There’s A Will

A new book, “The Anatomy of Violence,” suggests that “the seeds of sin are brain-based,” at least in a sense. Its author, psychologist Adrian Raine, isn’t speaking of sins like gossip or tax evasion but rather violent crime. And he makes the case that such criminalities may have biological roots, and that “neurocriminology” may provide society with ways of curbing crime.

Both genetic makeup and prenatal environment, Dr. Raine asserts, are factors that can presage a criminal mind. On the most basic level, it has long been clear that there is a correlation between certain “accidents of birth” (or of life) and proclivity to crime. Being born male rather than female, for instance, makes it much more likely that one will become a mugger or murderer. And certain types of damage to the brain have long been observed to yield changes in behavior, sometimes including a proclivity to violence.

Likewise, more mundane things, like an expectant mother’s smoking or consumption of alcohol (not to mention even more severe chemical insults to the brain of a fetus, like exposure to lead or use of other drugs), can contribute to the likelihood of eventual bad behavior on the part of the child later born. That a low resting heart rate, however, correlates with antisocial behavior – a finding relayed by Professor Raine – comes as something of a surprise, as does evidence that fish consumption may have the opposite effect.

Many other factors, of course, biological, environmental and situational, may also contribute to the statistical likelihood that a person will be prone to violence.

Correlation, however, does not mean causation. Shoe size, after all, broadly correlates with math proficiency – most small children are not as good with numbers as are we larger people.

More important still, even causation needn’t be absolute. Professor Raine cites the case of a man who possessed many of the risk factors for becoming a killer. The fellow suffered from a vitamin deficiency as a young child, as a youth had a low resting heart rate; and abnormal structures in his brain, revealed by a scan, were reminiscent of abnormalities in the brains of serial killers. And in his pre-teens, the subject joined a gang, smoked cigarettes and engaged in vandalism. With time, however, he veered from that course, and in fact even wrote a book about the biological roots of violence. Yes, Professor Raine speaks of himself.

“Why didn’t I stay on that pathway?” he wonders.

The answer is simple: human beings have free will. Bad behavior, whether of the sort universally recognized as such or, for a Jew, behavior forbidden by the Torah, is ultimately a choice.

To be sure, as the great Jewish thinker Rabbi E. E. Dessler (1892-1953) famously pointed out, different people occupy different points of a free will continuum. One man’s free-will challenge (because of his nature and nurture) may be to refrain from murdering someone he hates; another’s, whether to opt for a kosher product over a tastier non-kosher one; yet another’s, whether to utter a sentence that straddles the line of derogatory speech.

But Francis Crick (quoted by the professor) was wrong to assert that “free will is nothing more than a large assembly of neurons located in the anterior cingulate cortex.” The choices we make may be processed by our brains, but they are sourced in our souls.

Reviews of the book and its thesis reminded me of the Talmudic statement (Shabbos, 156b) of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak. There are two opinions in the Talmud about whether astrological factors, presumed to influence the world and most of its inhabitants, have any effect on Jews. Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak was of the school of thought holding that they do. In fact, he declared that someone born under, so to speak, an unlucky star, the planet Mars, will be a “shedder of blood.”

But, he goes on to say, what that means is that he will be either a surgeon, a mugger, a ritual slaughterer of animals or a circumciser. An orientation, in other words, is one thing; its expression, quite another. Because that is a matter of will.

So whether one seeks the sources of personal psychologies in a scan of a brain or a scan of the sky, in a double helix or a double star, whether one peers through a microscope or through a telescope, ultimately we all choose our actions, and thus our fates.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

This essay and other commentary can be accessed here.

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