Saturday, 9 February 2013

Cesare Lombroso 2.0 and the search for Shatner’s Bassoon

By Andrew Henley, Graduate Teaching Assistant in Criminology

This week the Mail Online brought us news of a German ‘neurologist’ who claims to have discovered a ‘dark patch’ at the front of the brain which is present in people with records for criminal violence. Dr Gerhard Roth apparently claims that “the 'evil patch' lies in the brain's central lobe and shows up as a dark mass on X-rays.” The story comes complete with pictures of Hannibal Lecter (everyone’s favourite fictional psychopath), Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. This story immediately aroused the part of my brain associated with the detection of ‘woo’ on a number of levels.

As all students of criminology will know, the notion of criminal behaviour as being somehow biologically determined is nothing new. Indeed, at the very roots of the criminological project we encounter Cesare Lombroso - the founder of the so called Italian School of Positivist Criminology. Lombroso was convinced that ‘born criminals’ could be distinguished from ‘non-criminals’ through the identification of physical defects which marked out the former group as atavistic throwbacks or “savages”. The criticisms of Lombrosian criminal anthropometrics are too numerous to list here, but suffice to say a wide range of alternative explanations for crime have emerged in the century or so which have followed the Italian School. These have included a greater appreciation of the social, economic and cultural factors associated with those harmful acts which are given meaning by our labelling them as ‘crimes’.

However, the re-emergence of biological determinism as in this story does play into a deeply held belief on the part of many people that somehow ‘they’ (criminals) are not like ‘us’ (law-abiding citizens). As I’ve already stated in an earlier blog post, there are approximately 9.2 million people on the UK Police National Computer with a recorded conviction for a criminal offence – and these are just the people who get caught and convicted. This somewhat undermines the comforting but false notion that criminality is solely the preserve of a select number of ‘hardened criminals’ and that all that remains is to somehow identify them and keep them away from everyone else.

Yet, the content of this story is also pretty suspect on a scientific level too (although I’m sure my colleagues in the Schools of Medicine and Psychology will correct me if I’ve got this all wrong). The Mail describes Roth as a ‘neurologist’ which I had always understood as a medical doctor who specialises in the diagnosis and treatment of those disorders associated with the brain and central nervous system. It seems that Roth is, in fact, a ‘neurobiologist’ which is something altogether different. The story also refers to “the brain’s central lobe”, but a quick trawl of most human biology textbooks seems to reveal that the brain is actually divided into the ‘occipital’, ‘parietal’, ‘frontal’ and ‘temporal’ lobes with no mention of a ‘central lobe’. Fans of Brass Eye will remember that the creator of the programme Chris Morris once managed to convince that esteemed medical expert Noel Edmonds to warn young people about the dangers of ‘Cake’ – a ‘made up drug’ which affected a part of the brain known as ‘Shatner’s  Bassoon’. One wonders if through all this talk of ‘evil patches’ readers of the Mail are being led up a similar garden path to that of Mr Edmonds.

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