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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 224-228 ( 11 June )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/rowe.html

Essay Review

David Rowe Counts Teeth

by James Brody

A review of Biology and Crime  
by David C. Rowe.
Los Angeles: Roxbury, 2002, 7 chapters, 161 pages.

The seven chapters of David Rowe’s Biology and Crime introduce evolutionary and behavior genetics explanations of behavior, heritability, evolutionary perspectives on criminality, physiological correlates, genetics studies, an examination of environment from the perspective of what we understand about genetic effects, and comparisons of medical vs. penal approaches to criminal behavior. Rowe also delivers some kicks toward the non empirical nature of criminal justice policies. David has a clear eye and terse manner and delivers fundamentals rather than decorations.

Showing how G works

Of course, genes (G ) need environments (E). But, G is perhaps less sensitive to E than we often assume because G actively constructs E (Lewontin, 2000; Turner, 2000) and Scarr's idea of "good enough" environments (Scarr & McCartney, 1983; Scarr, 1992) holds for many of our personal traits. Organisms improvise from what's available, humans are perhaps the most clever. After all, our kids have forever dealt with varied rearing conditions and survived them for 200 millennia before there were psychologists. Rowe generally aligns with such a position: except for rare extremes of hunger, neglect, or abuse, conditions in the United States are consistent with meeting the developmental needs of most children. He also commented elsewhere that: "...the conceptual distance between the human expression of individual differences and the extended phenotype of a species may not be so great" (1994, p. 91, emphasis added). Thus, we unfold. I like the idea, many will resist it.

G seems to work through a shell-game called "nonshared environment" (NSE) which, by definition, consists of the environments that let us be different. NSE has a surprising partner called "shared environment," (SE) that makes us act alike. Freedom is with NSE, confinement with SE. The surprise is that SE often is transient and counts for as little as 2% of variance in outcomes. For example, a USMC drill instructor can make us act alike. Once we are off duty, however, we go back to doing our thing. Similarly, while our brains' structures vary as much as our faces, we all turn a door handle in much the same way. Order comes from the door handle. Let us design the handle, however, and NSE kicks in: we would each create a unique design.

In criminal behavior as with so many other things in ontogeny, G will express itself, taking any chance that E gives. Of course, if E is bankrupt, G dies. But it hasn't happened yet. As Lewontin is credited: "Evolution is best viewed as a history of organisms' finding devious routes around constraints" (Gerhart & Kirschner, 1997, p. 595). For example, the bar-headed goose can fly over Everest. That same goose changed one proline to an alanine in her hemoglobin, increasing hemoglobin's affinity for oxygen but without changing hemoglobin's 3D structure (Gerhart & Kirschner, 1997). How many geese died attempting to cross over Everest? Or did it happen that a hemoglobin-mutant gander explored higher altitudes and impressed a lot of ladies?

The relevance for criminality is that we should have an easy time locating ways in which children and adults with a predisposition for criminal behavior seek peers and opportunities in crime. On the other hand, we should have a difficult time identifying ways in which environment produces criminality. My prediction fits exactly the shoddy outcomes of 50 years' research into the social and environmental platforms for criminal behavior. It also fits the emerging hub of behavior genetics research that is consistent with creative individuals, even criminal ones, expressing personal strategies in the worlds that they construct.

Rowe describes studies in which irritable toddlers years later were found later to select misbehaving peers when enrolled in a new school. And friendships tend to stabilize around similarities, including a bent for mischief. Another set of studies explored rehabilitation efforts that put delinquents together in a discussion group. Those participants did worse than children who were in the control group. The adolescents praised each other for delinquent acts. Finally, irritable children with lawbreaking parents have been placed with foster parents that do or do not show criminal conduct. The children develop antisocial behaviors if placed with foster parents who are also antisocial. Children of parents with no history of antisocial behavior usually do NOT develop antisocial behavior whether or not placed with antisocial foster parents. Thus, some children, perhaps those similar to the "difficult" baby group identified by Chess & Thomas (1984), appear to have show heritability for impulsiveness and for irritability and for later antisocial behavior.


Rowe explores the evidence for,

- Bad testosterone: it largely ignites males of lower SES, itself a variable with genetic loading (see Rowe, 1994),

- Low serotonin levels: Many people with low serotonin levels are anxious or depressed, rather than criminal. Impulsiveness in combination with low serotonin - sensed as irritability and low self esteem - are emerging as factors in road rage,

- High serotonin levels: antisocial personalities can appear to have too much serotonin, their guilt and affective responses are similar to the changes often seen in response to Prozac and similar medicines that increase serotonin availability. They simply "care less." There is also good evidence that APD is associated with less pain sensitivity. (Brody, 1970, lowered serotonin in rats and found heightened sensitivity not only to pain but also to visual, auditory, and gustatory stimuli.),

- Problems with activation and arousal as reflected by heart rate and skin conductance: Rowe feels that criminal behavior is linked to under arousal, that emotional feedback does not approach normal levels until criminal behavior is occurring. Rowe discusses Raine's findings.

- Prefrontal deficits: also linked to ADHD; Rowe summarizes Raine's findings.

All of these physiological variables may have a shared G lurking in their core, they may be mutually dependent, or they may be an artifact of a third variable: nearly all of this research comes from individuals who have been caught breaking rules. I suspect that many successful individuals may have low arousal levels and high serotonin levels but intact prefrontal skills. They evade detection. Even here, people build their worlds: some build divorces and jail terms, some don't.

Rowe touches on interventions, reminding us that G responds to SE. That is, New York City first applied sanctions for even minor violations by transit riders and, later, for minor conduct violations outside of the transit system. Crime decreased first in the transit system and later, citywide. Thus, having a little G implies understanding but not sympathy. The most effective intervention is apt the kindest one: apply consequences early, immediately, and consistently and behavior improves. Such is the research on oppositional disorders in children: that is, parental inconsistency is consistently a factor. When parents simplify demands and apply immediate, brief consequences with less emotionality, children are often less irritable and more compliant. My experience is that most of them are also happier because they are not in constant trouble and do not chronically upset their mother. It may also be that perpetrators with impulsive criminal behavior will often have a personal quality of immaturity and will need more consistency just like their younger equivalents. On the other hand, Baron (2001) questions: What about the possible outcomes of more education and more supportive environments for impulsive, oppositional, children with conduct disorder? My answer: Certainly more refined, more affluent criminals who also get caught.

An uncomfortable issue: Rowe is a behavior geneticist and, like most of us, wears attributional portions of an albatross named "Adolph." It may be, therefore, with special pleasure that Rowe points out the eugenics aspects of present welfare programs: eliminating economic incentives to have more children and providing abortions on demand are two steps respectively supported by the right and the left. Both steps, however, are targeted at precisely the segments of our culture that often have more defiant or law-braking children.


Kanazawa (2002, p. 20) questioned "...Rowe's neglect of two important biological causes of criminality: race and intelligence." Kanazawa was perhaps jibing the publisher for not accepting such material: nonetheless, a couple of thoughts...

1) Rowe views low intelligence as "augmenting the effect of other behavioral traits rather than as a core cause of crime itself" (p.6) and does not go into the issue further. He would probably view impulsiveness in the same light and remind us that impulsiveness is not a cause in itself. For example, 40-60% of individuals with ADHD do not develop oppositional or conduct disorders or antisocial behaviors.

2) Rowe is having a difficult time with liver cancer. He may not have the time to manage the brush fires that kindle whenever biology, race, and intelligence are mentioned together.

3) Book sellers sell books: a few titles do very well and the rest are recycled. Publishers prefer works from established authors and from new authors who can demonstrate a following. Authors, thus, not only submit a book for review but also evidence of an audience for that book. (Some academics volunteer to teach large sections of introductory classes and require their own text.) Along these lines, Rowe is a solo author and a quiet one at that. He's a tall guy but still easy to look past in a group. The audience for Biology and Crime becomes uncertain and the price reaches $34.

It might be that authors have the same problem as narrow-margin politicians in years of low voter turnout. Whomever you offended most recently may determine the election. Unfortunately, universities in America have become arenas inhabited by their own kinds of drill instructors and have forgotten what they were in my youth: forums. I understand the Brits have a similar problem.

Finally, I shall remember Rowe's presentation at the NYAS in June 2000. He summarized evidence for genetic "set points" for depression and contentment, that mood is resilient to objective realities, that we have propensities to react with despondency or determination, and that there is a genetic foundation for how we expose our self to controllable life events.

Randolph Nesse, a proponent of mismatch and an alarm about accelerating global rates of depression, was the next speaker. Nesse stood with his back to Rowe, waved his left hand backwards at waist level and remarked, "That's just not true." BG research, however, shows clearly that there is a genetic loading not only for contentment but also for how we choose marital partners: we pick each other on the basis of craziness. Manics tend to marry to manics, depressives to depressives, and worriers also to the similarly afflicted. This occurs despite all the theoretical reasons evolutionists might give about mate selection and fitness. And it occurs in ways that may confound Nesse's explanations of global depression as a function of mismatch between paleo humans and modern cultures.

Credos vs. tools: a comparison text

Wasserman & Wachbroit edited Genetics and Criminal Behavior, 2001, Cambridge University Press. It is twice Rowe's in size, weighing 335 pages and 13 chapters. I found it to be more Aristotelian, more distinguished in appearance and vocabulary, and more of a chick and dean pleaser when paraded under my elbow. On the other hand, I found only two of thirteen chapters to be worth study: one by Elliott Sober and one by Kenneth Schaffner. Allan Gibbard gave a clear explanation of the Adapted Mind but lamely concluded that knowledge of heritability and violence tells us nothing of etiology. Oh well. These three chapters run about 90 pages. The remainder elicited no underlines, no notes inside the cover, and no reminders to lift a quotation. While many of the arguments discouraged our accepting genes as destiny, there was no specification of the effective environments or their mechanisms.

Fortunately, our stories, including our religions, eventually follow the evidence of our senses and the contrivances of our fingertips, whether tools or science. And this is perhaps the fundamental promise from behavior genetics and people like David Rowe: environments are specific to individuals, two people in the same room occupy two different environments. Learning about genes forces us to learn about the effective signals from environment that elicit or reinforce one sequence of behavior but not another and in one individual but not another. Aristotle, a persuasive guy, once told us that horses have so many teeth. I have been told that 1500 years elapsed before a non scholastic actually counted the teeth and found Aristotle wrong. David Rowe reminds us to count the teeth.


Baron, M. (2001). Crime, genes, and responsibility. In D. Wasserman & R. Wachbroit (Eds.) Genetics and Criminal Behavior. NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, pp. 199-224.

Brody, J. (1970). Behavioral effects of serotonin depletion and of p-chlorophenylalanine (a serotonin depletor) in rats. Psychopharmacologia, 17, 14-33. [PubMed]

Chess, S., & Thomas, A. (1984) Origins and Evolution of Behavior Disorders: Infancy to Early Adult Life. NY: Brunner/Mazel.

Gerhart, J. & Kirschner, M. (1997). Cells, Embryos, and Evolution. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Kanazawa, S. (2002). Review of Biology and Crime by David C. Rowe. Human Ethology Bulletin, 17 (2), 19-20.

Lewontin, R. (1998/2000) Triple helix: Gene, organism, environment. Cambridge, MA, Harvard.

Nesse, R. (2001). The smoke detector principle: natural selection and the regulation of defensive responses. In A. Damasio, A. Harrington, J. Kagan, B. McEwen, H. Moss, & R. Shaikh (Eds.) Unity of Knowledge: The Convergence of Natural and Human Science. Annals of the NY Academy of Sciences, Vol 935, May, pp. 75-85.

Rowe, D. (1994). The Limits of Family Influence: Genes, Experience, and Behavior. NY: Guilford.

Rowe, D. (2002). Do people make environments or do environments make people? In A. Damasio, A. Harrington, J. Kagan, B. McEwen, H. Moss, & R. Shaikh (Eds.) Unity of Knowledge: The Convergence of Natural and Human Science. Annals of the NY Academy of Sciences, Vol 935, May, pp. 62-74.

Rowe, D. (2002). Biology and Crime. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury

Scarr, S. (1992). Developmental theories for the 1990s: Development and individual differences. Child Development. 63, 1-19. [PubMed]

Scarr, S. & McCartney, K. (1983). How people make their own environments: A theory of genotype-environment effects. Child Development. 54, 424-435. [PubMed]

Wasserman, D. & Wachbroit, R. (2001). Genetics and Criminal Behavior. NY: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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© James Brody.


Brody, J. (2002). David Rowe Counts Teeth. Human Nature Review. 2: 224-228.

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