Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, August 1996
The Antisocial Personalities, David Lykken, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995, 259 pp.
Why is there so much crime? To this simple question, liberalism has offered so many environmental explanations that are patently inadequate — poverty, racism, unemployment, etc. — that it is tempting to dismiss them all. Increasingly clear evidence for the heritability of criminality makes it easy to suspect that criminals are born more than they are made, and that little can be done about them.
David Lykken, author of The Antisocial Personalities, might have been inclined towards an overwhelmingly hereditarian view. He is a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and has worked closely with Thomas Bouchard on the famous series of studies of identical twins who were separated at birth and reared apart. The similarities between these twins were so striking that not even the popular press could ignore them. Genes seemed to trump environment every time.
In this fascinating and sometimes technical book, Prof. Lykken does not dismiss the role of genetics, but he argues that there is one element in the environment that does have the power to turn potentially good citizens into criminals: bad parents. He does not, however, think that most bad parents can be reformed. The only way to improve a society that, in his view, has become a veritable factory for criminals, is to prevent bad parents from having or rearing children.
Prof. Lykken explains that there is a small number of people who are likely to become criminals no matter how carefully they are reared. They suffer from a congenital personality disorder, and Prof. Lykken calls them psychopaths. There is a much larger group of people who, depending on how they are brought up, could become either criminals or productive citizens. Prof. Lykken calls the ones who go bad sociopaths, and their behavior is hard to distinguish from that of psychopaths.
There is no known way to reform members of either group. All seem to have virtually no conscience, are little deterred by the prospect of punishment, are fluent liars, and have only a dim sense of the pain they may cause others. Many, but not all, become criminals. The cleverer kind sometimes become President of the United States.
The above diagram graphically represents the various types of personality with which people are born, and the effect upon them of different kinds of rearing. Both the competence of parents and the degree to which a person is successfully socialized are distributed in a normal, bell-curve fashion. People who are genetically predisposed to obey the law and submit to authority are likely to grow up law-abiding no matter how incompetently they are reared. Sociopaths can go either way depending on their parents, and psychopaths — with a few exceptions — turn out antisocial. Genes set the direction but environment influences the outcome.
Part of the book is devoted to the somewhat specialist question of categorization — how to tell psychopaths from sociopaths, and how to distinguish between various subcategories. The conclusion, however, is that a number of clear indicators of these conditions have come to light. Psychopaths appear to be born with a lower level of fear than other people, and this is an important precursor to crime: “[T]he best predictor of criminal conviction at age 14 to 16 [according to one study] was being rated as ‘daring’ at age 8 to 10 (and the best predictor of criminal conviction at age 21 to 24 was conviction at age 14 to 16).”
Since psychopaths are relatively unafraid of pain, the prospect of punishment does not worry them very much. This was confirmed in an experiment using criminals, some of whom were psychopaths, who were told that after a countdown they would get a painful electric shock. Anxiety, which increases as the countdown nears zero, can be measured by minute changes in the sweatiness of the palms, which can be measured by how well the skin conducts a weak electric current. Psychopaths were less worried by the impending shock than were non-psychopath criminals.
Likewise, psychopaths do not learn very quickly on tests in which wrong responses are punished with an electric shock or a loud blast of noise. However, if learning is rewarded with money — something psychopaths care about — they learn just as quickly as anyone else.
Although psychopaths often drink and use illegal drugs, they do not use them as other people sometimes do, to lower their inhibitions. They do not usually have the normal, built-in restraints against selfish, anti-social behavior, and can therefore commit horrendous crimes in a perfectly ordinary state of mind.
There are other indicators of psychopathy. Low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin are associated with violent behavior, and some but not all psychopaths have low serotonin. Likewise, damage to the frontal lobes of the brain is associated with psychopathic behavior (a few normal adults have become aggressively psychopathic after brain injury) and some psychopaths seem to have congenital frontal lobe damage. Finally, experiments have shown that psychopaths tend to process verbal information in both sides of the brain rather than concentrating it in one hemisphere as others do.
There is therefore a constellation of traits that point towards deep-seated, congenital psychopathy, but so far there is no single, fool-proof indicator. Although Prof. Lykken notes that “Blacks and Hispanics are greatly overrepresented among these unsocialized predators,” he does not report whether anyone has studied racial differences in average levels of fearlessness, serotonin levels, brain function, or indifference to pain.
Prof. Lykken emphasizes that psychopaths are rare, and are likely to grow up antisocial no matter how they are reared. The classic, most unnerving kind are from middle- or upper-class families and have normal brothers and sisters. It is the sociopaths, the people who could have grown up good or bad depending on their rearing, who are the growing menace.
In this connection, Prof. Lykken has illuminating things to say about child rearing. In his view, the psychology of human maturation became established during the Pliestocene era and is best suited to primitive, hunting societies. The entire tribe acts as an extended family, snuffing out deviance. Even today, crime is rare among primitives. Only a psychopath is likely to become a criminal, and an Eskimo from northwest Alaska once explained the traditional way to deal with such a person: “somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking.”
What is different about modern child-rearing? One problem is adolescence which, Prof. Lykken argues, may be a uniquely modern, Western problem. Because of improvements in nutrition, Americans and Europeans reach sexual maturity nearly three years earlier than they did in the early 1900s. At the same time, since the educational requirements for a career have increased, adolescence can last as long as ten years. In earlier times, the transition from child to adult took place quickly, without a troublesome intervening period.
Teenagers are by nature painfully conformist. When 13-year-olds joined the hunt or got behind a plow, they associated with and imitated mature adults. Today, they are thrown in with each other and the ignorant corrupt the less ignorant.
Troublesome though adolescence may be, in Prof. Lykken’s view the greatest single contributor to rising crime rates since the 1960s is illegitimacy and incompetent child-rearing. Many single mothers simply cannot discipline boys. Boys without fathers are seven times more likely to be adjudicated delinquents than are boys reared by a couple, and fully 70 percent of all delinquents were reared by mothers. Girls are never as likely to become criminals as boys, but they go wrong in other ways. Those reared without fathers are twice as likely to get pregnant while they are teenagers.
Illegitimacy is therefore the leading indicator of chaos. About 25 percent of today’s adolescents did not have fathers in the home; half of the next crop will have been without fathers. This harvest of sociopaths — people who, in the past, might have been reared correctly — will in turn plant the seeds for ever larger armies of the enemies of civilization. If Prof. Lykken is right, and incompetent, never-married, single motherhood is the one environmental factor that can reliably turn average children into criminals, the United States has launched a vicious cycle that cannot be reversed without very severe measures.
Prof. Lykken’s views are plausible and probably correct, but they are in at least theoretical contradiction with his own work on the influence of childhood environment on adult personality. One of the genuinely surprising conclusions reached by many twin researchers is that differences in family background may have no effect on how people turn out as adults. The strongest evidence for this is that identical twins reared in the same household are no more like each other than identical twins separated at birth and reared apart. As Prof. Lykken puts it, “being raised together in the same home by the same parents in the same general environment usually does not make children more alike.”
If genetic influences are so strong that family environment doesn’t matter, why worry about incompetent parents? Prof. Lykken argues that the kinds of studies that show little family effect all draw on a limited sample of possible families: “[I]f twins were separated as infants and placed, one with a middle-class Minnesota family and the other with an 18-year-old unmarried mother living on AFDC in the South Bronx, the twins will surely differ 30 years later.”
There are no twin studies to support this conclusion directly, but Prof. Lykken supplies inferential data. For example, only half of the co-twins of schizophrenic and psychopathic identical twins do, themselves, suffer from the same conditions; something in the environment accounts for the difference.
A Danish adoption study has likewise suggested interesting environmental effects. Children of criminal fathers, given up for adoption, were almost twice as likely to become criminals as adopted children whose biological fathers were not criminals. Of greater interest was the effect on a child of adoption by a father who was, himself, criminal. This appears to have made little difference to children whose biological fathers were not criminals, but for those whose biological fathers had been criminals, a child’s chances of becoming a criminal were once again doubled. An unfavorable environment seems to have had a multiplicative effect upon children with a genetic predisposition towards crime, even if it did not effect children without the predisposition.
Perhaps Prof. Lykken is therefore correct to conclude: “[U]nlike most psychological traits, criminality is [in addition to genes] also strongly influenced by characteristics of the rearing environment.” A criminal outcome may be an important exception to the twin-study conclusion that family background seems to have surprisingly little effect on adult personality.
In fact, there must be environmental causes of crime. Between 1962 and 1982, violent crime in the United States increased 300 percent; this is a spectacular rise that cannot be explained by even the most extreme, welfare-driven dysgenics. Heredity and environment are, of course, both working in the wrong direction. As Prof. Lykken explains, people in the underclass have been dealt a miserable hand on both counts; some would live unregenerate lives no matter how they were reared, but even many who could be salvaged are set on the road to depravity by depraved parents.
What role does race play in all this? One interesting but careful chapter in The Antisocial Personalities is about blacks. Prof. Lykken acknowledges the racial gap in IQ and takes it for granted that the races diverged in temperament as they diverged in morphology. He notes high black crime rates and the fearfully high rate of black illegitimacy — currently approaching 70 percent — but does not seem to think inherent characteristics are the cause.
He argues that black illegitimacy probably results from an increasingly unbalanced sex ratio. Since so many young black men are dead or in jail, those who are in circulation need not make emotional commitments. They can fornicate freely with black women, who no longer expect fathers to care for children. Surprisingly, Prof. Lykken says nothing about the role of welfare in promoting this reckless cycle of procreation.
As noted earlier, the book’s one policy recommendation is that the irresponsible be prevented from begetting and rearing children. Prof. Lykken would make all prospective parents meet the standards adopting parents must meet. The first-born of incompetents would be taken from them, and after the second violation parents would get forcible, long-term, chemical contraception. What to do with children removed from unqualified households? Prof. Lykken would offer a professional wage to qualified people willing to work as foster parents. A Lykken parental licensing program is not likely to start soon, but it is significant that the author should propose it. The rigor of the solution only testifies to the depth of the problem.
Aside from its specialist taxonomies of antisocial personalities, this is a fascinating volume. It is just the kind of book that should be at the center of debates on public policy — consistently scientific and free from preconceptions or wishful thinking. That, of course, is why it has been largely ignored.