Is Predisposition Destiny?

The emerging field of "neurocriminology"

Posted May 07, 2013

A Wall Street Journal article of April 27, 2013 states, “Brain-imaging techniques are identifying physical deformations and functional abnormalities that predispose some individuals to violence.” The article hails the rising field of “neurocriminology” as “revolutionizing our understanding of violent behavior.”  Speculation is offered that, in the future, violent behavior may be “reformulated as a symptom of a physiological disorder.”

We are a long way from having conclusive scientific evidence to warrant such a “reformulation.”  One, among many, important questions to be answered is whether there are people with identical deformations and abnormalities who do not engage in violent conduct?  For decades, we have seen innumerable formulations about alleged causes of criminal behavior.  In the 1960s, the emphasis was on aspects of the social environment, particularly poverty, that allegedly cause crime. We have been hearing a lot recently about violence depicted in the media and in video games allegedly playing a major contributory role in criminal behavior.  And, for years, we have heard about exposure to lead, particularly in the form of lead paint, as a contributing factor to criminality. Most poor people are not criminals.  Millions of people watch violent programming and play violent games but do not even think about enacting what they see.  And certainly there have been innumerable youngsters who were exposed to lead who did not turn into criminals.

Whatever is found in terms of predisposition, we must ask the question as to whether having a predisposition mean that invariably one develops the condition.  There is a hereditary predisposition to prostate cancer in some families.  That does not mean that dying of the disease is the inevitable destination of those so predisposed.  Early identification, modifications in diet, life style changes, and medical intervention if the disease develops are all possible, meaning that thousands of predisposed people will not die of that disease.

In some families, there is a predisposition toward alcoholism.  That does not mean that all family members so predisposed will develop and ultimately die of alcoholism or related conditions.  Rather, it means that if one knows there is such a predisposition, all the more reason to choose not to consume alcoholic beverages or, at the very least, do so in moderation.

Predisposition does not obliterate choice and assumption of personal responsibility.  To be clear, I am not suggesting one can choose his predisposition.  You can’t just say “no” to prostate cancer. But you can take measures that may reduce the likelihood of developing or dying from the disease.  With regard to alcoholism, you certainly can say “no” to having a drink.

Thus the question remains, if there turns out to be a biological or genetic predisposition toward violent behavior, does that doom the individual to a life of violence over which he has no control?