Dead Souls: A Case Study in Collective Psychopathology – The American Spectator


“The wicked are estranged from the womb,” so the Psalms tell us, “they go astray from birth.” King David’s aetiology of crime was perhaps the first, and remains the most concise, prefiguring later theories of biological positivism. If criminality is innate, perhaps even hereditary, then criminals are born, not made, and the poison that flows in their veins “is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear; which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely.” Utilitarians from the classical school of criminology, including the moral philosophers Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, prefer to think of man as a calculating animal, and of criminality as the result of cost-benefit analysis, but rational choice theory has precious little explanatory power in cases of psychotic or impulsive violence, moral insanity, and other forms of profoundly antisocial behavior. Biological positivism may be reductive, but at least it purports to explain those phenomena — violent offenders are somehow “born that way” — and so its appeal has lasted from David’s day to our own.

It was during the decadent years of the fin-de-siècle that biological positivism reached the zenith of its influence. “The man of this century has acquired a very excusable confidence in himself,” wrote the French academician Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, for the “rational mechanism of the world has been revealed to him,” while the “operations of the universe and of humanity had become so clear to the physicist and physiologist.” Surely, then, the so-called psycho-physiologists of the late 19th century could explain the stubborn persistence of madness and criminality, which together were steadily undermining self-congratulatory notions of civilizational progress. Max Nordau, in his 1892 polemic Degeneration, warned of an ominous rise in cases of “general hysteria,” both acquired and hereditary, as well as the “constant increase of crime, madness and suicide,” and not just on the part of anarchists and members of the roiling urban underclass, but also “apparently honorable bourgeois families” and even “the leading classes.” If criminal degeneration could be diagnosed in suitably medical and mechanistic terms, then perhaps the technocrats of the era could apply the appropriate salve to an increasingly agitated and febrile body politic.

Max Nordau dedicated Degeneration to Cesare Lombroso, professor of psychiatry and criminal anthropology at the University of Turin, an Italian criminologist who was pushing the limits of biological positivism, the better to decipher the criminal mind. In works like LUomo delinquente (1876), Genio e degenerazione (1897), and Le crime; causes et remèdes (1899), Lombroso proposed that criminals were fundamentally atavistic, little more than evolutionary throwbacks fated to lives of delinquency by dint of their very anatomy. In his Turin laboratory, he and his colleagues employed anthropometric methods in the study of “morbid anomalies” — narrow foreheads, low skull vaults, bony elevations in the angle of the jaw, obliquely placed or bloodshot eyes, protruding ears, thin beards, darker hair (in women), excess phosphate in the urine — in an effort to catalog the supposedly congenital traits of those criminals and seemingly respectable criminaloids who go astray from birth.

Like phrenology, criminal anthropometry smacked of pseudoscience, resulting in an early instance of a replication crisis. Lombroso’s British counterpart, Charles Buckman Goring, having examined 96 different physical traits in some 3,000 English convicts, found that “the physical and mental constitution of both criminal and law-abiding persons, of the same age, stature, class, and intelligence, are identical. There is no such thing as an anthropological criminal type,” though Goring was still a man of his time, and accepted the need to “regulate the reproduction of those degrees of constitutional qualities — feeble-minded, inebriety, epilepsy, social instinct, etc.” that might contribute to criminality. (A eugenics scheme, in other words.) Lombroso’s French counterpart, Alexandre Lacassagne, was similarly unimpressed, countering that it is “the social environment is the breeding ground of criminality; the germ is the criminal, an element which has no importance until the day where it finds the broth which makes it ferment,” and from out of the Lacassagne school would grow the Chicago school of criminology, which adopts a sociological and ecological, instead of a rational or mechanistic, approach to the study of crime.

Lombroso was limited by the scientific tools available to him, as a visit to the Museo di Antropologia Criminale Cesare Lombroso in Turin will soon make clear, after a stroll past the serried ranks of skulls, wax and plaster death masks, mug shots, and artifacts that amount to more of a cabinet of curiosities than a modern scientific laboratory. Calipers and uroscopy flasks simply cannot penetrate sufficiently deeply into the criminal psyche, as even Lombroso understood. Writing in Le crime; causes et remèdes, the Italian prison psychiatrist and criminal anthropologist astutely observed that:

Every crime has its origin in a multiplicity of causes, often intertwined and confused, each of which we must, in obedience to the necessities of thought and speech, investigate singly. This multiplicity is generally the rule with human phenomena, to which one can almost never assign a single cause unrelated to others. Every one knows that cholera, typhus, and tuberculosis have specific causes, but no one would venture to maintain that meteorological, hygienic, and psychic factors have nothing to do with them. Indeed, the best observers often remain undecided as to the true specific cause of any given phenomenon.

No individual school of criminological thought can provide a grand unified theory of criminal behavior; rational, social, and psychophysiological factors will invariably be commingled. It is nevertheless intriguing to find that recent brain imaging research has uncovered what might be called Lombroso’s Holy Grail, in the form of specific neurobiological correlates of psychopathy.

In September of 2021, the scientific journal Cerebral Cortex featured an article describing a study undertaken by researchers at the Finnish University of Turku, the Turku Psychiatric Hospital for Prisoners, the Turku Prison Outpatient Clinic, and Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet entitled “Brain Basis of Psychopathy in Criminal Offenders and General Population.” During the study, violent offenders underwent T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging while being shown video clips containing violent content; their brain responses were later compared against those of healthy controls. Criminal psychopathy, the researchers found, was “associated with lowered connectivity of the key nodes of the social and emotional brain networks, including amygdala, insula, thalamus, and frontal pole.” These results were in keeping with other brain imaging studies, which all suggest roughly the same thing: that psychopaths have decreased connectivity between the amygdalae, the almond-shaped neuron clusters in the limbic system that are responsible for processing negative stimuli, and the prefrontal cortex, which is implicated in higher-level functions like planning, decision-making, personality formation, and social behavioral modulation, and which under normal conditions interprets negative stimuli appropriately, i.e. with repugnance or regret.

If an individual has reduced or seriously impaired connectivity between those two regions, then negative stimuli will not result in correspondingly negative emotions, and a violent offender will register neither revulsion at, nor guilt for, his victim’s suffering. This is the neurobiological basis of criminal psychopathology for which Cesare Lombroso searched for so many years, albeit without the benefit of Phillips Ingenuity TF PET/MR 3T whole-body scanners, voxel-based morphometry, and statistical parametric mapping software, but it has nothing to do with atavism or evolutionary reversion. Instead, it is increasingly clear that psychopathic violence can be explained, at least in considerable part, by a lack of neurological connectivity between the limbic (paleomammalian) cortex and the cerebral cortex. There is something — whether it be gestational malnutrition stress, early trauma, a brain injury, or a genetic amygdaloid disorder — preventing psychopaths from processing the real-world effects of their actions, something short-circuiting the self-regulation that leads to basic human empathy, with profound consequences for themselves and those around them.


Cesare Lombroso was a criminal anthropologist, but as an anthropologist of genocide I am interested here not so much in the individual, but in…

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