The article to be reviewed in the present paper is the work by Abdulla A.-B. Badawy (2003) titled “Alcohol and violence and the possible role of serotonin”. At the very beginning of his article Badawy voices an opinion that there exists a defined interrelation between the consumption of alcohol and violence which can be witnessed through a low level of serotonin. Aggression results from the brain dysfunction, namely the dysfunction of the brain indolylamine serotonin, which brings about violent behavior of all types (towards other people and towards oneself) (Badawy, p. 1).
Badawy bases his argumentative article on the assumption that the level of serotonin in the human brain is a decisive element causing violence and aggressive behavior, which is as a rule underestimated by the criminologists and common public who are used to justify or explain violence in other terms. The author examines these alternatives chosen by people for explaining violence and closely stops at four of them: people think more about the circumstances of alcohol consumption and the conditions that caused the person’s violence, seeing the social, behavioral or psychological roots for these cases, but neglecting the genetic or biological side of the issue; some people are used to justifying violence by alcohol consumption and use it as an excuse for such cases, thus considering people not guilty of their behavior and applying ethical issues; biology of alcohol consumption is often juxtaposed with the philosophy of ethics, social implications justifying situations of violent behavior with different individual traits; the majority of common public do not recognize the influence of alcohol on the human brain as important enough in creating the motive for violent behavior (Badawy, pp. 1-2).
At the same time the author gives out the dreadful statistics of more than 50% of cases of violence being accompanied with alcohol consumption, thus proving the direct correlation of both concepts. Nevertheless, Badawy states that the interrelations not only exists on a correlational level, but also has a causal nature, that is, these two concepts are not only interrelated, but alcohol is the direct cause for violence (Badawy, p. 1).
The point of the author seems clear at the very beginning – he concentrates on purely biological issues neglecting the accompanying circumstances that may play a decisive role in the creation of a case of violence and become an incentive for the person under the influence of alcohol. However, it is necessary to admit that from the very beginning, even focusing on a narrow circle of problems and analyzing a narrow problem the author admits that in the course of a more detailed and deeper literary review the issue is not directly accepted and has much criticism:
Although there is also evidence in the literature that does not support the role of serotonin dysfunction in alcohol-related aggression, a relatively larger body of evidence exists in support of such a role (Badawy, p. 3).
Badawy wants to remain focused only on a biological aspect of alcohol’s influence on the processes taking place in the human brain, because he thinks that the level of serotonin, which is known to be influenced much by alcohol consumption, is also the main cause of violence. He provides much literature review details justifying the choice of his position in the question and supposes that deeper consideration of the issue would change the process of criminal proceedings concerning the alcohol cases much:
It is hoped that, with the growing acceptance in legal circles of the role of genetics and related biological mechanisms delineated through recent advances in scientific research in biochemistry and molecular biology, the biological effects of alcohol will soon be accepted as important correlates, if not determinants, in cases involving alcohol-related aggression and other forms of violence (Badawy, p. 3).
By these words the author explicitly shows that he is confident in direct causal relations between alcohol, violence and serotonin. However, he further investigates the possible biological predispositions of aggression and discovers, through a thorough research, the following causes: genetic predisposition; high serum testosterone levels; low serum cholesterol levels; low blood glucose nadir in the glucose-tolerance test, low brain serotonin levels (Badawy, p. 4). Through this information the author shows that there are a much greater number of causes that may influence the level of aggression of particular individuals, thus admitting that the matter is too complex to concentrate on a single variable. Of course he initially states that he will consider only one issue of all of them, but it seems that the results of his medical investigation would be more credible if he touched upon other variables as well. It is evident that all of them may co-exist and influence each other; different levels of different indicators of an individual are combined in an unpredictable way producing an individual effect. For this reason the consideration of at least a range of possible influences produced by these variables would give a clearer idea about the subject of the author’s research. More than that, the author himself admits that “the role of these factors is not entirely understood” (Badawy, p. 3). This way he assumes that since the influence of other factors interrelating with the main subject of his consideration, i.e. the level of serotonin, is not defined, then the deviations that may be caused by their effect on the general situation with the aggression after alcohol consumption cannot be predicted as well.
Further in the article, the author provides practical findings of different nature about the connection between the level of serotonin and aggression. He takes up the examples of experiments made on animals, the consideration of real-life situations with people, the physiological research of humans and some other relevant experiments with people. The scope of his attention seems to be adequate for considering the issue in the multiplicity of its aspects. However, he does not show clear results in any of the taken spheres, assuming in each of them that the results of studies are still arguable and there is no agreement achieved yet.
As an example, the experiments on animals seem to be completely irrelevant for the human studies, taking into consideration the fundamental difference of construction of the human brain and the brain of an animal. Animals showed aggression after the process of artificial lowering of the level of serotonin in their bodies. However, the way it was done within the experiment seems to be a doubtable proof of certain similarities in humans. Alcohol consumption is a voluntary action that is made consciously, thus influencing the conditions of the action being investigated. Consequently, animals that have a completely different structure of their brains and have their level of serotonin artificially lowered cannot perform any evidence that the described mechanism works out with people.
The example with real-life situations with people shows that there is no consensus or firm proof of the tendency assumed by the author as well. The research is not full and does not provide a clear conclusion:
The use of small numbers of subjects is only one limitation of these latter studies, as well as of other studies supporting the role of serotonin in violence. Other confounders include the choice of appropriate reference groups and of appropriate aggression scales and their test-pretest and other reliability issues, as well as the need for standardizing their scoring procedures, and also the role of alcohol (Badawy, p. 6).
Speaking about physiological studies discussed by the author in his article, they also appear arguable and do not provide a clear conclusion on the influence of serotonin on violent behavior as well as the interrelations of this process with alcohol consumption. The author at first describes the level of serotonin influenced by certain doses of alcohol that are likely to cause incentives for violent behavior. However, right after that he assumes:
Such a level is not only achievable but is more often exceeded under most normal ‘social drinking’ conditions, and it is therefore very likely that, under such conditions, most social drinkers will experience a decrease in the rate of their brain serotonin synthesis of at least 20% (Badawy, p. 9).
Numerous prepositions showing his uncertainty also throw a shadow on the measure of confidence in the point the author is trying to argue. There are many examples of such kind in the text like the words “perhaps”, “to be likely to”, “it could be argued” etc. showing that the author himself doubts his assumptions, which does not add any confidence to the words said by him.
However, the conclusion he makes is really relevant to the topic, though showing less certainty in the argued point than there was at the beginning of the article:
Taken together, the discussion in this and the preceding sections suggests that serotonin depletion by alcohol consumption can lead to aggressive behavior by a number of mechanisms, but further work is required to establish the precise mature of this role of serotonin (Badawy, p. 11).
By these words the author shows that despite the deep and detailed research he has conducted and outlaid in the article he is still not sure in his rightness and suggests further investigation of the matter. Surely, the interrelations of violence, alcohol and the level of serotonin have been proven long ago; however, the article does not throw any light on the definite mechanism of their functioning, which leaves more questions unanswered than clarified.
Badawy, A.-B. Abdulla. Alcohol and violence and the possible role of serotonin. Criminal Behavior and Mental Health, 2003, No. 13, pp. 31-44.