Author Q&A: Gail S. Anderson

An interview with Gail S. Anderson, author of Biological Influences on Criminal Behavior, Second Edition. You can find an excerpt from this title in this issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.

Gail S. Anderson earned a BSc (Honors) in zoology from Manchester University, England, and a Masters of Pest Management and PhD in medical and veterinary entomology from Simon Fraser University. Her specialty is forensic entomology, the use of insects in death investigations. Anderson is one of only three board-certified forensic entomologists in Canada. She is a Professor in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, holds a Burnaby Mountain Endowed Professorship, and is also undergraduate director and co-director of the Centre for Forensic Research and a forensic consultant to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and municipal police across Canada. Her work has been featured on many television programs on networks including Discovery Channel, Planet Education, History Channel, Knowledge Network, and CBC. She was a recipient of Canada’s “Top 40 under 40 Award” in 1999, a YWCA Women of Distinction Award for Science and Technology in 1999, and the Simon Fraser University Alumni Association Outstanding Alumni Award for Academic Achievement in 1995. She was listed in Time magazine as one of the top five innovators in the world, this century, in the field of Criminal Justice in 2001 and received the Derome Award from the Canadian Society of Forensic Sciences. In 2014, she received the Dean’s Medal for Academic Excellence, and, in 2015, she was listed as one of the six most influential scientists in British Columbia. In 2017, she received the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Pathology and Biology Section Award for Achievement in the Life Sciences.

Evidence Technology Magazine: Some readers might be surprised that your specialty is forensic entomology. How were you drawn to author a book on biological factors in criminal behavior?

Gail S. Anderson: My background is biology and, specifically, entomology. It was my work in forensic entomology that drew me to the School of Criminology (at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada). In talking to criminologists, I was very surprised to find that, although to a scientist it is accepted fact that our biology influences our behavior (hormones at puberty are an obvious example), this was not accepted and was even anathema to many criminologists.

I was asked to teach a course in Biological Explanations of Criminal Behavior, which was not popular with some colleagues. I found that the students had been given almost no exposure to this side of criminology and, when I delved deeper into the literature, realized that almost all research and most textbooks available at the time were not easily comprehensible to anyone without a strong scientific background. It was, therefore, extremely difficult for a criminology student to appreciate the work in this area. There was no textbook available at the time that offered non-science students, such as criminologists, an explanation of the sciences that are being studied and the research that is being conducted, in a way that did not require an extensive scientific background. Without such an understanding, it is easy to simply dismiss a subject.

I, therefore, wrote the first edition for my own students, to introduce them to basic genetics principles, brain function, chemistry, and trauma and the studies in these areas. I wanted to allow them to evaluate the research and come to their own conclusions.

ETM: You note in the text that, historically, false science (or misuse of science) has created perceived links between biology and behavior as a way to justify bigotry. How did that history affect your approach to this book?

Anderson: I think it very much affected the approach. The past has made many non-scientists very shy of even considering biological influences on criminal behavior, even today, with suggestions that such an approach is racist. Therefore, the early part of the text is devoted to past beliefs and history, with explanations of the science and examples to illustrate how these past beliefs were incorrect. For example, a strong belief in the early part of the 20th Century in America was that poverty, promiscuousness, and even labor unrest and strikes were inherited traits, and this argument was used to limit immigration. With an understanding of basic genetics, inheritance, and natural selection, it is clear that such ideas were ludicrous, but in the past, a small minority of people were able to convince the majority.

It is, therefore, vitally important for students to comprehend the influence of biology on behavior not only to understand that these past beliefs had nothing to do with biology or science and everything to do with bigotry, but also to be able to fight such claims if they are ever made in the future. If more people had understood biology at the time, the minority would not have been able to influence the majority.

ETM: What was the status of the study of biology and criminal behavior when you wrote the first edition of this book?

Anderson: In the early days of criminology, most crime was explained by biology with, for example, Lombroso stating in the 19th Century that he could identify a criminal by their looks alone. Such sentiments continued into the 20th Century with eugenics movements flourishing at first, then thankfully crashing after World War II.

As a reaction to the misuse of biological explanations for crime, the pendulum swung 180° with criminologists denying any biological contribution to behavior. This attitude lasted for many decades, despite some of the exciting scientific discoveries in this area during those times. The idea of a biological influence on criminal behavior was still denied by most criminologists when the first edition came out. In fact, only 14 years before the first edition was published, the U.S. National Institute of Health withdrew funding for a conference on genetics and crime due to its perceived bigotry.

I wrote the first edition of Biological Influences on Criminal Behavior in an effort to explain the science behind behavior to a wider audience than just scientists, so that people could begin to understand the true promise of developing an understanding of the influence of biology on our behavior — including our criminal behavior.

ETM: How has the perception of biological factors in criminal behavior changed since the first edition of this book was published?

Anderson: Perception has changed dramatically since then. When I wrote the first edition of the book, the idea of any form of biological influence on criminal behavior was abhorrent to many criminologists, and it was an area that was avoided in discourse and teaching.

Since then, a great deal has changed, with several leading criminologists taking a biosocial approach to criminology and a lot of excellent and exciting new research being conducted. This has helped us understand that neither environment nor biology act alone — and that much of our biology is actually designed to be influenced by our experiences. This has resulted in a much greater understanding of the field by non-scientists, and a bridging has occurred between criminology and science. This has made criminologists much more aware that past fears were totally unfounded, and that there is a major inter-relationship between our environment and our biology. Some seminal studies have clearly shown that our biology and our environment interact to produce the people we are and the behaviors we exhibit.

ETM: What are a few key updates in the second edition … and why did you focus on those?

Anderson: Due to the great leaps in our understanding of biology’s impact on human behavior, the second edition is almost entirely different from the first edition. The general areas, such as genetics, hormones, neurotransmitters, brain injuries and defects, nutrition, and pollution are the same, as they remain the main ways in which biology can influence behavior.

However, the content of each chapter is much different from the first edition, with many recent studies evaluated and discussed, leading us into much more complex analyses and understanding of the relationship between our biology and our behavior. Our understanding of epigenetics (in which a gene’s expression, or what it actually does, can be changed by the environment or experience, without changing the DNA itself) has greatly increased since the first edition, so I devoted a new chapter to the discussion of candidate genes, Gene X Environment interactions, and epigenetics.

Also, since the first edition, potential biological predispositions for criminal behavior have been introduced into the criminal justice system and into our courts with alarming frequency and are impacting judges’ and juries’ decisions. I say “alarming,” as many of the potential biological interactions that have been used in court are not yet fully understood, and even if a predisposition has been proved, it is only that — a predisposition — which does not automatically cause a person to act in a certain way or affect their mens rea. Therefore, the final chapter looks at the use of biology in the courtroom, using many case examples, and suggests some cautions.

ETM: From feedback you’ve received, who has benefitted the most from this book?

Anderson: I think the greatest beneficiaries have been the students as, until the first edition came out, they had not considered, or been instructed to consider, a biological role in behavior. Instead, they focused almost entirely on sociological or psychological explanations, and they have been very excited to understand that there is so much more to behavior. Also, I hope it has been a benefit to academics in both the sciences and social sciences to bridge the gap between the disciplines to see how much they interrelate — and hopefully encourage them to delve deeper into this area.

ETM: How can the application of biosocial criminology make a difference in our criminal justice system?

Anderson: I think it is impossible for us as a society or for our criminal justice systems, to understand criminal behavior without taking our biology into account. This is an area that has long been ignored but is vital in all stages of the criminal justice system. Understanding the role biology plays in a person’s behavior, especially at a young age, can help us ameliorate or even eliminate problems.

One of the greatest hopes of considering a biological approach is that trajectories can be altered — much as a person born with a predisposition for a heart attack may never suffer an attack if they exercise and control their diet. In the same way, many chemical or hormonal imbalances can be rectified or even prevented, when understood.

Understanding biology’s impact on our behavior also informs treatment programs, as people with, for example, a head injury which increases impulsivity, will respond better to tailored treatment programs than to those designed for offenders with no such history. Biological evidence is now being introduced into our court systems and holds great promise in helping us to understand the crime and assist the triers of fact in making judicial decisions.

ETM: Where do you see this area of research going in the future?

Anderson: I think the future is now very bright for this area of criminology, with more and more criminologists entering the area of biosocial criminology and developing a much greater understanding of the biological underpinnings of behavior. The major leaps forward that have been made recently in the understanding of Gene X Environment interactions have been astounding. This goes a long way to explain the ways our biology responds and changes in relation to our experiences, resulting in a much better comprehension and acceptance of the role that biology plays in our behavior. Anyone who reads this book will realize that DNA is not destiny, and that no-one is “born bad,” but that both our environment and our biology interact to inform our behavior. Research in this field is now growing exponentially, and a better understanding will hopefully inform policy and law as well as treatment and prevention strategies.

This article appeared in the January-February 2020 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that issue here.

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