The Making and Unmaking of the Violent Brain
Oliver Rollins




IN APRIL 1997, U.S. News & World Report released an issue of its long-running weekly magazine featuring an article titled “Politics of Biology.” Written by scientific journalist Wray Herbert, “Politics of Biology” is a brief yet well-informed commentary on the stakes surrounding what Herbert called the “biologization of American culture.”1 Yet, even before turning to read Herbert’s essay, audiences were immediately struck, if not disturbed, by the magazine’s cover image of a toddler dressed in a miniature black-and-white prison-striped jumpsuit with a matching cap. Printed across the child’s torso, in a bold white font, was a single question: “Born Bad?”2 The provocative image and the rhetorical query that accompanied it were seemingly intended to tug at the audience’s sensibilities, indirectly encouraging them to grapple with the deeper societal purpose and consequences of being “born bad.” As noted in the closing words of Herbert’s article,

So, assume for a minute that there is a cluster of genes somehow associated with youthful violence. The kid who carries those genes might inhabit a world of loving parents, regular nutritious meals, lots of books, safe schools. Or his [sic] world might be a world of peeling paint and gunshots around the corner. In which environment would those genes be likely to manufacture the biochemical underpinnings of criminality? Or for that matter, the proteins and synapses of happiness?3

Further questioning is required to accurately capture the salience of Herbert’s statements. What are these supposed genetic links among biological inheritance and criminal behaviors? And how does one’s “environment” factor into this biological explanation? Critically, how will scientists detect, and accurately know, who is born bad? For that matter, what are we, as a society, being asked to do if they “discover” biological proof that the cute toddler in the prison-striped onesie may be destined for a life of crime?

While it is difficult to pin down an exact date for the emergence of this mode of inquiry, scholars often point to Italian physician Cesare Lombroso’s “criminal anthropology” in the late nineteenth century as a pivotal point for the evolution of the biology of violence.4 Research on biology and violence never regained the popularity it had during Lombroso’s heyday; nevertheless, a steadily increasing body of research seeking to find the true underpinnings of the “born criminal” thesis continues to this day. At the same time, critics from the academic, biomedical, legal, and public spheres have argued that attempts to uncover the biological roots of violence threaten philosophical doctrines like free will and personal responsibility, erroneously label crime a medical illness, stigmatize individuals deemed violent or psychologically impaired, and reinforce racist and eugenic discourses that help to justify existing inequalities in society.5 Starting in the late 1980s, however, a different approach to biology and violence was proposed, one that sought to eschew the technical, social, and ethical flaws that had plagued past versions of this research.

The latest efforts to uncover biological determinants of violence reflect the scientific breakthroughs that gave rise to modern-day genetics and the neurosciences. In general, the rise of neuroscience and genetic technologies helped to shift biomedical understandings of the human body away from blood, organs, and hormones to identification and manipulation of health through molecular-level mechanisms and biochemical functions.6 Genetic-and brain-based investigations of crime existed well before the late 1980s. However, the molecular era restored a sense of “technological optimism” for contemporary researchers in the biology of violence,7 who hoped that molecular-era science could finally deliver the definitive proof of the biological underpinnings of behavior that eluded the likes of Lombroso and others. The adoption of these new technologies, however, did little to quell critics’ suspicions that the “new” biocriminology was just “old wine in new bottles.”8

A considerable portion of this criticism was aimed at genetic research on violence, which was somewhat expected, given the pervasiveness of “gene talk” during the 1990s.9 Popular images and media narratives helped to translate the molecular language of genetics into everyday discussions, which convincingly conveyed the presumed powers of the gene. According to sociologist Dorothy Nelkin and historian Susan Lindee, this new and pervasive cultural message of “genetic essentialism . . . equate[d] human beings, in their social, historical, and moral complexity, with their genes.”10 As researchers began to utilize molecular genetics to study crime, critics issued their own counter-messages that warned of the latent dangers of biologization. Moreover, they had reason for concern.

Five years before the “born bad” article, alarms were raised about a proposed, and subsequently canceled, U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)‒sponsored conference on the genetics of crime. Opponents framed the would-be conference as a veiled endorsement of racist ideas about the nature of violence. These accusations were leveraged by the ill-informed statements of Frederick Goodwin, then director of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration. In a speech earlier that year, Goodwin referred to inner-city urban areas as “jungles” and suggested that violence committed by African American youths was synonymous with behavior of the so-called hyper-aggressive, hyper-sexualized rhesus monkey.11 Shortly after the conference fiasco, the publication of The Bell Curve in 1995 further stirred up the clouds of racial controversy surrounding genetic research, due to its authors’ claims that intelligence was both genetic and variable by race, which critics quickly lambasted as another case of genetic determinism and scientific racism.12 Moreover, such concerns persisted into the following decade, as the completion of the Human Genome Project (HGP) helped expand research on genetics and violence, and penal systems increased their dependency on DNA forensic technologies.13 Strikingly, though, very few of these critiques addressed the potential challenges of the neuroscience of violence, even though neuroimaging research on violent behaviors developed during the same time period as contemporary genetic research on violence did.

President George H. W. Bush actually designated the 1990s as the “Decade of the Brain.” Following Congress’s joint resolution of the same title, Bush’s proclamation called for increased funding to “enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research”—an objective shared by his Democratic counterpart Barack Obama nearly twenty-three years later, who was optimistic that his own BRAIN Initiative would finally “unlock the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”14 Throughout much of the decade, however, the fervor surrounding the HGP, and the promise of the gene, often overshadowed the Bush administration’s aspirations for the brain. Still, the Decade of the Brain was transformative in its own right.

Neuroscience activities intensified the development and use of brain technologies in the hope of providing greater knowledge of and treatments for neurological diseases. Public awareness of brain research also improved, along with new policy agendas that supported increasing public funding for early childhood development.15 Furthermore, one of the most important legacies of the Decade of the Brain was the enthusiasm for brain plasticity. The idea that the brain is a highly malleable composite of neuronal circuity was not new; however, the notion took on a slightly different significance during the 1990s. Brains were not just changing but being shaped through our sociocultural experiences in the world.16 The possibilities for brain research were suddenly even more appealing, and with it, a wider appreciation of a “we are our brains” ontology within the psychological (psy-) sciences.17 Seemingly tucked away in this discursive shift to “brainhood,” however, was the emergence of a new brain-based biology of violence.

Researchers in the neuroscience of violence constitute a relatively small group of neuroscientists. Like most neuroscientists today, the majority of these researchers were trained in the psy-sciences. My use of the term “neuroscientist” or “neuropsychologist,” therefore, applies to researchers from any field who primarily employ neuroscientific techniques and technologies to explore the relationship between the brain and violence.18 Neuroscientists studying violence have benefited from a significant increase in funding opportunities for neuro-related research on psychiatric disorders, which subsequently resulted in a steady rise in research on neurobiology and violence over the last thirty years. A few of the well-known neuroscientists in the field have built impressive public personas that have helped them to productively disseminate their work through media outlets and engage with public audiences. Moreover, some of the core research arguments produced here extend beyond the study of violence to address seemingly less-controversial or more-legitimate social questions and problems like altruism, childhood development, or maltreatment.19

Similar to other scientific fields, neuroscience carries no predetermined consensus of ideas. Thus there are important intradisciplinary disputes about the production, meaning, and use of neurobiological knowledges of violence. Not all researchers under the banner of neuroscience agree about what kinds of brain knowledges count as pertinent, what a neurobiological influence should or will look like, or even where and how to employ brain-based solutions for violence. Nevertheless, these collective differences are all bound by virtue of a recognition that neurobiological mechanisms allow for a more meticulous and complete interpretation of violence, and therefore constitute a new(er), yet still controversial, research program.

This research program, or simply “the program,” refers to multiple academic disciplines, researchers, methodologies, and theories of violence or criminality, all of which are ontologically aligned through a specific set of principles—a “hard core”—about the causation of criminal or violent behavior.20 Philosopher Ian Hacking characterizes the entire field of criminology as a degeneracy research program.21 In his view, the degeneracy research program hinges on two central ideas about the origins of criminal behavior: an overall recognition that deviant types are profoundly antisocial due to “innate defect[s] in individuals” and that individuals inherit such deficiencies from a previous generation.22 Although I agree with much of Hacking’s characterization, in this book the term “research program” is limited to biological theories of violence.23

There is something new about this manifestation of the (neuro)biology of violence that differs from its criminological lineage and extends beyond the interpretive flexibility allowed for by the program’s “protective belt.”24 The “new research program,” as sociologist Nikolas Rose argues, is based on the “search for links between specific biological abnormalities and the propensity to commit violent crime, with a view to early identification, preventive intervention, and effective treatment.”25 The emphasis on “propensity,” or risk, is key for the revival of the program in the mid-twentieth century, as this framework carved out a more pronounced ontological and epistemological space between the biology of violence and its criminology origins. While certain terminology and, to an extent, goals remain shared between criminology and the biology of violence, there are also important conceptual distinctions among criminologists, who are interested in biological variants to help complete existing theories of criminality, on the one hand, and neuropsychologists, who study the neurobiological and genetic mechanisms underlying mental disorder, on the other. This book’s focus is on the latter, through which “a new molecular biopolitics of control is taking shape.”26

Conviction has special meaning in this book. Readers might assume that neuroscientific data seek to identify criminals, and subsequently provide biological proof of their guilt. However, neuroscientists are less interested in detecting who is a criminal, or determining fault, innocence, or guilt. Moreover, they do not aim for neuro-knowledges to excuse criminally violent behaviors. The neurobiological argument, on its surface, seems to be a rather simple one: “Until we know as much about this inner dimension as we do about the outer one—what goes on inside the heads of aggressors and their victims—we are not prepared to analyze the problem of violence effectively.”27 Consequently, neurologists trust that their brain-based knowledges will provide crucial information about violence that would otherwise be unknown or unattainable. This approach has led to the creation of the violent brain model—a unique brain type thought to capture new kinds of violent subjects, potential criminals. It is their faith in this brain type that allows this book to view conviction as a means to illuminate neuroscientific motivation, trust, and defense of neurobiological logics of violence. And, therefore, this book pays close attention to the way “conviction functions as [an] ideological condition of possibility” for the construct I call the violent brain.28

Reviewing the emergence of neuroethics, historian Fernando Vidal argues that the subdiscipline’s claim of autonomy and specificity from the traditional field of bioethics was established and maintained through its practitioners’ deeply held belief that the neurosciences are exceptional, in the sense that their unparalleled access to the mind through its neurobiological underpinnings necessitates a unique class of ethics. For Vidal, conviction captures how neuroethics justifies its purpose in, and relationship to, the brain sciences and society, through the belief that the neurosciences will dramatically illuminate and improve upon human life in ways never seen before. In Vidal’s words, neuroethics “has been justified by the conviction, sustained since the 1990s by the capability attributed to neuroimaging technologies, that somehow ‘the mind is the brain.’29 In a related manner, I observe how conviction creates, facilitates, and expends belief in this construct, the violent brain, and in turn how neuroscientists operationalize these new knowledges to help manage the uncertainty, complexity, and controversy that the program continues to face. The use of the term “conviction” here captures the ontological commitment to the doctrine that the “mind is the brain,” as well as the ongoing and coproduced nature of the research—that is, the tension between demonstrating scientific authority and exceptionalism on the one hand, and social and ethical purpose and potential on the other.30

Conviction traces the emergence of the neuroscience of violence and shows how neuroscientists navigate ongoing social and ethical concerns about the research program. This examination is based on an extensive qualitative content analysis of more than 300 peer-reviewed research articles and reviews on neuroimaging research on violence (circa 1990–2018). These data were further informed by interviews with 15 neuroscientists who focus on the study of violence. I also employed participant observation at neuroscience conferences/workshops and enrolled in academic coursework and training covering such topics as social neuroscience, neuroethics, and neuroimaging research design and statistics. Collectively, this structured multimodal methodology illuminated the way the science is produced, contested, and rationalized. The “conditions of possibilities” surrounding the making of the neuroscience of violence paint an interesting sociological picture. The adoption of advanced scientific technologies and the remaking of the program’s theoretical warrant operate as intricate sites of (re)production and legitimation that help make, explain, and substantiate the (continued) need, at least in the eyes of the producers of this knowledge, for neuroscientific research on violence. However, such contemporary shifts in the research program also affect the types of “cerebral subjects” that neuroscientists are expected to discover, the kinds of behaviors identified and fixed for inspection, and, as we will see, surveillance, via neuroscientific explanation. This, of course, requires further inquiry, to understand the threat or potential that these new neurobiological knowledges of violence pose for society. That is, why should we pay attention to, and be cautious of, this relatively select area of neuroscience in the first place? Below, I attempt to answer this question by focusing on the way the newest rendition of the biology of violence has embraced the “social” as an imperative element of neuroscientific knowledge and analysis. My interest, however, is not to debate whether neuroscientists truly believe that violence is a social, partly social, or biosocial behavior. Instead, I want to illuminate the work of the “social” or “biosocial” episteme in the ongoing debate about biology and violence. Specifically, how does this (messy) reading of the social brain take shape and become further refined and remade into a seemingly universal and bioethical response to controversy, and an ostensibly apolitical means to demonstrate and justify the social value and worth of brain knowledges of violence in society?


1. Herbert, “Politics of Biology,” 72. Earlier works on the social, cultural, and ethical impacts of the gene in the 1990s, specifically Duster’s Backdoor to Eugenics and Nelkin and Lindee’s The DNA Mystique, provide meticulous examinations of the brief arguments presented in Herbert’s commentary.

2. Herbert, “Politics of Biology.”

3. Herbert, “Politics of Biology,” 79.

4. Rafter, The Criminal Brain.

5. Duster, Backdoor to Eugenics; Wasserman and Wachbroit, Genetics and Criminal Behavior; Marsh and Katz, Biology, Crime and Ethics.

6. Rose, The Politics of Life Itself.

7. Panofsky, Misbehaving Science, 177.

8. Allen, “Old Wine in New Bottles.”

9. Nelkin and Lindee, The DNA Mystique.

10. Nelkin and Lindee, 2.

11. Duster, “Lessons from History”; Rensberger, “Science and Sensitivity”; Anderson, “NIH, under Fire, Freezes Grant for Conference on Genetics and Crime.”

12. There is a problematic history of tying race to intelligence, and such knowledges have been utilized in research on the biology of violence to emphasize links among race, intelligence, and criminal behavior. See Gould, The Mismeasure of Man. Moreover, concerns about race and the genetics of crime continued in the following decade, with the completion of the Human Genome Project (HGP) and the expanding dependency on DNA forensic technologies. See also Duster, “Explaining Differential Trust”; Larregue and Rollins, “Biosocial Criminology and the Mismeasure of Race”; M’charek, “Silent Witness, Articulate Collective”; Ossorio and Duster, “Race and Genetics”; Prainsack and Kitzberger, “DNA behind Bars”; Rollins, “Risky Bodies.”

13. Duster, “Explaining Differential Trust”; Prainsack and Kitzberger, “DNA behind Bars”; M’charek, “Silent Witness, Articulate Collective”; Greely et al., “Family Ties”; Rollins, “Risky Bodies.”

14. Bush, “Decade of the Brain: Presidential Proclamation 6158”; Obama, “Remarks by the President on the BRAIN Initiative and American Innovation.”

15. Dana Foundation, “A Decade after the Decade of the Brain: Compilation”; Volkow, Koob, and McLellan, “Neurobiologic Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction.”

16. Lieberman, Social.

17. “Brainhood, Anthropological Figure of Modernity.” “Brainhood” is defined by Fernando Vidal (2009, 6) as “the property or quality of being, rather than simply having, a brain.”

18. Neuroscience departments are rather recent; thus the “neuroscience community” represents a diverse number of disciplines all converging on a “neuromolecular style of thought.” Rose and Abi-Rached, Neuro.

19. For examples, see Abigail Marsh’s work on altruism, The Fear Factor. For childhood development and maltreatment, see the work of Essi Viding and Eamon McCory et al., e.g., “Neurocognitive Adaptation and Mental Health Vulnerability following Maltreatment”; and the work from Luke Hyde’s lab, Gard et al., “The Long Reach of Early Adversity.”

20. Lakatos, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes”; see also Hacking, “Degeneracy, Criminal Behavior, and Looping,” 144–45.

21. Hacking derived this characterization from philosopher of science Imre Lakatos’s research programme. See Lakatos, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes.” In the Lakatosian sense, a research programme “can last a century or more, and [is] characterized not by investigators with proposals, but by a sequence of theories (Ts) . . . [which] share a hard core of basic and unquestioned hypothesis; successive Ts result from previous Ts by modifying the protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses.” “Degeneracy, Criminal Behavior, and Looping,” 144. Like Hacking, I agree that Lakatos’s argument is less useful for most modes of science, but that it does serve to help us better understand the sustained endurance, and proclaimed usefulness, of the biology of violence.

22. Hacking, “Degeneracy, Criminal Behavior, and Looping,” 145.

23. Degenerate theories of crime have been a key principle in much of criminology research. However, not all theories have focused on individual degeneracy, and for others degeneracy has not been a useful starting point at all. Some sociological theories of crime have shifted attention away from individuals (criminals or violent offenders) and toward social institutions, spaces, and conditions. Moreover, others have been less focused on degeneracy as a throwback to former human kind, or a lack in moral fabric of a civilization that once was. Instead, more-critical criminological perspectives—feminist, antiracist, anticolonial, and/or Marxist—reject recovering a normative “what was” or contemplating the “atypical,” in order to promote a more-critical understanding of the limits of existing criminal theories and structures in society, and the way they have capitalized on power and inequality.

24. In Lakatos’s formulation, the protective belt is thought to arise from additional, or auxiliary, hypotheses, core beliefs that function heuristically. The protective belt continually revises, reshapes, and reformulates the core beliefs of a science to help refute antagonistic facts or theories, thus insulating the program and helping to preserve its hard core. Lakatos, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes.”

25. Rose, The Politics of Life Itself, 242.

26. Rose, 242.

27. Niehoff, The Biology of Violence, 5.

28. Vidal, “What Makes Neuroethics Possible?,” 1.

29. Vidal, 1 (emphasis added).

30. Coproduction here draws from Sheila Jasanoff’s “The Idiom of Co-Production,” 2. Jasanoff explains that coproduction captures that “the ways in which we know and represent the world (both nature and society) are inseparable from the ways in which we choose to live in it.”