Scientists Search for 'Criminal Element' in All the Wrong Places


Scientists and the 'Criminal Element'
The People
March 25, 1995



"If there is an overall political issue around the prison, it is not therefore whether it is to be corrective or not; whether the judges, the psychiatrists or the sociologists are to exercise more power in it than the administrators or supervisors; it is not even whether we should have prison or something other than prison. At present, the problem lies rather in the steep rise in the use of these mechanisms of normalization and the wide-ranging powers, which through the proliferation of new disciplines, they bring with them."



Other than taxes, there is nothing more precious to a politician than railing against crime. It is a perennial issue worth innumerable hours of posturing on behalf of the "commonweal." Since capitalism and poverty go hand in hand with crimes of violence, assault and robbery, these are bound to rise, particularly in this period of the system's decline. Hence, legislative halls nationwide are abuzz with posturing politicians proposing to expand police powers, prisons and jails. Archreactionary Newt Gingrich, never at a loss for harebrained ideas, recently suggested tracking released convicts electronically. Such "innovations" are indicative of the desperation that has seized the minions of the system as violent crime has remained constant despite more police, jails and prisons over the past three decades.

The 'Criminal Element'

In a similar vein, the March issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN carried a review entitled, "Seeking the Criminal Element," by W. Wayt Gibbs, that summarized efforts currently underway to locate the origin of violent crime in biological and social "risk factors."

Currently, a number of researchers are delving into what they believe to be factors that cause an individual to commit violent crimes. "As sociologists reap the benefits of rigorous long-term studies, and neuroscientists tug at the tangled web of behavior and brain chemistry," Mr. Gibbs noted, "many are optimistic that science will identify markers of maleficence." Rest assured, however, that their research will be safely distant from any indictment of capitalism's "maleficence"! For what all these "men of science" share in common is their reverent devotion to the imperatives of capitalism, reducing all social problems to the behavior of individuals.

An example of the "science" they are pursuing was offered by Stuart C. Yudofsky, chair of psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine and editor of the JOURNAL OF NEUROPSYCHIATRY AND CLINICAL NEUROSCIENCES. "With the expected advances," he declared, "we're going to be able to diagnose many people who are biologically brain-prone to violence." "I'm not worried about the downside," Yudofsky continued, "as much as I am encouraged by the opportunity to prevent tragedies -- to screen people who might have a high risk and to prevent them from harming someone else."

The "downside" he refers to is the coercive role the state will play once their contrived conclusions are presented to an astounded world, for there are unholy precedents to the alchemy being brewed by this breed. As Mr. Gibbs noted, "the history of science's assault on crime is blemished by instances in which incorrect conclusions were used to justify cruel and unusual punishments...In the early 1930s, when the homicide rate was higher than it is today, eugenics was in fashion." The eugenics movement was based upon the idea that certain mental illnesses and criminal traits were inherited. According to Ronald L. Akers, director of the Center for Studies in Criminology and Law at the University of Florida, "It was based upon bad science, but they thought it was good science at the time."

Mr. Akers refers to the fact that as a result of eugenics, which every capitalist state employed and which formed the backbone of Nazi ideology, U.S. states enacted laws allowing compulsory sterilization of the mentally handicapped, insane and habitual criminals.

'Bad Science'

Nor was the era of the '30s the last time "bad science" was employed in the service of capitalism. As recently as the 1960s, "studies" concluded that many violent criminals had an extra Y chromosome, hence an additional male gene that purportedly explained criminal conduct. Xandra O. Breakfield, a geneticist of Massachusetts General Hospital, observed that, "it was a dark day for science in Boston when they started screening babies for it."

In the 1920s and 1930s, it was eugenics and the mentally handicapped; in the 1960s it was chromosomes and babies; now it is brain chemistry with screening juvenile delinquents. One current research path uncovered abnormal levels of manganese in the hair clippings of accused and convicted felons, which Curtis D. Hunt of the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Center declared, "may be meaningless" since such deposits are no indication of the substance in the brain.

Another research direction identified higher than normal levels of testosterone concentrations in prison inmates who "are more likely to have committed violent crimes." However, this was qualified by the caveat that "the link is indirect and mediated by numerous social factors." Someone else has located low heart rate as an antisocial correlate, noting that 14 studies found that "problem children and petty criminals tend to have significantly lower pulses than do well-behaved counterparts."

Yet another researcher found that violent individuals have lower levels of serotonin, "a chemical that inhibits the secretion of stomach acid...and in the brain functions as a neurotransmitter." Serotonin was cited as having a calming effect on otherwise violent behavior, an attribute picked up by the CHICAGO TRIBUNE that trumpeted, "When serotonin declines, impulsive aggression is unleashed."

Crossing a 'Thin Line'

Such declarations by the media do more than "violence to the science," as SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN noted, for they insinuate that genetic manipulations upon those that are often the most victimized will solve violent crime. Indeed, Mr. Gibbs noted the danger by quoting one authority who stated: "It is one thing to convict someone of an offense and compel them to do something. It is another thing to go to someone who has not done anything wrong and say, 'you look like a high risk, so you have to do this....' There is a very clear ethical difference, but that is a very thin line that people, especially politicians, might not cross over."

Newt Gingrich is precisely the kind of creature who is likely to "cross over," for he represents the coercive and unscrupulous power of the state ready to dispense with the thin veil of constitutional guarantees that moderate the criminal conduct of the capitalist system, which brings us to the real issue.

The petty crimes of delinquency and the violent crimes of capitalist society mirror and are dwarfed not only by the rampant corporate crime that has a far more deleterious effect upon society than street crime, but by the legalized robbery of the working class.

Clinard and Yaeger noted in CORPORATE CRIME: "Far more persons are killed through corporate criminal activities than by individual criminal homicide." However, it is not corporate executives that are the subjects upon which scientists focus their infernal research, nor upon those whom the speaker of the House would like to affix electronic tracking devices.

A system reared upon the mother of all crimes, exploitation and robbery of the working class, cannot abate crime. The guises of controlling violent behavior inexorably opens the Pandora's box of burgeoning abuses by the state whose coercive apparatus is already extensive. These are precisely the "new disciplines" referred to by Michael Foucault.