How NOT to spot a murderer's brain

How NOT to spot a murderer's brain

Update 13/05/13 12PM: The Guardian have now corrected the article to place David Eagleman's quote in appropriate context. 1.55PM: The paragraph has now been cut completely with the following note "A paragraph that misrepresented the views of the neuroscientist David Eagleman has been removed. The paragraph implied that Eagleman believed that the possession of particular genes resulted in criminal behaviour. This is not his belief, in his words, "Genes are part of the story, but they're not the whole story. We are likewise influenced by the environments in which we grow up". 


An article by Tim Adams in yesterday's Observer (the Sunday edition of British newspaper The Guardian) is currently topping the most read list on The Guardian's science section. The piece makes a spine tingling case, the byline reads: "Do your genes, rather than upbringing, determine whether you will become a criminal?". The most damning segment of the article is the following quote from neuroscientist David Eagleman, taken utterly out of context:

"If you are a carrier of one particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You're three times as likely to commit a robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offence. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1% of death row inmates do… Can we honestly say that the carriers of those genes have exactly the same range of choices in their behaviour as those who do not possess them? And if they do not, should they be judged and punished by the same standard?"

Jim Parkinson, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Body and Action Group in the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL helpfully pointed out on Twitter that Eagleman's punchline seems to somehow have been misplaced from the quoted text. Eagleman’s punchline is that the mystery gene in question is the Y chromosome. So yes, men are more likely to be arrested for most crimes but this tells us precious little regarding whether "genes, rather than upbringing, determine whether you will become a criminal" and that was Eagleman’s point! You can read Eagleman’s quote in full in a 2011 Atlantic article:

 

Jim Parkinson has submitted a letter The Observer which I've seen, I'll be watching closely to see if they publish it along with a correction on Sunday. If they don't I'll post it here on Monday. By the way, I've posted this debunking to Rbutr, a fantastically useful tool for debunking misinformation on the internet, it’s worth checking out and installing on your browser - it'll give you a small notification if an article you are reading has been debunked elsewhere and added to the system.

This article, like so many others written for legacy newspapers, is made infinitely, nightmarishly more difficult to assess because there are so many studies mentioned but few real references are provided. This means that if I'm to try to assess this or that point, I have to quite literally guess what studies the author is referring to. This task is no mean feat without even basic information such as names of the study authors or date of publication. This really is a tragic situation to be in two decades since hyperlinks became a basic feature of the internet. There's plenty more in this article that I'd love to address, but I simply don’t have the spare time to spend guestimating what studies the author might or might not be referring to. If you have been able to divine which studies the author refers to in this piece or if you'd like to add to the discussion please do so in the comments. For a slightly more balanced account of Adrian Raine’s case check out NPR’s interview which you can listen to here.

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A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

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Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
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How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.

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