Elizabeth Ewen offers a critical response to a recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine (March 11, 2007)
In Jeffrey Rosen’s article “The Brain on the Stand: How Neuroscience is Transforming the Legal System,” there is a revealing, if apparently innocuous, sentence early in the article. Visiting Owen Jones, a leader in the neuroscientifc community, in his office at Vanderbilt University, Rosen observed that Jones’s office “is decorated with a human skull and calipers, like those the phrenologists once used to measure the human skull.” The article then details how brains scans can be used to analyze criminal activity, past, present and future, not as a result of social conditions or behavior but as the independent functioning of the “criminal brain.” In the giddiness that surrounds this neuroscientific claim, which ranges from influencing legal decisions concerning guilt and punishment, to detecting the unconscious biases of potential jurors and identifying people who suffer from drug addictions, the brain is considered like a broken machine where ”the higher deliberative center of the brain seems to be disabled” and therefore, becomes warped and broken causing anti-social acts to be committed.
Yet the appearance of phrenological tools in a neuroscientist’s office is a remarkable if unconscious occurrence that illuminates a hidden history of which contemporary neuroscience may be a part. From the late 18th century onward, physiognomists, phrenologists, and physical, medical and criminal anthropologists believed in the idea of a distinctly criminal brain, seeking to identify it by locating certain anomalies or “stigmata” which were marks of atavism and could positively determine those who were “unfit” for civilized behavior. Brain weight, cranial measurement, and the detailing of the brain’s peculiar morphology were part and parcel of the scientist’s toolbox. One of the most influential criminal anthropologists was Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) whose work had a profound impact on European and American studies of crime. Lombroso believed in the “born criminal” who could be identified by physical signposts of innate degeneration. He argued that the “The criminal by nature has a feeble cranial capacity, a heavy and developed jaw, a large orbital capacity…an abnormal and asymmetrical cranium, a scanty beard or none, but abundant hair, projecting ears, frequently a crooked or flat nose.” Consequently photographs of the” born criminal” and his/her features were routinely taken in prisons and asylums and were used in court as evidence of a pre-disposition of men/women deemed guilty of particular crimes.
The primary distinction between the biological determinist arguments of the Lombroso school and the absolute faith in present day neuroscience is the shift from the physical examination of gross specimens to the apparently miraculous technologies of brain-scanning. Both claim the finger of scientific certainty, without reference to the social, historical or moral environments that people inhabit, and both hold an unwavering faith in ostensibly objective science to back-up assertions that are blind to any force other than biological causation.
It is interesting and significant that as many in our society decry social programs that are designed to improve conditions among the economically disadvantaged as “wasteful,” they also embrace "scientific" theories that make the consideration of social causes and uneven playing fields irrelevant. Lack of concern for social improvement was also the rule in the America's "Gilded Age," when earlier (now discredited) versions of biological determinism were wholeheartedly embraced by ruling elites.