The Neurobiology of Criminal Behavior:
Gene-Brain-Culture Interaction

The Neurobiology of Criminal Behavior: Gene-Brain-Culture Interaction

Authors: Anthony Walsh and Jonathan D. Bolen
Publisher: Farnham, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. 216p.
Reviewer: Matt DeLisi | March 2013

The biosocial paradigm shift in criminology and criminal justice continues to gain momentum. Once an almost exclusively sociological arena, the study of crime now openly embraces theory, research, constructs, and research methodologies from the biological fields and neurosciences to understand the causes and correlates of crime. Unfortunately, more than 90% of graduate programs in criminology do not offer training or coursework in biology, neurology, genetics, and related courses. As a result, much of the teaching that occurs in biosocial criminology comes from biosocial criminologists themselves, almost all of whom are self-taught.

Enter Anthony Walsh and Jonathan Bolen’s The Neurobiology of Criminal Behavior: Gene-Brain-Culture Interaction. The book is clear, concise, and covers large topical areas in its eleven chapters in just 165 pages (there are also extensive references that are an outstanding resource in their own right). The basic logic and organization of the book is to present big picture concepts and/or research areas and to illustrate how genes, the brain, and culture interact to produce antisocial conditions and behaviors. Chapter 1 provides an introduction and overview of the brain and brain imaging techniques that are often used in neuroimaging research. The chapter orients the reader to help understand basic concepts about brain anatomy, function, connectivity, and how these are measured. Chapter 2 examines neurotransmission within the brain. The chapter conveys complex processes in a straightforward way so that readers without biological backgrounds can understand how various neurotransmission systems are related to various types of genes (or polymorphisms) and how these are in turn related to behavior. Chapter 3 illustrates biosocial science by examining how stress, abuse, toxins or teratogens, and prosocial environments, such as nurturing, affect the developing brain which in turn affects behavior. In other words, this chapter showcases how social/environmental processes affect biology (the brain) that affects social behavior. Chapter 4 focuses on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), and Conduct Disorder (CD) — three psychiatric conditions with direct relevance to self-regulation and antisocial behavior. The chapter is mostly on ADHD. Chapter 5 examines the age-crime curve through the lens of hormonal development (puberty) and brain maturation. Long considered an invariant social fact, Walsh and Bolens articulate how the age-crime effect is readily understandable from a neurobiological perspective.

Chapter 6 examines substance abuse and some of the genetic underpinnings of alcohol, drug use, and crime. The chapter provides special coverage of the physiological effects of these substances on the brain, and thus on behavior. Chapter 7 examines intelligence and its important role in determining prosocial behaviors (especially when intelligence is higher) and antisocial behaviors (especially when intelligence is lower). Although the intelligence-crime link has long been acknowledged and long been a source of controversy, this chapter provides the science behind its relationship. Chapter 8 examines the linkages between mental illness and crime including discussion about the prevalence of psychiatric problems among criminal justice system clients. The chapter has extensive information about schizophrenia, its genetic underpinnings, and its association with violence. Chapter 9 explores criminal violence and the evolutionary and neurological forces that produce it. Chapter 10 examines the many explanations for the dramatic sex differences in violence and antisocial behavior. The chapter takes traditional feminist and cultural explanations to task. Finally, chapter 11 examines psychopathy. For a variety of neurobiological reasons, Walsh and Bolen suggest that the psychopath is the quintessential criminal.

One of the best features of The Neurobiology of Criminal Behavior: Gene-Brain-Culture Interaction is that it conveys technical, advanced concepts and processes in an inviting, non-threatening way. There are several examples of this. For instance, several conceptual models in neuropsychology point to the interplay between subcortical brain regions that are responsible for emotion and primordial impulses, and the cortical or frontal regions that must executively modulate those impulses. Several of the chapters demonstrate how the brain functions, and what the specific deficits are in the brain for those who display antisocial conditions, such as psychopathy. Another contribution is the recurrent discussion of genetics, what genes actually do, and how subtle variations in genetic structure and expression manifest in potentially large differences in terms of personality and behavior. Readers will learn that individual-level differences in specific variants of genes means that some people have too little serotonin (and thus not enough restraint, withdrawal, or inhibition) and too much dopamine (and thus too much approach, activation, sensation-seeking) in their brain. Moreover, Walsh and Bolen repeatedly cite studies—most of them meta-analyses or systematic reviews—which have shown that about 50 percent of variance in crime and related constructs is genetic in origin. This allows the reader to appreciate how powerful genetic effects are, while also understanding the mutual role of environments, and the interplay between genes and environments. Another personal favorite part of the book is the artful way that biological concepts are described. The outstanding writing pulls the reader in and motivates them to want to learn more about the neurobiology of crime.

Despite its clarity, some of the content of The Neurobiology of Criminal Behavior: Gene-Brain-Culture Interaction will be difficult to digest if the reader is wedded to traditional criminological approaches to understanding crime. The age-crime curve chapter particularly shows how a neurobiological perspective can illuminate what was once a great black-box of sociological criminology. Adherents to cultural and subcultural explanations will potentially be challenged by Walsh and Bolen’s critique of Margaret Mead’s work and legacy. But this should not necessarily be the case. Throughout the book, Walsh and Bolen go to great lengths to show how evolutionary processes, cultural forces, and environmental contexts are absolutely required to completely understanding the neurobiology of crime. Despite its title, The Neurobiology of Criminal Behavior: Gene-Brain-Culture Interaction affirms the relevance and vitality of the social sciences, especially sociology.

Anthony Walsh occupies a unique niche in criminology in that he has been utilizing and advocating an interdisciplinary, neurobiological approach throughout his career, but it has only been in the past decade or so that it has fully taken hold. In this respect, Walsh is a role model for a younger generation of criminal justice researchers who stridently use these methods to understand crime. For biosocial criminologists, a small but growing group, this book will be a handy resource on very familiar material. For criminologists who are brand new to a neurobiological approach to understanding crime, the bookis a fun, handy, and relevant overview of material that will get even the most novice of readers up to speed. For the lay person who simply enjoys learning about criminal behavior, The Neurobiology of Criminal Behavior: Gene-Brain-Culture Interaction is a great place to start. I strongly recommend this book.

Matt DeLisi, Professor and Coordinator of Criminal Justice Studies, Iowa State University

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