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Predestined Serial Killers

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Biology 202
2003 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Predestined Serial Killers

Annabella Rutigliano

serial killer: a person who commits a series of murders, often with no apparent motive and usually following a similar, characteristic pattern of behavior. (8)

As participants in today's information obsessed society we are constantly being bombarded with the brutal actions that mankind is capable of. One watches the news and hears about a murder, or reads a book about a mysterious killer. The only time that the New York Daily News has ever outsold the New York Times was when the headline claimed the letters that proved the 'real' identity of Jack the Ripper. As you wade through these bits and pieces of reality, one can't help but be struck by the thought-- what causes a person to actively commit such horrendous acts? There have been many different studies done in hopes of finding an answer. For a crime such as serial killing there are two main schools of thought. The first idea is that serial killing is caused by an abnormality in the frontal lobe region of the brain. Another theory is that serial killers are bred by circumstance. However, I believe that with some analysis the evidence for both theories can serve to prove that serial killers are genetically different. Thus demonstrating that serial killing can find its origins in genetics.

A startling amount of criminals on death row have been clinically diagnosed with brain disorders. A recent study has demonstrated that 20 out of 31 confessed killers are diagnosed as mentally ill. Out of that 20, 64% have frontal lobe abnormalities. (1) A thorough study of the profiles of many serial killers shows that many of them had suffered sever head injuries (to the frontal lobe) when they were children. To discover why damage to the frontal lobe could be a cause of serial killing, one must look at the function of the frontal lobe of the brain.

The frontal lobe is located in the most anterior part of the brain hemispheres. It is considered responsible for much of the behavior that makes possible stable and adequate social relations. Self-control, planning, judgment, the balance of individual versus social needs, and many other essential functions underlying effective social intercourse are mediated by the frontal structures of the brain. (3) Antonio and Anna Damasio, two noted Portuguese neurologists and researchers working in the University of Iowa, have been investigating in the last decade the neurological basis of psychopathy. They have shown that individuals who had undergone damage to the ventromedial frontal cortex (and who had normal personalities before the damage) developed abnormal social conduct, leading to negative personal consequences. Among other things, they presented inadequate decision-making and planning abilities, which are known to be processed by the frontal lobe of the brain. (5) For a long time now, neuroscientists have known that lesions to this part of the brain lead to severe deficits in all these behaviors. The inordinate use of prefrontal lobotomy as a therapeutic tool by surgeons for many mental diseases in the 40s and 50s, provided researchers with enough data to implicate the frontal brain in the genesis of dissocial and antisocial personalities. (6) Through this information one can posit that the frontal lobe acts as a conscience.

An example of a serial killer that had suffered sever injury to his frontal lobe is Albert Fish, better known as the Brooklyn Vampire. At the age of seven he had a severe fall off a cherry tree which caused a head injury from which he would have permanent problems with, such as headaches and dizzy spells. (2) After his fall he began to display many violent tendencies, including an interest in sadomasochistic activities. At the age of twenty he killed his fist victim, a twelve-year-old neighbor by the name of Gracie whom he cannibalized. (2) It would appear that a damaged frontal lobe is a prime suspect in the causation of serial killing. However, if you look closer this argument flows over to prove that genetics is the main cause of serial killing. Could it be the case that we are all genetically encoded to become serial killers, and the frontal lobe is the proverbial muzzle that stops us from acting on our tendencies? All of us have at one point or another imagined killing a person because they displayed tendencies that we did not like. None of us went out and killed them in a ritualized manner.

The idea that the frontal lobe is a stop button, or acts as a conscience that stops a 'normal' human from acting on their more violent tendencies, is not a new one. Evolutionary biologists point that the frontal lobe evolved in tandem with the evolution of man from a beast to purveyor of civilization. (3) The trademark of all social primates is a highly developed frontal brain, and human beings have the largest one of all. It is a simple jump in reason to understand that, like a dog without its muzzle, the human animal without a frontal lobe is more likely to 'bite.'

Brain damage cannot be the motivator for all serial killing. 46% of all confessed serial killers have no frontal or general brain damage. The majority admits that they were perfectly aware of what they were doing before, during, and after the crime. Some even confess that they know that what they were doing was wrong, and contemplated 'giving up' after the first time. The thrill derived from murder is a temporary fix. Like any other powerful narcotic, homicidal violence satisfies the senses for a time, but the effect soon fades. And when it does, a predator goes hunting. (1) Caroll Edward Cole commented that after his first kill " I thought my life was going to improve, I was sadly mistaken. Neither at home or at school. I was getting meaner and meaner, fighting all the time in a way to hurt or maim, and my thoughts were not the ideas of an innocent child, believe me." By the end of his career Cole had killed so many people that he could not even remember the names of his victims. At one point during his testimony he remembered a new victim, "This one is almost a complete blank," Cole said of the victim. He didn't know the woman's name, but Cole remembered finding pieces of her body scattered from the bathroom to the kitchen of his small apartment. "Evidently I had done some cooking the night before," he testified. "There was some meat on the stove in a frying pan and part that I hadn't eaten on a plate, on the table." (1) Caroll Edward Cole had no mental illnesses, and was aware that he was committing morally abhorrent acts.

Circumstance is another argument that is proposed as a cause of serial killing. As the study of the profiles of serial killers progresses many similarities in their pasts, and in their recurring actions become eerily apparent. As children many suffered through traumatic childhoods, usually being physically or mentally abused. From this fact, it emerges that all reported cases of abuse committed against serial killers was done by their mothers. Most serial killers kill either for personal gain (revenge, money etc...) or pleasure (usually sexual). Many serial killers have above average intelligence, and are well employed in high wage jobs (engineers, doctors, lawyers etc...). The majority came from middle to high-income families. They are usually handsome/ beautiful, very articulate, and sexually promiscuous. (1) As killers they have a specific trait that they look for in the victims that they ritually kill. In interviews, many serial killers admitted that the people they killed fulfilled some aspect of a person that abused or taunted them. Caroll Edward Cole killed little boys that reminded him of a schoolyard bully that taunted him for having a girl's name. He later expanded his modus operandi to include young brown haired females that looked like his abusive mother. Under oath, he told a story of childhood abuse inflicted by his sadistic, adulterous mother, giving rise to a morbid obsession with women who betrayed their husbands or lovers. "I think," he told the jury, "I've been killing her through them." (1)

Do these disquieting threads of commonality among serial killers make a strong case towards the idea that serial killers are caused by circumstance? It would appear to be true, until you take into consideration the distribution curve. If serial killers give the impression of being linked by similar circumstance it is because the genetic traits of serial killing are all found at one end of the distribution curve (which by chance could be the same end in which a higher probability of certain circumstances occurs). The normal distribution curve is one of the most commonly observed and is the starting point for modeling many natural processes. (4) There are also cases of serial killers that break the thread of commonality. For example, one pair of killers, killed as a form of earning income. In the 1800's William Burke and William Hare poisoned over 200 people, and sold their corpses to medical universities so that medical students could learn how to autopsy cadavers. (1) If there is no commonality of experience between serial killers, then serial killing must be genetic.

An interesting idea comes forward when discussing the commonality of serial killers. Many genetic diseases are carried by a female and become active in their male offspring. For example, the most common form of color blindness, affects about 7 percent of men and less than 1 percent of women. It is identified as a sex-linked hereditary characteristic, passed from the mother to her son. (7) Can the same be said for serial killing? It is observed that their mother abused the majority of serial killers. Following this with the thought that serial killing is caused by genetics, could the mother be passing the genetic trait down to her son? This would account for the reason that serial killers are predominantly male.

In this paper the question has been raised: are serial killers genetically different? This question spawned the idea that serial killing is genetic. To prove this the two main arguments against genetics were looked at, and disproved. The first argument proposed that serial killing was caused by mental illness, or more specifically that serial killing was caused by trauma to the frontal lobe. If you look closely at this argument it actually turns to prove that serial killing can be genetic. The argument generates the idea that we are all genetically encoded to become serial killers, and the frontal lobe (acting as a conscience) stops us from doing so. The argument does not refute the idea that serial killing is genetic. The next major argument towards the causation of serial killing supposes that a serial killer is created by circumstance. To oppose this one can simply say that the apparent commonality of experience among serial killers only demonstrates that since serial killers are genetically different, in general they are at one end of the distribution curve. If there is no commonality of experience, then serial killing must be genetically caused. Maybe our founding fathers claims of manifest destiny and predestination were accurate after all.


Web References

1) Crime Library, This is a web site that houses the profiles of many serial killers, it also give detailed case history, and modus operandi. It specializes in hard to find serial killer cases. Especially older ones.
2) AtoZ Serial Killers, Here you will find a psychological profile of serial killers. Has photos, and sketches of the serial killers. Gives profiles of modern, and operating killers.
3) Frontal Lobe Abnormalities, This site provides a very good case for abnormalities in the frontal lobe. It specializes in brain abnormalities, and how that affects behavior.
4) Distribution Curve, Here you will find provided a really simple description of the distribution curve.
5) A Study of Brain Physiology ,This site focuses on the physiology of the brain.
6) History of Psychosurgery, This site looks at the different treatments for brain diseases. It is a historical look at psychosurgery and the effects that it has on the brain.
7) A History of Color Blindness, A basic history of color blindness, and its genetic origins.
8) Oxford English Dictionary, This is the site that hosts the complete Oxford English Dictionary.


Comments made prior to 2007

The CAUSE of human psychopathologies was isolated more than 50 years ago by asking (and answering) the simple question "What is the Great Common Denominator in the childhood backgrounds of a random sampling of suicides or psychopaths or serial killers or chronic drug addicts etc etc." The answer was iatrogenic and quickly concealed and remains so to this day. It is interesting to see you people here bending yourselves so far out of shape in your determined effort to contine the concealment of this CAUSE of psychopathologies. Is it something about endless grants forthcoming in search of that which is already known? You say not? Then what is the answer to the above forbidden question? ... Vern, 12 February 2006



Minor spelling issue which may cause confusion about frontal lobotomy.


A person with a severed frontal lobe has actually had a frontal lobotomy, which would make them have no ambition and unlikely to commit a crime.


I think you mean "severe" when you type "sever" in the various places in this text ... Scott Macmartin, 2 April 2006



In your discussion about serial killers having a genetic predisposition, you write "Can the same be said for serial killing? It is observed that their mother abused the majority of serial killers. Following this with the thought that serial killing is caused by genetics, could the mother be passing the genetic trait down to her son?"


You ask a question but there's no connection. It's possible, but that doesn't make it probably or fact. It may be that some mothers are born with genes that make them abuse their sons in such a way as to produce serial killers. This could produce serial killers without a serial killing "gene." We would have to look at twin studies, adoptions, etc. ... Eddie J, 16 March 2007


CGreen's picture


Albert Fish was almost 60 when he murdered Grace Budd. The reason he was permitted access to the child was because he went to Grace's family under the guise that he needed workers and was going to hire her father and brother. His grandfather like demeanor made him seem approachable and harmless, hence the family letting Grace go to his niece's birthday party with him. This in no way minimizes your head injury argument, I just stumbled upon your paper and I am actually currently writing a Master's term paper on psychopathy and serial killing and happened to just complete some research on him, so I figured you'd like to know :)

Faith's picture

The recipe that creates a

The recipe that creates a serial killer varies. It is everything listed above and some things that were failed to be mentioned. I don't think some understand why they do what they do anymore than we do. I think most tells us what they think we want to hear and others lie and manipulate to keep a captive audience. The best explanation I have heard was from a serial killer who when asked why he killed replied. "Because I can". I find them disgusting, monstrous, and fascinating all at the same time but gave up on trying to figure out what makes them tick long ago.

Serendip Visitor's picture

serial killers genetic?

just a thought has there been any research on the 215? proteins that directs human dna? maybe a commonality in 1 or more proteins maybe more or less of a certain protein resulting in the dna make up just crossed my mind after talking with Dr.helen

Ms. Tori M. Kelly's picture

Code of a Serial Killer

Not all serial killers suffered from child abuse or brain deficiency; and not all abused or brain deficient children become serial killers. According to assessment data, 36% suffered from physical child abuse; 26% sexual abuse; 50% psychological abuse; and 18% neglect (Mitchell & Aamodt, 2005). Biologically, the part of the brain that controls negative and violent behavior is genetically different between violent prone individuals and the general population. In 2000, Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin compared 500 brain scans and discovered diminished or lack of brain activity in the orbital frontal cortex and the anterior cingulated cortex of violent killers, theorizing this as the cause of uncontrollable urges (Serial Killers: Nature vs. Nurture-How Serial Killers are Born, 2011). While scientists attribute violent murder to genetics; criminologists and psychosocial behaviorists argue that environmental factors predispose savage tendencies. In my conclusion, although research partially supports both theories, combining them is essential to provoke a serial killer.
Early signs of violent propensities have been documented in young boys who torture animals. Studies indicate this behavior tends to escalate toward human beings. Young girls have been observed to display violent behavior towards dolls, but more studies are needed (Serial Killers: Nature vs. Nurture-How Serial Killers are Born, 2011).
Although child abuse intervention is difficult due to lack of cooperation with the parents, laws need to be enacted requiring children displaying violent behavior in school to receive psychological assessment and therapy or be removed from the home. While this would require resources, the costs of the consequences are greater. Besides valuable lives being lost, serial killers require many professionals working together to apprehend them.

Anonymous's picture


I have a child with a frontal lobe brain injury. The authenticity of these behaviors being caused by this specific injury is genuine. He has the best of care and the best of everything available to children with a frontal lobe brain injury however that does not change his natural instincts to see blood and gore.

If someone falls he will always come to ask if there is any blood or injury he can see. When he was four years old he asked if we could open the cat so he could see the inside.

We have other children, one of them is a boy. They were all reared exactly the same and none of them are abused.

My son's neuropsychologist agrees that the aggressive behavior and the disturbing behavior are brought about by the injury itself to the frontal lobe. This is common sense.

My also shows many signs of impulse control problems... you do the math...

Anonymous's picture


Circumstantial seems like the winner. Males are naturally more aggressive, and most victim are women due to abuse from women while growing up. Combine that with society which represses male emotions! Even combine that with frontal lobe damage! Even combine that with no ethical upbringing or no role models!

Anonymous's picture

What medicine to treat this mental problem?

Can these people take Prozac for general depression? Would it help?

bishop/ words of wisdom's picture

There is only one answer to

There is only one answer to the question" why do people become serial killers?" The answer is people get an andrinaline rush and satisfaction from hurting others to make there selves feel good. the dophomine which is a neuro transmitter is released into your brain which makes you feel good. So if you go out and murder someone and there is enough dophamine released in your brain that makes you feel good then when your body and brain urges happiness again you will go out and kill to get the amount of dophamine your body is requesting

Schreck's picture

Why do people become serial killers???????/

That is your opinion. Are you a doctor? Maybe it is because they are just plain fucking evil period. I get a high smoking weed and I have yet to murder anyone. It is only when I am angry at particular humans that I want to torture and eliminate them for my sake as well as society. Very much like Dexter. I have yet to snap but I have planned in my head how to go about it. Murder can be easy. You only get caught if you open your mouth or leave evidence and witnesses. Get a degree in psychology and then reply back to me..........

Serendip Visitor's picture


Wow mate. That's a bit creepy don't you think, to tell us all how you have "planned" how you will eliminate people? Maybe all that weed is damaging your frontal lobe.

Anonymous's picture

that is not the

that is not the question....the question is what drives them to BEGIN this behavior....people with over-eating disorders dont over eat becaue "food tastes good"----both are fufilling a need that makes them happy, but what makes them different from others that do not suffer from such conditions is what interests people...a differently functioning brain allows them to do this and a higher functioning brain allows one to really evaluate it further than "they wanna cuz it makes em feel good"

Xia 's picture

Different thoughts....

According to Dr. Irene, the average serial killer is a narcissist. She also believes that serial killers are made, not born of biological DNA. This type of serial killer cannot be rejected, resisted, spurned, insulted, emotionally hurt, criticized, or disagreed with. You did not explain what kind of behavior these serial killers display, or how they think. The "narcissistic" serial killer thinks infantile, and magical. They also portray themselves as an "ultimate being" and that their victims are chosen, and should be greatful for it. This serial killer type also believes that all people are narcissists, and would kill if they were allowed to or wanted to. They "improve" or "purify" their victims by removing imperfections on the body. They believe that this is saving them from degradation, or degeneration. In other words, a fate worse than death. Victims for the narcissist are props, extensions, aides, objects, and/or symbols. This type of killer is auto-erotic. They recreate past situations with victims as meaningful objects, such as parents or a lover, etc. Only the outcome is different, the killer dominates. The narcissistic killer believes that s/he is getting back at society for what it's done to them. Almost like poetic justice. The murdering of a victim is cathartic, and allows the killer to release hitherto repressed and pathologically transformed aggresion into hate, envy, rage, etc. The repeated acts fail to allieviate the anxiety and deppression the person withholds. When the killer is apprehended, the killer is washed over with a great sense of relief. Narcissism isn't a disease, and it surely isn't a mental illness either. So, do tell me your thoughts.

elovejoy's picture

I don't know much about

I don't know much about serial killers, except for the fact that they are typically narcissists.  So, I am focusing more on the topic of narcissism.

I disagree with your comment that narcissism isn't a disease.  Narscissism can range on a broad spectrum, from people who have narcissistic traits, to people who have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).  There was a study done by Livesley et al. in 1993 that looked at the heritability of narcissism.  They did this by studying 85 dizygotic pairs of twins and 90 pairs of monozygotic twins.  They found that narcissism had a heritability of .64, which was the highest heritability of the eighteen personality dimensions that they studied.  Many other studies point to the hypothesis that narcissism is a genetic trait.

I also understand that it is hard to distinguish between what is "normal" narcissism, and what is a psychological disorder.  But, NPD (which most serial killers have) is definitely a mental illness.  When people with NPD are criticized, they feel threatened and often feel rejected.  In order to protect themselves, they often will react with some sort of defiance or rage.

Narcissism is definitely a hard personality trait to deal with, because typically those with the trait or disorder do not believe that they have it.  Additionally, people with NPD have a perceived grandiosity, and are unable to work well with others or achieve professional goals.  They often have a lack of empathy and feel a sense of entitlement.  These characteristics adversely affect their interpersonal relationships.

"Disease" is defined as "an impairment of health or a condition of abnormal functioning" (by  Because the relationships between those with NPD and other people are so adversely effected, I would definitely consider narcissism a disease, and a mental illness.

Comments/thoughts are welcomed.

Anonymous's picture

I think the key issue here

I think the key issue here is epigenetic. Take Bundy's father. He is described as being a bully and a tyrant. His behavior sounds quite in keeping with his son. I am not aware of Bundy being abused by his mother but she at least neglectful and he grew up thinking she was his sister, raised by his grandparents. The grandmother, his adoptive mother was a quite severe depressive by accounts and became agoraphobic.

A highly stressed mother or abnormally incapable of bonding, with impaired nuturing tendency and a lack of normal touching and reassurance may have explained an upregulation, by epigenetic effects in the womb and particularly afterwards, resulting of lack of emotional connection with his real mother and then afterwards the surrogates really could not repair the early damage.

My hypothesis is that personalities and behavioral tendencies are pre-encoded in all of us, but circumstances in early life particularly modify gene expression. This leads to alterations of circuits connected to self-protective behavior and empathy.

To put this more succintly, if a person grows up in a threatening, unreassuring environment, relationships dont work, and the organism adopts an exaggeration of the certain behavioral instincts, such as to create an alternative inner world and moral compass, which is not propperly entrained by the community. This is a lack of bonding reflective of environment and maternal factors, but it could include genetics as well as womb hormones. This self-controlled compass is further sent awry by the fact that the individuals needs are not met and a level of distrust and resentment is generated. This in turn leads towards ideation on revenge or murder, and in some it may twin with the so-called 'dark triad' of traits which clearly normally aid reproduction in a competitive world.

In all cases it cases a switching off of normal empathic bonding, and I believe is an evolved response to a cold and threatening environment and allows the iundividual to develop dsespite a different inner track of feelings - by exaggerating skills in charm and false affect.

It also raises intelligence. Many of these serial killers seem to have rather good planning, much as preditors do, and those with aspergers. They also often have the ability to lie and a flexible inner moral compass that can follow itself or intellectual conclusions or emotional needs (i.e. sexual gratification and revenge), representing a kind of interpersonal intelligence.

I view it as likely that epigenetics are involved - for example large gene expression changes are observed in those with a history of child abuse. Secondly, such changes may be a tendency that can 'run' in the family, and as such encourage poor bonding from the mother and father. This explains their track record of violence. They cannot see the childs point of view if their brain does not bond and make them want to, and thus the frustrations and irritations of a child cause the parent to lash out and act hatefully back, to disruptions to their routines.

This in turn ensures that these traits are exaggerated in the off-spring.

The reaction in that offspring is an evolved set of traits for survival of the self taken to extremes, which manifests in part as a desire to destroy threats.

The good-looking nature of serial killers suggests they are healthy, and fit. This in turn suggests an innate survival trait. The fundamentally healthy looking seriel killer may also conversely experienmce less stress, as in part they are healthy, and secondly they lack empathy and so do not have added stresses of conscience, additionally they are obviously confident in their own compass, which reduces the agoonising over the emergence of more extreme instincts. I consider it likely that this helps them look beautiful, and the fact that they come from richer background reflects the likelihood of higher than average, rather than lower cerebral development, as it appears that cerebreal development is connected to rank in animals and is a tool to help obtain it. In the serial killer one other factor may connect these signs of health - the fact that they get away with it long enough to become a serial killer. Normally an ugly person is more likely to be diagnosed mentally ill or be arrested. Such individuals may routinely be caught before they can be a serial killer.

The behavior of a serial killer, in spite of these suggestions of health, is still irrational and senseless, and they lose control of their impulsions. I believe these impulsions follow a logical path from that unguided inner mental world along with the early added threat and resentment/rage.

They are fitter in that they are confident enough, unlike the schizoid who also is characterise by an inner world, to explore their dark side successfully and confidently.

In the truest sense, oine cannot have a better example of psychopathy than Ted Bundy. There was a man who was utterly without feeling for others. And yet a part of him developed normally, it was free enough inside, and so motivated to leave those tracks.

Anonymous's picture

Of course this is genetic if

Of course this is genetic if you are a living thing you have the ability to kill