“His Brain Made Him Do It”

In a new trend reminiscent of human profiling in Eugenics, some neuroscientists are advocating that there may be biological causes of criminal behavior.  Reuters reported on August 29th (available here) about an Italian Pediatrician of 30 years, Domenico Mattielo, now using this novel defense to explain charges of pedophilia being leveled against him.  As ridiculous of a defense as this may seem, “a series of recent studies has established that psychopathic rapists and murderers have distinct brain structures that show up when their heads are scanned using MRI.”

Of course, Mattielo is not asserting his brain structure is the problem.  Instead, he is focusing on the fact that a small tumor was found that he claims is the cause of his behavior.  However, the claim is that a biological issue may be the root cause in many more crimes, thus justifying the actions of many that are now considered “inexcusable.”  The author wonders where the line is: at what point should we not care that one’s actions are the result of a tumor and not simply his or her own natural proclivity.  Certainly, there is little solace to the victim of one who has such a tumor that it was not the person’s true self that engaged in homicide.  However, should we worry about the line when innocent people engage in crime simply because they are afflicted with a disease?

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3 thoughts on ““His Brain Made Him Do It”

  1. This is exactly the type of situation that new neuroscientific evidence has complicated, just as our discoveries in the realm of genetics complicated the issue of discerning what results from free will instead of biological circumstances (if drawing such a line is even defensible). As I mentioned in class, there is significant interest in Kent Kiehl’s work in searching for a signature for psychopathy in the brain using a portable fMRI scanner. If you’re interested, here’s a 2008 New Yorker article on Kiehls’ work: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/11/10/081110fa_fact_seabrook.

  2. Pingback: “His Brain Made Him Do It” Redux | Law & Science Blog

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