisocial people, compared with a control group of individuals without any mental disorders, showed on average an 18-percent reduction in the volume of the brain’s middle frontal gyrus, and a 9 percent reduction in the volume of the orbital frontal gyrus – two sections in the brain’s frontal lobe. LINK

These results are just a smattering on the emerging canvas of the human mind.  What’s becoming more and more clear is that our brains — formed quite beyond our conscious control — are what control our consciousness.

One test on the participants at age 3 measured their response to fear – called fear conditioning – by associating a stimulus, such as a tone, with a punishment like an electric shock, and then measuring people’s involuntary physical responses through the skin upon hearing the tone.

In this case, the researchers found a distinct lack of fear conditioning in the 3-year-olds who would later become criminals. These findings were published in the January 2010 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Like so many other behavioral and emotional traits, we’re finding that crime can be predicted with remarkable reliability in humans too young to be “victims” of social conditioning.  This knowledge has serious implications for both penal and rehabilitative criminal justice.  Luckily, there’s hope:

“Brain research is showing us that neurogenesis can occur even into adulthood,” said psychologist Patricia Brennan of Emory University in Atlanta. “Biology isn’t destiny. There are many, many places you can intervene along that developmental pathway to change what’s happening in these children.”

In other words, with enough good scientific understanding, we can change at-risk people’s environments, decreasing their chances of becoming criminals.  Or, to put it in a more politically and religiously volatile way — We know now that environment shapes brain which shapes actions.  Knowing this,we have no more excuse for “group blame” for the poor, criminals, and many people with mental illness.

It’s tricky territory, to be sure, but what we’re talking about is groups of people.  Show me a group of a thousand people with “abnormal” amygdalae, and I’ll show you a group with more criminals than a thousand “normals.”  

We’re left with two glaring questions:

What does this knowledge say about God? Presumably, a god who knows everything knows all about this stuff.  He also knows that by allowing abnormal amygdalae and “negative environments” to coexist, he’s effectively sentencing at least a percentage of people to hell.  Either that, or he forgot to mention a loophole for psychopaths.  But if there’s a loophole for psychopaths, then how is that fair to the rest of us?

What does this say about politics? If environment comes first, then it’s time to give up on the conservative politics of “pull yourself out of your own hole.”  We have to stop blaming criminals and the poor for creating their environment.  If we continue to insist that people reverse engineer their brains, we’re denying reality.  We must create an environment that counteracts the formation of “abnormal” brains, and prevent crime before the criminal brains are even formed.

Is it social engineering?  Absolutely.  It’s not eugenics, though, and it’s not creating a “super-race.”  It’s not genetic engineering gone haywire like some sci-fi thriller.

Social engineering is what we’ve always done as long as we’ve been human.  We always look at what we’d like society to be and try to find ways to change the environment to create it.  That’s what our “war on drugs” is.  It’s what our penal system is designed for.  It’s why we make laws.  It’s why we have the EPA, the FDA, and the AMA.

Except that a lot of what we’re doing doesn’t work.  Especially when it comes to preventing crime and keeping people out of prison.  The U.S. prison population per capita resembles that of fascist regimes, not a democracy.  If we want to keep people out of prison, we have to acknowledge the science and stop crime before it starts.

This is why science is better than religion and faith.  Religion gives us a system where individuals really do have free will to be anything they want to be regardless of their circumstances.  Science tells us that it’s not true.  The reality is that we have a great responsibility to our fellow man.  We owe it to them to actively create an environment where their children will not be likely to become criminals.

Conservative politics based on the religious doctrine of free will are outdated and unscientific.  Unfortunately, well over half of our country is very religious, and they tend very strongly (environment in action??) to side with conservatives, especially when it comes to issues of environment vs. free will.  Even many voting “moderates” are strongly opposed to things like universal healthcare and other “socialist” measures, despite the fact that many non-communist socialist countries have the happiest populations with the lowest crime rates in the world.

Our religious emphasis on free will combined with our Post-Cold-War paranoia towards communism have (environment in action??) combined to prevent us from being able to consider a realistic compromise between unrestrained capitalism and the gross economic discrepancy it creates and overbearing government micromanagement that stifles growth.

Perhaps… just perhaps… if enough of us talk about it publicly, it will change the environment in America.  Maybe that change in environment will be enough to change enough brains so that enough people make healthier decisions for our society.



10 thoughts on “Psychopaths, God, and Crime

  1. I think this illustrates the severe consequence of getting it wrong when it comes to enviroment and conditioning. If we think we’re helping, but we’re not, then well…. that’s not good.

    Which is why I always emphasize that we should demand more evidence than selling hot dogs at baseball games.

    With that said, we’ve had arguments about group dynamics vs enviroment without you even realizing that group dynamics IS enviroment.

    Posted by cptpineapple | March 7, 2011, 7:14 pm
  2. Perhaps not. I’m pretty sure that I know group dynamics is part of any discussion of environment. And that’s pretty much the theme of my whole blog.

    So… I think maybe you misunderstood something.

    Posted by hambydammit | March 7, 2011, 7:21 pm
  3. So… I think maybe you misunderstood something.

    Poor little cutesy naive armchair scientists Alison 😦

    Posted by cptpineapple | March 7, 2011, 7:47 pm
  4. It’s funny when two people agree and one of them still insists on arguing that they don’t. Until you’re one of the two arguing.

    I just figured this out from an argument I had on facebook the other day. I feel badly for both of you.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | March 8, 2011, 10:08 am
  5. p.s. It is pretty entertaining to watch though.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | March 8, 2011, 10:09 am
  6. It’s funny when two people agree and one of them still insists on arguing that they don’t. Until you’re one of the two arguing.

    Alison and I have been doing this for what… maybe three years now? Maybe more. The funny thing is that she hasn’t recognized yet that she’s pretty much always come around to my side eventually…

    Or, to put it more precisely, she’s realized that she’s agreed with me the whole time. With Alison, it’s just a matter of waiting it out long enough so that some variation of the same trope hits a nerve and she realizes she’s just misunderstood what I was saying.

    Posted by hambydammit | March 8, 2011, 4:25 pm
  7. They’ll manufacture drugs to give these kids sooner than they’ll change or improve upon their environments.

    Posted by Meme | March 8, 2011, 5:45 pm
  8. Hamby, I think you’re overestimating your ability to make me come.

    I think it’s more of our definition of religion. You think that we would be better off without religion, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, and you just re-define religion to include everything under the sun that’s irrational and harmful, while I don’t use that definition.

    So the two major gripes I have with you is your definition of religion, and selling hotdogs and ballparks.

    Posted by cptpineapple | March 8, 2011, 7:02 pm
  9. Good post, Hamby, and very relevant to what I wrote about today. You were the first person to explain the free will fallacy to me, and since then it seems that practically every thing we’re learning about the human genome confirms that.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | March 11, 2011, 6:00 pm
  10. You were the first person to explain the free will fallacy to me

    Wow. I’m thrilled to know that! As a fellow blogger, I’m sure you appreciate how good it feels to know that you’ve made a difference in the way someone views the universe. Thanks so much for telling me.

    Posted by hambydammit | March 11, 2011, 7:14 pm

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