Are serial killers real

The signature of evil

Are you already born a murderer or are you only made one by the environment? The US criminologist Adrian Raine has written an exciting book on the subject, which has now been published.

Jürgen Bartsch (1946-1976) went down in German criminal history as a “fair killer”. Joachim Kroll (1933-1991), like Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic serial killer from the novel “The Silence of the Lambs”, had a penchant for human flesh. Between 1987 and 1990, Thomas Holst, the “heath killer”, abused, killed and mutilated three women south of Hamburg. The Bottrop roofer Frank Gust (born 1969) was notorious as the "Rhine-Ruhr Ripper". Between 1994 and 1998, he murdered at least four women whom he sexually abused before dismembering them.

Serial killers from Germany and around the world

The list of serial killers from Germany and around the world could go on and on. What drives violent criminals to such bloody acts that provoke disgust, horror and bewilderment, but also impotent anger and calls for justice and retribution? “The seeds of sin are planted in the brain”, says the American neurocriminologist Adrian Raine in his new book “Born as a murderer. The biological roots of violence and crime ”. The 517-page work that has now been published by Klett-Cotta Verlag is right on trend. In the various American "CSI" series in particular, abnormal serial killers - like Nate Haskell in the series "CSI: On the trail of the perpetrators" - play a central role.

In the past few years there have been repeated reports in the media that certain genes can have a massive impact on human behavior. In particular, the MAOA gene - the so-called "killer" or "murderer" gene - has fired the imagination of brain researchers, criminologists and crime fans. Criminal sociologists reject such biological attempts to explain the crime. Do you remember the so-called offender type theory of the Italian forensic doctor and psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), in which he developed a theory of the “born criminal”.

Lombroso's typing of criminals on the basis of external body features served the National Socialists as a template for their racial biological theories. That is also the reason why this criminological theory has fallen into disrepute. In addition, if crime and murder are determined, where is the free will of the perpetrator? Recognizing future criminals by external features such as the shape of the skull or the bulges of the eyes has proven absurd. On the other hand, the evidence suggests that not only social and psychological factors play a role in crime.

Does the “natural born killer” exist?

The neuropsychologist Thomas Elbert, who conducts research at the University of Konstanz, has had thousands of conversations with murderers and child soldiers all over the world. He says: “In certain situations you can turn anyone into a criminal. But you can also be born a criminal. ”So are you actually“ born a murderer ”, as the German title of Raine's book suggests?

“In rare cases there are such poor starting conditions. A lot is already genetically predetermined. That doesn't mean that it is an automatism that inevitably turns you into a murderer. But there can be very poor prerequisites for disposition and for certain personality developments that are difficult to influence, ”explains criminal lawyer and criminologist Britta Bannenberg, who teaches as a professor at the University of Giessen.

The physician Bernhard Horsthemke, director of the Institute for Human Genetics at the University Hospital Essen, is of the opinion that a complex interplay of disposition, environmental influences, upbringing and lifestyle determines our behavior, but not individual gene variants. The environment leaves traces in our genome - how we eat or whether we are stressed. "In addition, epigenetics plays a major role with its prenatal and early childhood pathways."

Adrian Raine has been researching the fundamentals of crime for more than 30 years. The professor of criminology, psychiatry and psychology at the US University of Pennsylvania worked for years as a prison psychologist. With his new book “Born as a murderer” he wants to mediate between the individual research areas and defend the still young discipline of neurocriminology against allegations that it “traces violence back to a psychological-neuronal cause” or undermines individual responsibility and free will. Raine doesn't believe in the “natural born killer” - people born as criminals. But for the US scientist, as for other criminologists and brain researchers, one thing is certain: there is a “strong genetic disposition to crime”.

MAOA gene and crime

The decisive factor here is a special gene, the so-called monoaminoxiadse-A, also known as the MAOA gene. It plays a central role in the production of messenger substances in the brain such as serotonin, which acts like a kind of mood stabilizer. Researchers have shown that certain innate changes in this gene - so-called mutations - can increase the propensity for violence and aggressive behavior. Altered brain functions that control impulse control and mood swings have also been identified as possible causes of criminal behavior.

Olaf Rieß, Medical Director of the Institute for Human Genetics at the University of Tübingen, is convinced: “There is no such thing as a gene, but only a complex of constellations and gene activities. It's not that simple that a gene would determine our behavior. ”According to Riess, we are not controlled by our genes. "Social situations and certain circumstances influence our behavior significantly."

Genetic material or the environment - what is more?

Man is not a gene robot. How he behaves, how long he lives, whether he is healthy or sick, frail or strong, is largely in his own hands. So what has a greater impact on Homo sapiens: genetics or the environment? The fact is: It is not individual genes, but a complex combination of genes and environmental influences - the so-called gene-environment interaction - that shape our behavior. Genes can amplify or weaken environmental factors. Conversely, environmental factors such as upbringing, social contacts or life events can influence the expression of genes and their mutations.

But neither genetic predispositions nor altered brain functions can explain why a person becomes a sociopath and a raging beast. Nobody is born a criminal in the sense that biology becomes a determination and a destiny for them. The German title of Adrian Raine's book "Born as a murderer" is therefore misleading. Raine also contradicts the statement that genes make humans murderers. The English original title of his work is far more appropriate: "The Anatomy of Violence" - The Anatomy of Violence.

During his time as a prison psychologist, the American criminologist examined dozens of violent criminals and serial killers, whose brains he x-rayed with the help of imaging methods such as positron emission tomography (PET). In doing so, Raine discovered striking deficits in certain brain regions, which indicate an affect disorder and less self-control as well as a greater willingness to take risks.

"There is no murderer"

“There is no such thing as a murderer,” emphasizes the criminologist Britta Bannenberg. "Motives are very different, personalities too." The environment also leaves its mark, emphasizes the criminal lawyer. Whether someone acts in an extremely violent manner also has to do with the environment in which they grow up. Adults are said to have shaped the early experiences for many years. “If violence is exercised and advocated by parents, if there is a lack of warm-hearted relationships and behavior control, these are prerequisites that encourage violence and crime. If a child notices that it can successfully assert itself with ruthlessness and violence, it learns to evaluate violence positively. That's why I wouldn't paint horror scenarios like 'Born a murderer' on the wall. "

Diet, pollutants, upbringing, stress, brain development - all of these play a role

Substance abuse by the mother during pregnancy, organic damage in childhood from improper nutrition, pollutants or stress can negatively affect brain development. Using numerous case histories, Raine describes this in detail and grippingly like in a detective novel.

"Well presented with an exciting title, but not quite as spectacular in terms of content"

Adolf Gallwitz, a well-known police psychologist, psychotherapist and profiler at the police college in Villingen-Schwenningen, considers Raine's “magnum opus” to be a “well-presented book with an exciting title” that is “not quite as spectacular in terms of content”. It is primarily about the old and at the same time new topic of freedom of will.

“The most radical question in the field of neurophysiology and neuropsychology is whether humans have any freedom of choice at all. This is about the so-called action potential. If we think we have made a decision to turn left or right, then our brain has already decided on an alternative shortly beforehand, ”explains Gallwitz. And further: “We have the illusion that we have consciously chosen this alternative. The consequence of this thinking would be a revolution in criminal law, because all people would be 'excused' for their behavior. "

Gallwitz draws attention to the fact that the research and meta-analyzes by Raine and other neurocriminologists go back a few years. They would have focused on examining the metabolic activity of the brain in various situations and in principle. Gallwitz: “This is based on the fact that tens of thousands of 'serial examinations of soldiers' with imaging methods were carried out in the CIS countries decades ago as part of the suitability test in order to be able to compare them with people who later became suspicious. The results could then be 'predictive'. "

Back to Raine's book, which is well worth reading: "Born as a Murderer" gives deep and at the same time horrific and gruesome insights into the souls of serial killers like Jeffrey Landrigan. He was adopted as a baby in an American picture book family and ended up in prison after several murders. It was there that Landrigan met his biological father, a two-time murderer and serious criminal.

Or Richard Speck, who raided a nurses' home in Chicago in 1966 and killed eight women with a knife. He was the first in whom medical professionals found a genetic defect. It was this case that sparked the debate about the possible existence of a “killer gene” in the United States.

Traumatizations, injuries and genes

“In a 'certain way' we are antisocial, incapable of peaceful coexistence and, in extreme cases, are born murderers,” says Gallwitz. “Whether we become murderers, however, depends on many factors.” How social and genetic factors are mutually dependent is illustrated by the criminologist using the following example: A person has a disposition for serious crimes in the area of ​​bodily harm. Part of this “disposition” is an innate way of perceiving the environment, violence, threats or insults. Whereby perception is never passive. Gallwitz speaks here of so-called perception schemes: "We partially see what we want to see already at the level of processing the stimuli." Part of this is the sensitivity to reactions to injuries.

The brain regions mentioned by Raine are of great importance for both factors, says Gallwitz. “Overlapping, however, are my own traumatizations. Physiologically, traumas change the way information is processed and ultimately also the brain morphologically. This means that we can also use imaging methods to prove that someone has experienced a lot of neurotoxic stress. ”In a similar way, our entire socialization, which influences the“ facilitation of nerve activity ”, has an overlapping effect.

Can you recognize the "future Hannibal Lecters" at an early stage?

It is doubtful whether “the future Hannibal Lecters” will be able to be identified and supervised at an early stage in order to prevent potential crimes in this way, as Adrian Raine suspects. The American neurocriminologist overestimates the possibilities of crime prevention with the help of neurosciences.

The book

Adrian Raine, Born a murderer. The biological roots of violence and crime. (Original title: The Anatomy of Violence), Klett-Cotta Verlag 2015, 517 pages, 28.95 euros.

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