Viewpoint: ‘Using biology to understand criminal behavior has long been controversial. Top criminology programs are pursuing it anyway’

Recently, some biosocial criminologists, including Boutwell and Barnes, have been joining with behavioral geneticists and other scientists on genome wide association studies, or GWAS (pronounced GEE-wahs). The technique, pioneered in the past two decades, scans vast databases of genetic data, looking for correlations between particular genes and certain outcomes, such as height, IQ, or college graduation.

Burt and others argue that even these high-powered new studies rest on some misguided assumptions. Like many other experts, she’s skeptical that it’s possible to disentangle nature and nurture so neatly — in part because the categories of crime and antisocial behavior are themselves so slippery.

The problem, according to Burt and other experts, is that crime and antisocial behavior aren’t straightforward, easy-to-measure traits. Rather, these behaviors are socially constructed and highly variable. Something that’s a crime in one state — such as smoking pot — may be legal one state over. An aggressive action — such as punching someone repeatedly until they lose consciousness — may be celebrated in one context (a boxing ring) and illegal in another (a bar). And two people can be treated very differently for doing the exact same thing: Research suggests that Black elementary school children, for example, are likelier to receive disciplinary action than White children, independent of their actual behavior. And studies often find that Black adults who use drugs are likelier to be arrested and incarcerated than White adults who use drugs.

“We behave in context,” Burt said. She brought up an example: People who have “biological propensities — and I can agree that we have different ones — that might lead to impulsivity or risk-taking or even selfishness and disregard for other people, sort of predatory activities.” In an affluent environment, Burt said, someone with those traits may end up flourishing: They go to Wall Street, where their predatory behaviors lead to large paychecks. Meanwhile, “someone growing in inner city, with not those opportunities,” she added, “may end up engaging in predatory behaviors that are criminalized.”

Burt and other critics say that biosocial accounts of crime just don’t fully account for this complexity. A study linking, say, high testosterone levels with felonies runs the risk of implying that testosterone levels are immutable — and that felonies are somehow a set natural property, like the height of a person or the length of a day, rather than a contingent and shifting target.

Saleh-Hanna sees that as a fundamental problem in the field, one going all the way back to Lombroso. “He created this impression, that we still struggle with every day in this society, this impression that crime can be objectively scientifically defined external to the human perception,” she said. As a consequence, she added, “these notions of crime and criminality continue to be seen as natural parts of human societies.”

Certain biases, scholars say, also shape which kinds of crimes end up under the scrutiny of biological methods — and which do not. “We don’t have a notion that crimes of finance are explained by biology,” said Troy Duster, an emeritus professor of sociology at UC Berkeley. “‘Let’s take the DNA samples of the people who were involved in the Enron scandal’ — no one suggested that.” It’s only when Black, Brown, and poor White people are involved, Duster and other scholars suggest, that criminologists start to turn to biology to understand what might have gone wrong.

Recently, some genetics researchers have tried to address some of these concerns by broadening their target to “antisocial behavior” — a catchall category that can include criminal conviction, but also things like personality test results and behavior in school, although these, too, come with their own biases.

In 2013 Jorim Tielbeek, at the time a geneticist and crime scholar at VU Medical Center Amsterdam, founded the Broad Antisocial Behavior Consortium, or BroadABC, a global network of scholars who hope to uncover some of the genes associated with antisocial behaviors. (The group’s first paper, published in 2017, briefly cites some of Boutwell and his colleagues’ work involving Rushton.) In late October, the consortium published their most recent study, which draws on genetic data from more than 85,000 people.

How much that kind of research can explain remains disputed. For all the power of new tools like GWAS, some geneticists say, they have only highlighted how incredibly complex the relationship is between genes and their environment.

The process, these experts say, is even harder when studying a complicated social outcome like a criminal conviction. Eric Turkheimer, a behavior geneticist at the University of Virginia known for his skeptical takes, told Undark that he would be surprised if such approaches could account for even 1 percent of the variance among something like criminality, once researchers control for confounding factors. “And if that’s true,” he asked, “what good is it?”

Some biosocial criminologists say those sorts of concerns have pushed them to reconsider elements of their work. Boutwell, the University of Mississippi professor, said he has revised his thinking. “I think our sociological colleagues make a stronger case when they talk about the historical cultural factors that have underpinned the disparities that we see,” he said, adding that he no longer stands behind his previous work on race.

One of his collaborators, Barnes, also described changing his approach. Barnes grew up in South Carolina; his stepfather and two siblings work in law enforcement. As a graduate student, he studied with Kevin Beaver at Florida State; a senior scholar in the field described him, in an email, as “possibly the most articulate leader of the younger generation.” In an interview with Undark, Barnes said reading the work of Turkheimer and the behavioral geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden had pushed him to take a far more cautious approach to making claims about genetics and crime. He pointed to a more recent, measured paper on genetics and crime that he wrote in 2018. That paper calls on biosocial researchers to pay close attention to social and environmental factors, rather than focusing on genes in isolation. Still, the paper suggests that genetics could say something meaningful about why the criminal justice system incarcerates so many people of color. “The amount of time and care I put into that article,” he said, “is where I wanted things to be focused from there forward.”

Barnes said he’s grown more cautious in drawing conclusions about the complicated factors that drive people to crime. “It’s clear our genetic and biological makeup have an impact on our behavior,” Barnes said. “But can we get much more specific than that? I don’t think we can at this point.”

At least some criminologists have found themselves in a kind of gray area — at once skeptical of certain biosocial explanations of crime, but still open to the idea that biology plays some role in understanding violence and transgression.

When the criminologist Michael Rocque was in graduate school, he worked closely with the late Nicole Hahn Rafter, a feminist criminologist who devoted much of her career to studying Lombroso’s grim legacy, including his influence on the American eugenics movement. Working with Rafter, Rocque said in a recent interview, had an unexpected effect: It pushed him to consider how biology could still be used to responsibly to think about crime.

Today, Rocque is an associate professor at Bates College, and he has published studies documenting how bias affects the disciplinary action faced by young Black students. He’s also a co-author, with Barnes and another colleague, of a recent book on biopsychosocial criminology, and he occasionally uses biosocial methods in his work. “I have just read too much empirical research, and seen too much evidence that genes do matter,” he said. “They’re part of the story when it comes to understanding and explaining criminal behavior.”

Still, he cautioned, studies of things like genetics or neuroscience in crime often remain tentative — and not ready for applied use now. And if they ever are ready for applied use, he said, there will have to be protections in place to make sure their use is beneficial. “In my view, we’re not at the stage where any of this stuff can be put into practice in a responsible way,” said Rocque.

That hasn’t stopped some researchers from exploring potential applications. In fall 2021, the National Institute of Justice held an online symposium to announce a new volume on the study of people who desist from crime. “This volume is a significant achievement in the field of criminal justice research,” said Amy Solomon, a senior Department of Justice official appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, in introductory remarks.

Included in the volume was the 2021 report by Danielle Boisvert, the Sam Houston State criminologist. (Rocque also contributed a chapter.) In a presentation during the session, Boisvert discussed some of the many tools that a biologically-informed correctional system might use. At times, those tools seemed to blur the line between corrections and medical care: For example, Boisvert argued that neuropsychological and physiological testing could help identify developmental issues in incarcerated people, and allow them to receive appropriate care. Such testing could potentially help prisons better evaluate whether or not someone is likely to end up incarcerated again. In some cases, she argued, they may even make a case for keeping a person out of prison altogether.

Afterward, a DOJ staffer posed a question to Boisvert: How could these techniques avoid “condemning people from birth based on their biological characteristics?” Boisvert called for programs that focus on the way the environment manifests in the body — “trauma, abuse, neglect, substance use, traumatic brain injury, lead exposure” — rather than on people’s genes.

“There are other noninvasive low-cost ways that we can incorporate biological factors into assessments,” she said, “that don’t rely on DNA.”

Many experts remain skeptical that such interventions could ever do much to fix a criminal justice system they describe as systemically racist and deeply broken. “If you’re only making that system more efficient, then racism will continue to exist,” said Rollins, the University of Washington sociologist. Things like neurobiological models of crime, he said, aren’t able to address such fundamental problems.

“The only thing that they can really do,” he added, “is reinforce what’s already there.”

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