Pedophiles: born that way?

By Razib Khan | September 9, 2012 11:31 pm

Gawker published a piece on the neurological problems which might result in pedophilia, and naturally a lot of shock and disgust was triggered. The piece is titled Born This Way: Sympathy and Science for Those Who Want to Have Sex with Children. This isn’t something you want to click through to lightly. So fair warning. The neurobiological material did pique my interest:

“There was nothing significant in the frontal lobes or temporal lobes,” says Cantor. “It turned out the differences weren’t in the grey matter. The differences were in the white matter.”

“The white matter” is the shorthand term for groupings of myelinated axons and glial cells that transmit signals throughout the gray matter that composes the cerebrum. Think of the gray matter like the houses on a specific electricity grid and the white matter like the cabling connecting those houses to the grid.

“There doesn’t seem to be a pedophilia center in the brain,” says Cantor. “Instead, there’s either not enough of this cabling, not the correct kind of cabling, or it’s wiring the wrong areas together, so instead of the brain evoking protective or parental instincts when these people see children, it’s instead evoking sexual instincts. There’s almost literally a crossed wiring.”

The good news, according to Cantor, is that it if they can figure out how the wiring gets crossed, they might be able to suggest ways pregnant mothers can help ensure their baby is unlikely to be born a pedophile. “It is quite possible that one or more components of the process are related to prenatal stresses like poor maternal nutrition, toxin exposure, ill health, or poor health care,” he says. “If so, then improving health and health care in general may reduce the numbers of people vulnerable to developing pedophilia, as well as other problems.”

Fair enough as far as that goes. I think it is important to look at controversial and explosive topics objectively. You don’t always need to be objective about the issue at hand, or lack opinions, but you need to step back and analyze in a value-free manner on occasion. For me the confusing thing is that to my knowledge Gawker today takes conventionally Leftish stances on “nature vs. nurture” type issues. Would they post something by Steven Pinker defending the concept of robust behavioral differences between the sexes? So why are they sticking their necks out here?

In any case, I think the problem with the Gawker piece is that it doesn’t really come off as a cold and rational assessment. Rather, there is genuine sympathy for people who are afflicted with the mental disease of pedophilia. The author finishes:

The old adage is that the true mark of a society is how it treats the weakest in its ranks. Blacks, women, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and others are still in no way on wholly equal footing in America. But they’re also not nearly as lowly and cursed as men attracted to children. One imagines that if Jesus ever came to Earth, he’d embrace the poor, the blind, the lepers, and, yes, the pedophiles. As a self-professed “progressive,” when I think of the world I’d like to live in, I like to imagine that one day I’d be OK with a man like Terry moving next door to me and my children. I like to think that I could welcome him in for dinner, break bread with him, and offer him the same blessings he’s offered me time and again. And what hurts to admit, even knowing all I know now, is that I’m not positive I could do that.

I’m not a professed “progressive.” I can see where the author is coming from probably (and so can Jonathan Haidt)…but can my progressive readers get into his mind here? Does being progressive mean you can not take into account probability to any extent? That you need to treat people as singular individuals in even the most extreme cases? For example, in the case of a pedophile who has never acted upon their instincts one presumes that they could find social acquaintances who were childless. Many biological dispositions aren’t deterministic, they’re probabilistic. That means controlling or channeling them in non-destructive ways entails changing the situations and contexts one is placed it. That’s not unjust, that’s just common sense. You aren’t a bad person to think it is prudent that someone with pedophile urges should avoid developing close friendships with people with young children.

Many of my liberal readers and friends have expressed the position that if a hereditarian position was true for a range of issue that that would result in a lot of unpleasant normative and political downstream consequences. I’m generally skeptical of this position. I have plenty of hereditarian ideas, and believe it or not I’m not a hateful Nazi. But the response above to the possibility that pedophilia has a biological basis does make me reconsider. I’m not a neo-Freudian, so I had always assumed that this behavior and tendency had neurobiological roots. That didn’t make me any more sympathetic to individuals who committed unmentionable acts. The world isn’t fair, unfortunately.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Behavior Genetics

Comments (23)

  1. Rape and specially rape of minors and even more specially rape of pre-puber children, deserves most severe punishments. If they are born that way, they may need to be unborn, if you know what I mean.

    I’m for death penalty only in few cases: serious white collar crimes affecting the economy or lives of common citizens (this includes your usual crimes against humankind, war crimes, etc. category but also stuff like the mortgage scam and many other banking activities) and aggravated rape. Rape of children is always aggravated.

    I’m not truly too interested in how the brain of these people is wired, same as I’m not interested on how the brain of banksters or Nazis is.

  2. david germain

    lol, This is going to be the biggest flame war ever.
    Its going to be very difficult for people to separate their emotions from the topic.
    Can we all try to keep this about the science and not the crimes. Yes the crimes are really bad all crime is really bad. We all agree its wrong. But the science of neurobiology is very interesting. The question of nature and nurture.
    Its really good that people are still working on these issues.
    Quote OP.
    “I think it is important to look at controversial and explosive topics objectively. You don’t always need to be objective about the issue at hand, or lack opinions, but you need to step back and analyze in a value-free manner on occasion”

  3. Muffy

    I think that:

    A) Pedophilia is probably no more a choice, and no less biologically determined, than homosexuality. In other words, it’s a sexual orientation.
    B) Recognizing pedophilia as innate does not mean that it’s any more justified for such people to have sex with children.
    C) A respectable society would treat non-practicing pedophiles with respect, and even admiration for their ability to supress their urges.
    D) People can, at times, go a bit overboard in demonizing pedophiles themselves (which has the undesirable consequence of making it impossible to truly integrate such people into society).

    For what difference it makes, I’m a homosexual who has never been entirely comfortable with the whole “it’s not a choice!” justification for homosexuality, largely because of the pedophilia example. Clearly, just because our brains our wired to have certain sexual urges doesn’t mean we’re justified in acting on said urges. Either that, or in fact we ought to be living in a much more libertine society than we do now.

  4. blindboy

    This is one example of a whole range of related issues in which brain structure or the presence of particular genes suggest that certain behaviours are beyond the individual’s control. Where criminality is involved it is worth distinguishing between punishment and protection of the community. Even if the individual has no control and so could be considered “blameless”, the community has the right to protect itself.
    To take an extreme example, the community has a clear right to sentence a murderer to life imprisonment if it is shown that they also have a range of genes or brain structures inclining them to violent behaviour.
    In fact, in most cases, I suspect, the presence of these characteristics does not mitigate so much as further condemn. It might not be fair in some absolute sense but life’s like that. We try to compensate for those with disabilities but we cannot remove them nor devote inordinate resources trying to ameliorate them.
    We should, of course draw the line at the punishment proposed some decades ago in Australia’s Northern Territories ” throw the paedophiles to the crocodiles”.

  5. RedZenGenoist

    1) Clearly, the animal kingdom is saturated with pedophilia, particularly higher primates (Bonobos, etc). Of course it’s hereditary, of course it’s hardwired, of course it even makes evolutionary sense.

    2) So is violence, rape, and everything else that we’ve evolved to repress, due to punishment, castration, and execution of criminals who transgresses the red lines of law. This is how we carved civilization out of nature with swords and regalia. Wolves became dogs because we took vengeance upon the wicked.

    Aesops fables come to mind when reading the above. Inviting serpents over to be in proximity of your fucking infant is a special kind of madness that White people seem to have in excess. 🙁

  6. amhovgaard

    So you want to see more children (and other rape victims) murdered? Or are you just incapable of reasoning your way to what the logical result will be when someone who has already committed a serious crime knows they have nothing to lose by committing one more, and everything to win by getting rid of a witness?

  7. April Brown

    I’ve wondered about this one, the nature/nurture aspect of really messed up tendencies (and I throw other behaviours in with pedophilia, fair or not.) In a way, I find it comforting that there might be something wrong with the wiring, so to speak. If child molesters had healthy looking brains, indistinguishable from everybody else, that would be disquieting.

    I’m not sure where I fall on the progressive scale. I’m not super clear on the definition – mostly I hear the term bandied about by shouty cowardly fear mongers like Glenn Beck, and I’m perfectly fine being something he isn’t. Of course, I’m pretty sure he’s not super clear on the definiton of… anything, so that’s probably a poor indicator.

    I read Dan Savage’s column, (probably he’s considered progressive), and I recall a letter he received from a non practicing and strongly self policing pedophile. I believe the man was thinking about having children, under the assumption that his own children would not be a temptation the way non family children were. Dan’s advice was to get a vascectomy immediately and forget the idea He acknowledged that the man’s situation was tragic, that unlike most of the rest of humanity, he could never have a fulfilling sexual relationship, and also that it wasn’t ok for him to have the experience of parenting. Once one has kids, those kids have friends and playdates and school events, and that’s a situation this man had to make sure he never got anywhere near.

    Personally, I kind of view the pedophile who has chosen to exercise will power and not be around children similarly to the way I view pitbulls. I can’t quite take the step of saying they have no right to exist, but I reserve the right to be hypervigiliant, aggressive, and even unfair in restricting access to me and mine. I’m much less likely to be fogiving of errors – a bitbull slipping its leash is a way bigger deal than a golden retriever getting free, and a pedophile accidentally wandering into a school parking lot is far worse than a ponzi-schemer hanging out at a school running a lunch money racket. I”m not sure how that would translate into tangible law though – haven’t thought it through enough to be able to say anything intelligent about that.

  8. Konkvistador

    @April Brown: Would you be ok using the same kind of probabilistic reasoning you use for pitbulls and paedophiles to avoid potential criminals that may harm you or your children?

    I find unprincipled exceptions funny, since they often clearly demonstrate that which categories we consider or don’t consider sacred and thus taboo to use in probabilist reasoning about people are clearly not based on utilitarian cost benefit analysis or some kind of Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance approximation of “justice” but historical happenstance.

  9. solitha

    Invite your pyromaniac friend out to a bonfire in the woods.

    How about your dieting or diabetic one to a bake sale?

    Set your daughter up on a blind date with a serial rapist?

    It’s not only a risk to the children; it’s unkind to this friend Terry to invite him into a situation of temptation.

    I’m not really sure of the definition of “progressive”. But if the author believes that waving someone’s most forbidden temptation under the person’s nose is really a method of kindness, that doesn’t seem very progressive to me. It feels more like overcompensation, and wanting to pat yourself on the back for being “brave” enough to defy the odds.

  10. blindboy

    Konkvistador, I thought for a moment that last sentence was the example I had been looking for to demonstrate the importance of punctuation to my students…..but, sadly, however I punctuate it, it still makes no sense!

  11. Arana

    I think the idea (that a lot of people seem to take as fact) that a pedophile inherently has the desire to actually rape the child they are attracted to is possibly a fairly backwards notion. To me it’s the same as saying a heterosexual must have the desire to rape the object of their attraction. Simply because a person is attracted to another person does not necessarily mean they want to have actual sexual contact. Theres probably a lot of pedophiles who keep it to the realms of fantasy and don’t have any desires beyond that because they realise its actually very wrong.

  12. April Brown

    @ Konkvistador

    I have no idea what your last sentence means.

    And to the other question, I’ll just say there are a myriad of reasons why I don’t run for public office, and knowing I haven’t worked out all the kinks in my personal beliefs in such a way that is logical and fair is one of them. My own instinct to grab a weapon every time I see a pitbull is my own baggage. If you’re asking if I am willing to extend my gut reaction across all A) dangerous situations and B) everybody else on the planet when confronted with a pitbull, the answer is no.

    However, Razib did ask about the personal opinions on the matter from left leaning readers, so I thought I’d throw in my two cents, despite the risk of soliciting snarky pseudo-intellectual potshots.

    Also, my kids will grow up knowing an awful lot about risk management. And some sort of martial art.

  13. Alan

    Gawker is sticking their necks out here because this is clickbait – and they have to make them ad dollars.

  14. razib

    13, advertised care about what they’re associated with. Also, a gawker writer could come out against gay marriage. That would get clicks.

  15. Bob Ramsav

    I’d support the death penalty for bigots such as Maju, up there. They happily say “I’m not truly too interested in how the brain of these people is wired”, where “these people” could even include people who break the Sabbath. Why? Because they were taught to believe their scriptures, which say it is wrong.

    Yes, I’m aware of my own contradiction. I’m still writing it here to make a point.

  16. Eurologist


    I am not really sure what your question is. The sentence of the author you highlighted in the last paragraph is a futuristic fantasy – as indicated by the following couple of sentences. Yes, left-leaning people tend to have such fantasies, but many of them are realists enough to also caveat those fantasies with appropriate statements. The only thing missing is a clear rational explanation of exactly why this is a fantasy.

  17. Heiko

    I grew up next door to a pedophile. I didn’t know he was one nor did I even know what one was, but I was best friends with him despite a huge age difference (60 years) and with the full knowledge of my parents. He was not a predatory pedophile, i.e. he only had sex with minors with their ‘consent’ (whatever that means for a 12 year old) and only with girls (I’m male). Only long after his death did my parents tell me that the couple of years he was away he didn’t actually go traveling in Africa but spent them in prison for pedophilia. I’m not trying to justify his behaviour in any way, but I can’t help still thinking of him as an old friend of my childhood.

  18. Karl Zimmerman

    I have perhaps a nuanced position on this for personal reasons. One of my best friends growing up had an attraction (but not a sole attraction) to pre-pubescent girls. He had two encounters as a young teen – in one case it was a mutual “doctor” like session where the girl was just on the other side of puberty, and in the other he was a few years older and should have known better, but the girl actually initiated it (pulled him into a closet, took off her clothes, and asked him to touch her).

    Regardless, while I wouldn’t say he had a lot of guilt about feeling attracted, he did understand that non-consensual sex was wrong, and that he had no desire to get arrested. He disposed of all of his kiddie porn before he turned 18. Eventually, his brother became a father, and he told me that something about becoming an uncle made him lose all sexual interest in little girls entirely, so he now views them pretty much the same as anyone else views children. He hasn’t brought it up in years, and I firmly believe him that he’s pretty much “cured.”

    As others have said, there is a difference between being attracted to children and being a sociopath, and I think both are probably needed for active pedophilia. Even when people are in the grips of heightened sexual arousal and/or infatuation, they usually have a decent level of impulse control due to the universals about acceptable behavior in modern society. I do not think I would want someone I knew harbored pedophilic tendencies around my daughter unsupervised, but at the same time I see no reason to treat them as a human monster and shun them socially for something they probably can’t help. To me this isn’t a matter of sympathy, it’s merely a matter of judging people based upon their actions, not their thoughts.

    This post also skirts around the edges of something I’ve been interested in lately – that although you can claim U.S. liberals tend to have “blank slatist” ideas, there is also an anti-hereditary stance which is mainly affiliated with the right wing in the U.S. I call it, for lack of a better term, choice fetishism, because it tends to rely on individuals having free will and making conscious choices. It’s one of the few areas that both the economic right (“people can choose not to be poor if they work hard”) and religious right (“people can choose not to be gay if they work hard”) have in common. Our legal system is based upon free choice as well, and predispositions to criminal activity (such as pedophilia in this case, where virtually everyone is a social conservative) have difficult moral consequences. Thus I expect there will be a lot of re-ordering of the justifications of conservative beliefs in coming years, even if the beliefs themselves remain unchanged.

  19. Carmen

    I don’t like the assumption that every person with pedophilic urges is a child molester. Isn’t that similar to saying that every man with heterosexual urges is a rapist? I sometimes wonder how many people quietly hide their pedophilia, never telling anyone the way they feel.

  20. Ann


    Are you serious??? A child cannot consent! Are you people missing that???

    This seems to be turning into a comment breeding ground for normalization of pedophile behavior.

    Often times, pedophiles will pose as victims or somebody who had a healthy relationship with a pedophile to encourage the public to accept as normal. This is part of their organized, online efforts. Those with little knowledge of the sophisticated public “education” of pedophiles are becoming duped.

    Offer your own kids to pedophiles. Not mine!

  21. Ann

    @Carmen, uh, no, comparing a person who wants to rape children (you can’t call it sex because a child can’t give consent and therefore can’t have sex), to a hetero wanting to have sex with an adult rape because children cannot give consent.

    Pedophiles have victims. Heteros and gay people, don’t.

    Do I really have to explain this???

  22. Ann

    Karl Zimmerman, so you are saying that being attracted to children is normal and natural? If that were the case, then why is it that children who are raped often have to go to the emergency room to get their vaginas or anuses repaired?

    If it’s so natural, why aren’t children’s body’s predisposed to adult penises?

    Do you know any child victims yourself?

  23. ok guys, i think the thread is getting a little out of my control. don’t have time to moderate during daytime, and who knows where it will go?

    so you are saying that being attracted to children is normal and natural?

    no, he wasn’t. a rule of thumb is when you restate what someone else said in your own words you are distorting what they are saying for your own rhetorical purposes.

    in any case, this conversation needs to go on. i suspect in the near future we’ll be able to establish probabilities that a number of children ‘lack moral sense.’ so the pedophile-neurobiology issue is going to be a general problem we’re going to tackle as a society….


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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