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Serial Killers: Nature vs. Nurture

Sharhea's picture

Everyday one can turn on the television and find anything that either has sex or violence involved. From shows such as “Law and Order: SVU” to “Sex and the City”, we as viewers get hooked to the television screen. We memorize when our favorite shows come on and even go as far as schedule our school work and/or social life around those times. The best thing that has happened for viewers is the fact that we can now get our favorite series on DVD. I can now borrow “House M.D” on DVD from the Swarthmore College Library and no longer have to create a schedule to watch television. Many episodes in both “Law and Order” and “House M.D” tend to always lean towards their audience and/or characters to make ethical choices about life and death. The murderers presented in “Law and Order” tend to have a motive, or some psychological problem for their acts. In one episode of “House M.D”, a murderer on death row had a tumor in his brain. These episodes had me thinking about mass murderers and/or serial killers: Why do some kill with no remorse? Is there a medical reason for their acts? Or are they just ‘natural born’ killers?

There are tons of different theories throughout the criminal world for the reasons why serial killers do what they do. They all surround the basic concepts of nature vs. nurture. Are they born to be serial killers? Or are they serial killers through circumstances? Scientists have yet to come to a consensus on what they believe in the real cause. Many believe that brain damage to the frontal lobe and/or limbic system may be the true cause of their killing sprees. Doctors as well as detectives consider a profile, where they assume the killings are due to the killers’ past physical and/or mental abuse. Differentiating nature vs. nurture can be very difficult, due to the simple fact that one’s environment (nurture) can impact one’s behavior (nature). In fact a serial killer tends to begin their killing due to some change or impact of their environment. For example, the serial killer Bobby Joe Long was abused by his mother (a prostitute) and her ‘clients’. When he was twenty years old, he got into a motorcycle accident that caused some brain damage. After this accident, he became more aggressive and his sexual desires increased.  

Before continuing with the nature vs. nurture theories, one has to define a serial killer. According to, “a serial killer is someone who murders three or more people with a 'cooling off' period between each murder (largely psychological gratification).” The Oxford Dictionary states that it is “a person who murders several people one after the other in a similar way”.  Both definitions give us the understanding that a serial killer have a ‘motive’ and chose when and how they which to kill. The key word for me is that they all have a ‘choice’ in how and when to kill, which in turn makes them guilty. But first we must look into the excellent ‘stories’ that have been developed in the criminology world to explain their acts.   

First I will start with the nature theories, where many scientists believe brain damage, genetic disorders and/or other disorders/diseases create the problem. The frontal lobe is considered to be responsible for human behavior that makes us stable and have adequate social relations. “Evolutionary biologists point that the frontal lobe evolved in tandem with the evolution of man from beast to purveyor of civilization.”[1] Damage to the limbic system can also be a cause of serial killers’ ‘dysfunction’. The “limbic system controls one’s emotion as well as motivation; some serial killers are missing the limbic system in the brain.”[2] When the limbic brain is damaged, it may account for uncontrollable aggression. “Among the many serial killers who had suffered head injuries are Leonard Lake, David Berkowitz, Kenneth Bianchi, John Gacy and Carl Panzram, who as a child, had some sort of head infection.”[3]

Many serial killers were raised in homes, where they were physically and/or mentally abused for years. Some were orphaned and moved around from home to home, and others were abused by a close relative. Henry Lee Lucas was beaten by his prostitute mother for years with broom handles. His mother would dress him as a girl to attend school as well as force him to watch her have sex with men. These men were usually violent and in turn Henry Lee Lucas became the aggressor.[4] The majority of researchers believe that environment alone cannot explain the behaviors of serial killers. Although many of them have been neglected in their childhood, there are many others just like them, that turn out to be law abiding citizens.

So where do we go from here, do we agree that it is a combination of things that create a serial killer? Or do we continue to look for this trait? Trying to search for the nature impact is a little troubling for me. If scientists do come to a conclusion about what is possibly wrong in the brain of serial killers, what would happen then? Do we scan every human brain or babies for this particular trait or gene? Do we set these members of society aside or monitor them as “terrorist” or title them as having the “kill gene”? The ethical questions can go on forever. Shirley Lynn Scott writes in her conclusion that “…serial killers are human black holes… they are so normal, so generic, so invisible [that] they terrify us because they mirror us.” She continues to say that “[a serial killer] is an embodiment of the darkness, desire, and power that we must repress within ourselves.” She ended her book with some very puzzling thoughts. These thoughts lead me to ask myself: what is repressing us from partaking in these gruesome acts? Some of the most organized killers were very educated and had more knowledge about the world than the average person, so what is stopping us from acting?

The questions can go on forever. The research on serial killers has yet to find a consensus on the cause of the problem. Maybe we will never know the answer to why they do what they do but we could still continue to create and listen to new ‘stories’ of why. “We recoil at their bloody antics, but we remain transfixed,”[5] which is why we love to watch violence on television. It is our way of connecting to that power that we repressed within us. 


 If you want to know about the murders committed by the serial killers I listed in my paper, please visit this site: and/or the sites in my footnotes.

[1] Predestined Serial Killers, A. Rutigliano: /bb/nuero03/web1/arutigliano.html

[3] What Makes Serial Killers Tick? Shirley Lynn Scott, Chapter 15+16, 

[5] What Makes Serial Killers Tick? Shirley Lynn Scott, Conclusion


Thinker's picture

serial killers are a sign of human evolution?

Just a thought I had while thinking about society in general. It occured to me that perhaps the process of "needing" to kill/murder may be a sign of evolution at work. This would be at the mental level though. The human body is always in a state of change and you could say each individual is a program running with millions of scenarios through out a life time. All serial killers are different and some you could say are just angry, nature vs nurture. Then there are those who suddenly start their spree coming from what society would consider a "normal" life. Most likely the act of taking a life feeds a hunger in them, which can be compared to how predators hunt prey. There's a hunger that needs to be satisfied, instead of the need for food for survival, these serial killers do it to mantain ther mental health.
This leads to evolution hat humans have a need to kill off others that they feel as prey. Serial killers don't kill randomly, their victims are selected carefully, things are planned. One sad truth may be that there are some out there that never get caught, and the ones that do are ones created by society, nature vs nurture. A lion will stalk it's prey and select one out of a group for the highest chance of a kill. You could say we are still bound to our aniaml instincts. Somewhere along human history whether it was in the past or will be in the future. There will evolve specific human "types" that will fight for survial. One perspective at all hominiod fossils found could be seen as a cross roads. Two species meet and only the product of the two will survive. The result of the mixed species will have traits from both. If this theory was applied to human evolution, I think we will get some pretty interesting results.
Let me know if this is just some crazy rant because I have no knowledge of any of these topics. But this could turn to an interesting paper one day.

O.A.M's picture

re: serial killers are a sign of human evolution

You made some good points about serial killers being a result of evolution, but i believe we are all in general inbred to believe we are a supreme being, above animal and instinctual behavior, but in fact we are animals with instincts. Why are we instilled with these societal beliefs now days where we are suppose to be acting and doing civilized things? all this creates is a boundary between our nature and nuture behaviors. psychologist try and seclude every behavior when in reality what ever happened to people just being people? since we are all individual people with individual up bringings. how can we make a bracket where we "fit in" when we are all brought up differently? i believe it is very plausable that evolution could be the culprit to serial killers maniac behavior, but i believe its the opposite of evolution here happening, evolution made us predators to begin with, then we we're made in o society safe creatures, so the people who have the killing instinct just haven't evolved into the new breed of humans, the ones fit for society.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Combination of both


I am doing a research paper and my thesis is how a combination of both nature and nurture transforms a child into a serial killer. It has to be at least 10 pages and I have about 5. I am having a hard trouble developing the paragraphs and I was wondering if you could possibly help me.


Serendip Visitor's picture



I'm writing a paper now on the same thing because of how interested I am, I would love to read your paper!

scoobyal's picture

nature v nurture serial killers?

Just read your comments on serial killers and whether it is nature or nurture that make them act in the way they have. I am very much interested in this area, also adding in child killers like thomson and venables (James Bulger's murderers). It is such a wide and indepth topic, that i personally think like much of everything that happens within societys we need both.
along with this i have been focusing on Dr Stones 22 point system of which he places killers serial killers among.. i have been trying to define why some people class the murderers of James Bulger as serialkillers, as they murdered once. Is it down to the depravity of the crime.. Anyway thankyou for providing such interesting reading material, and if anyone wants to try and reason on the above i would be interested in hearing your views. thanks.

Lena's picture


Thanks for writing such a good paper. I'm actually writing one about this myself!

Serendip Visitor's picture

Can you email me your papeR?

Can you email me your papeR?

Anonymous's picture

Nature is the genetics

Nature is the genetics behind forming your personality and behaviors, not your current phsical health, and nurture is the enviroment that has had an impact on your personality and behaviors. Also I can't believe that you actually cited Wikipedia as a source in your paper. Wikipedia has lost all credability as a research source because anyone can go into a section and change any of the information. I lost interest in reading your paper when you quoted Wikipedia.

Anonymous's picture

I agree. I started believing

I agree. I started believing in the article myself, however when I saw that you cited Wikipedia, I suddenly lost interest. Although aspects of your research may count as true, using Wikipedia makes your article like some poor high school student's psychology paper. Please do not mark wikipedia as a credible source. Your paper loses validity.