Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"In The True Spirit Of The 'Just Thinking' Tradition..."

I recently read an article in the newspaper…okay, I didn’t read the entire article, I read the headline and the first paragraph, but it was really interesting. So interesting, in fact that I wished I had read the whole thing. Unfortunately, when I went back to read the rest of it, I discovered that the paper had been thrown in the trash, and the trash had been picked up and taken away, so I was unable to retrieve it. Still, I believe I got the gist.

The newspaper article chronicled a brain study, whose conclusion indicated that there is some genetically triggered configuration detectable in certain people’s brains that compels those people to commit crimes.

Researchers drew this conclusion after discovering that a statically significant number of people exhibiting this crime-inducing configuration are currently incarcerated in our prisons.

Though the article – at least the part I read – said nothing about this brain proclivity’s compelling these people not only to commit crimes, but also to get caught. Further study may be required to determine that. The researchers simply observed that a statistically meaningful number of criminals have a similar thing going on in their brains.

When I read stories like this, an alarm immediately goes off in my head. What triggers this alarm is that, firstly, I reflexively always believe these studies, until proven otherwise, to be true. Smart people do these studies. I give them the benefit of the doubt. Researchers are not frivolous people. They’re not,

“We developed a new theory at work today.”

“What was the evidence behind it?”

“No evidence. We just made it up.”

They don’t do that. They wear lab coats. They have a lot of pens. They take their jobs seriously. So I’m inclined to believe, until contradictory evidence comes to light, that their conclusions have merit.

For me at least, the conclusion of this study raises a fundamental question. If a person acts in a criminal manner as a result of some compelling signal from their brain , how do you feel justified putting that person in jail? They didn’t want to do what they did. The “thing in their brain” made them. The study offers clear evidence of this connection, in the form of: All those prisoners who have pretty much the same thing going on in their brains.

Our culture hates that kind of talk. Just writing it, I felt I was transmitting phoney-baloneyness. I mean, it sounds so bogus. The “Twinkie Defense” with brain patterns.

Our culture has little patience for excuses. Especially excuses made by criminals, angling for a lighter sentence, or even exoneration. We can’t stand these people. They’re not just one bad thing, they’re two – they’re criminals and they’re excuse makers.

Bury the suckers! Clank-clank!

(The Law & Order audial signifier for prison.)

Back in the fifties, before genetic studies grabbed the explanational spotlight, sociology was the discipline of choice to explain aberrant behavior, an approach satirized most memorably in the West Side Story song, “Officer Krupke”, which offered deliciously lampooning lyrics like,

“I’m depraved on account’a I’m deprived.”

It’s the “troubled background” defense. Don’t blame the criminal, the sociological argument goes, blame the environment they grew up in. If not for their pitiful childhoods, the argument suggests, they’d be model citizens.

This rationale seemed persuasive since, statistically, people from untroubled backgrounds were less likely to commit crimes. The problem was all those pesky exceptions – contemporaries who grew up in the same terrible environments, yet wound up becoming dazzling achievers and pillars of the community. These “success story” people made the criminals look like losers. If they could, they would kill them.

The less than sturdy correlation between upbringing and mayhem threw the spotlight back on “personal responsibility.” Where we feel more comfortable having it. It feels more like justice. The law says if you are sufficiently competent to know the difference between right and wrong, and you do something wrong,


And no complaints, Mister. You knew what you did was wrong, and you did it anyway. So


Or in case of murder,

“The Big Snooze.”

But what if, unlike the not-buyin’-it “Crappy upbringing” defense, it could be demonstrated, with considerably fewer exceptions, that there’s a correlation between criminal behavior and the thing criminals have in their brains? What if this theory actually turns out to be valid, or as valid as scientific examination can currently make it? Is it “clank-clank!” anyway?

Clank-clank! For something their “brain thing” legitimately caused them them do? That doesn’t seem fair. I mean, I know we hate these guys, but come on! Addicts don’t get clank-clank! They get treatment. But with criminals, acting under some uncontrollable impulse from their brains…

The heck with ‘em! Clank-clank!

“We’re aware you couldn’t help it, but you really disgust us, so adios.”

For a really long time. In a really bad place.

In fact, “Adios forever” might make a boatload of sense. Because, if the “brain thing” is truly the cause of their criminal behavior, and we don’t fix that “brain thing”, when those folks come out of prison, they’re going to do it again!

And again. And again. And again. And again.

Our world works in the orderly manner we appreciate and understand, when we lock up people who did wrong, because they had the free-will-driven option not to.

The question is:

What if they didn’t?


Neal... said...

Interesting questions -- I think the issue is whether they really are "uncontrollable impulses" though.

From what I can remember of reading about this sort of stuff, this kind of genetic link to crime is normally framed as creating a propensity towards particular behaviour, and in the right (or rather wrong) circumstances it can lead to a life of crime. It may also exist in all sorts of people in different environments, and in better circumstances (or maybe worse) prompts people to become local councillors.

And also, of course, often addicts do get 'clank-clank' too, when their problem leads to criminal behaviour. Perhaps except in Hollywood.

And it's easy to mix-up understandable reasons for doing bad things, and valid excuses.

Another thing I remember reading about: a prison policy introduced somewhere with solid liberal foundations on encouraging rehabilitation rather than punishment as the purpose for prison, which saw sentences focus on letting prisoners out when they could demonstrate they'd learnt their lesson, rather than when some arbitrary punitive period of time had passed. It ended when people were found to be doing five years-plus with no sign of a release date for shoplifting teabags because they couldn't prove they wouldn't do it again...

Mac said...

Fascinating. If I had the talent of Philip K. Dick I'd be bashing out a "Minority Report"-style screenplay on the ethics of locking them up before they commit a crime.
There's been some studies which appear to show biological anomalies in psychopaths which show that they're physically incapable of empathy; the part of the brain that should respond with revulsion to suffering, and fellow-feeling for the sufferer, simply isn't working as it should. So what do you do? Lock them up before they do something awful? The same studies have shown that some people lacking empathy or compassion can go on to be successful (usually in business and/or politics) and never have any murderous traits. You wouldn't want to work for them but they're not going to kill you and bury you in the desert.
Obviously psychopathic behavior is extreme and most crime doesn't involve that, but it's an incredibly complex issue with so many factors to be considered. If a genetic predisposition to crime could be proven beyond doubt, God knows how they could go about addressing it, or what the correct legislation would be.
Anyway, very interesting post. Cheers.

Keith said...

Don't we all do everything because of the "thing in our brain"? Before we use this to empty the prisons we should first use it to eliminate awards shows.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; you're thinking but this feels very straw to me. I'd like to know just how much the study was misrepresented (not lied about, but just gotten wrong or simplified by the reporter) in the paragraph you read. Science and media reports don't get along.


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levitra cialis said...

It is an interesting article, I saw something similar in discovery channel, where doctors were saying that it can be detectable in kids if they are going to be murderers or not.