Monsters of the Night

The rhetoric and reality of the psychopaths around us.

The word “psychopath” gives the impression of an unscrupulous character. Someone without any sense of shame, guilt or remorse. Someone who sees your inclination to trust as his or her personal playground. Someone profoundly amoral. And there is the growing feeling that psychopaths are everywhere around us. They are the neighbours who drag down property values with their tasteless landscaping and garish Christmas decorations. They are the coworkers who got ahead by throwing you, or someone you respect, under the metaphorical bus. They are the monsters of the night, dressed in human skins, on the prowl for an easy mark.

The portrayal of the psychopath as omnipresent bogeyman is a sore spot for Okanagan College and Simon Fraser University professors Jarkko Jalava, Stephanie Griffiths and Michael Maraun. In The Myth of the Born Criminal: Psychopathy, Neurobiology and the Creation of the Modern Degenerate, they suggest that the concept of psychopathy tells us more about our own beliefs and fears than it does about monsters hiding in plain sight. Psychopathy is ill defined, deeply mixed up with Judeo-Christian theology and (to put it mildly) unhelpful. Even the biological foundations on which it is ostensibly based—differences in both neural and genetic architecture—are shaky. No one is born a psychopath; psychopaths are pressed into the mould by social forces.

Consider, as Jalava, Griffiths and Maraun have, the case of Colonel Russell Williams, former commander of CFB Trenton. In 2010, Williams pleaded guilty to 88 criminal charges: a string of break-ins, two sexual assaults, and the murders of Jessica Lloyd and Corporal Marie-France Comeau. Although no formal diagnosis has been offered to the public, several news outlets characterized Williams as a psychopath. The Globe and Mail, for instance, ran a piece on Williams entitled “How a Psychopath Is Made.” From there, Williams could be reduced to a calculating brute. Anything about him, including “his trademark focus” (as a Maclean’s article put it), could be reinterpreted as evidence of a man lacking conscience.

The “adjustability” of the psychopathic concept is a central concern of The Myth of the Born Criminal: with the right motivation, any behaviour can be sculpted to appear psychopathic. On this front, the authors deliver what can only be described as an embarrassment of riches, bringing to light the criminal psychopath, the corporate psychopath, the (1950s) hipster psychopath, the postmodern psychopath and the visionary psychopath. If the label can be applied so broadly, what does it mean?

Questions of this nature are worth pondering, and a sharp exposition of popular and scientific notions of psychopathy—such as Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry —could be a valuable counterpoint to the liberal usage that worms its way into newspapers, magazines, blogs and academic discourse. But The Myth of the Born Criminal aims to be much more than this. It positions itself as a blistering attack on the inferences drawn from scientific work in psychological assessment, behavioural genetics and brain imaging. The result, sadly, is a predictable disappointment: a book thick with exaggeration and self-contradiction.

What makes this disappointment so predictable is how neatly The Myth of the Born Criminal fits into the decades-old tradition of “cultural critiques of human social biology,” a polemical niche rooted in the humanities. Jalava, Griffiths and Maraun devote seven of nine chapters to making the “sins” of psychopathic inquiry, past and present, everyone’s problem. As if out of a playbook, they trace a line from the racist pseudoscience of Lombroso and his 19th-century contemporaries through the Third Reich’s obsession with degeneracy, on to Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s arguments about the heritability of intelligence in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, and ending with the modern marriage of “Judeo-Christian theology with mainstream science.” They refer to a diversity of scientific research as “the psychopathy research program” and a diversity of theorizing on which this research is based as “the biological theory of psychopathy,” all of it packaged tightly into a single “program” with a leading, conspiratorial “the.”

It is ironic that so much of The Myth of the Born Criminal is concerned with exposing rhetoric, given that so much of the book depends on it. In a telling paragraph, the authors fuss about ad hominem remarks, claims to objectivity, appeals to authority and equivocal language in the work of Robert Hare, a professor at the University of British Columbia and the best-known figure in psychopathy research. Yet examples of each of these offences abound in their own writing. They invoke a threatened lawsuit to discredit Hare, the word “obvious” to silence debate, writer David Foster Wallace for expertise on rhetorical trickery, and the words “reflect” and “bases”—which, they tell us, may be intentionally ambiguous and rhetorically useful to scientists—to suggest causation. Elsewhere, the compact phrase “the obvious metaphysical and Judeo-Christian bases of the entire psychopathy discourse” manages to tick three rhetorical boxes: objectivity (“obvious”), equivocation (“bases”) and overstatement (the “entire” discourse).

The Myth of the Born Criminal also suffers from serious—and, once again, predictable—conceptual flaws. Like many critics in the tradition, Jalava, Griffiths and Maraun use biology to mean genetic and physiological rather than the study of living things. Consequently, they commit themselves to several absurd stances. They suggest that we should not investigate the genetics of psychopathy because they are too complex. That biological causes are “inborn.” That the brain develops “following a genetic blueprint.” That the causes of our behaviour can somehow exist outside of our brains. That “psychopathy as a behavioural disorder is theoretically coherent only insofar as Judeo-Christian morality is a coherent theoretical framework.”

Science is the only method we have ever had to unpack complexity, and its success has been great by any measure. Along the way, we have come to understand that biological causes are not inborn, genes are not blueprints and everything that causes our behaviour must do so via the brain, for the brain is what makes behaviour happen. We have also come to recognize that claims about cultural specificity require evidence. I, for one, am hard pressed to locate any culture in the anthropological record that gives complete strangers the moral licence to steal from, rape and murder women.

There are moments of genuine insight in The Myth of the Born Criminal, especially those that highlight problems of inference. As the authors point out, differences between the brains of psychopaths and others say nothing about the relevance of the environment. Again, every cause of behaviour must go through the brain. Likewise, they show that we cannot rely on statistical procedures to tell us whether psychopathy is real, because statistics tend to be incapable of detecting causation; this is precisely why we conduct experiments. But, in the book, these insights are buried under layers of embellishment, misunderstanding and misrepresentation. No reader should have to work that hard to separate rhetoric from reality.