Many Contemporary Criminologists Have Doubted Biological Explanations of Crime Essay

This essay will focus on the biological explanations of crime, investigating why contemporary criminologists are objectionable to the theory, and other explanations for criminal behaviour. The biological explanation for crime, originated from Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) who re-examined Darwin’s theory of evolution, and applied it to criminals. Lombroso found that criminals were considered to be suffering from a depravity caused by an atavistic reversion (Jones, 2006). Evidence was shown in an autopsy on a famous criminal, finding his brain to show characteristics identified in lower primates. In addition, Lombroso provided a list of physical traits indicating the reversion, such as asymmetrical face, unusual ears, fleshy lips, receding chin or too many fingers and toes (Lombroso, 1876).

At the time, his theory and conceptual framework were exceptionally controversial (Rafter, 1992) nevertheless, highly criticized methodologically for failing to use sufficient control groups and having extremely doubtful correlations (Tarde, 1886). Challenging Lombroso’s findings, Charles Goring conducted a much more sophisticated study looking at 3000 English recidivist prisoners, and “non-criminals” over an eight year period. Goring chose prisoners convicted of different offences, and non-criminals based on thirty-seven physical characteristics. It was established that there were no significant differences; nevertheless it was found that the criminals averaged to be two inches shorter and weighed three to seven pounds heavier (Goring, 1913). Other researches such as Earnest Hooter (1939) and William Sheldon (1949) also looked at physical characteristics of criminals trying to challenge Lombroso’s ideas, and found similar results.

Inheritance of criminal behaviour received a vast amount of attention as research developed by biologists believing that behaviour could be passed down through generations (Hunter ; Dantzker, 2005). Before the development of genetic transmission became apparent, hereditary influence was studied through family trees. Richard Dugdale (1877) famously studied a well-known family, who had six members in prison by 1874. Dugdale decided to trace the genealogy. Although highly criticized for lack of scientific knowledge the study was extremely influential at the time (Jones, 2006). To further the theory, Charles Goring (1913) found frequently incarcerated and long-term prisoners were physically smaller and mentally inferior to normal people. In addition, there was a high correlation of criminality between parents, children and siblings (Jones, 2006). Goring concluded that criminal behaviour could be controlled eugenically by reducing reproduction for those who showed traits such as feeblemindedness, epilepsy and insanity. Other researchers such as Goddard (1914) found similar results.

In order to reduce environmental factors twin and adoption studies were researched half a century later. It was established that the correspondence in criminal behaviour was greater in identical twins than fraternal twins. A review of twin studies from 1929 to 1961 shows evidence for this as 60% of identical twins shared criminal behaviour patterns, compared to 30% of fraternal twins (Mednick ; Christiansen, 1971).

Adoption studies show significant findings in the hereditary influence of criminals. Barry Hutchins and Sarnoff Mednick, (1977) conducted a longitudinal study showing all male adoptions between 1927 and 1941. Almost half of the boys who were convicted of crimes had biological fathers with a criminal record. Hutchins and Mednick also considered the interrelationship between the adopted and biological father. Findings showed that if both fathers were criminals then the effect on the child would be stronger than the effect of just one. In addition the adoptive father had less impact than the biological father (Jones, 2006).

When looking at the biological explanations it is essential to also note other important factors involved, such as chromosome abnormality, biochemical factors and the central nervous system.

A comprehensible reason for contemporary criminologists having uncertainty about the biological explanation could be due to past the biological theories of criminal behaviour. These were noticeably lacking knowledge regarding the human brain and were highly methodologically criticised (Glueck and Glueck, 1956; Jacobs et al., 1965). Biological criminology over time was discredited due to findings being largely unscientific, simplistic, and unicausal. Biological factors were globally abandoned due to the inability of theorists to hypothesize a rational explanation for the development of crime (Fishbein, 2000). In addition, observing earlier work of Lombroso and others, causation is often confused with correlation. This is reflected in such assumptions as associating bodily functions with criminal behaviour, which does not represent biology that effects behaviour (Carrabine et al. 2004).

Examining the historical perspectives of biological explanations of crime, it helps to understand why contemporary theorists doubt the theory. The earlier biological explanations tend to address how criminals are “born criminals”(Lombroso, 1876) and according to Maudsley (1874) people “go criminal, like the insane go mad, because they cannot help it.” However, contemporary biological explanations now focus on factors such as biochemical neurophysical, and characteristics related to violence and crime (Leon-Guerrero, 2005). A demonstration of this is a study by Kruk et al (2004) where it was discovered, by using rats, increasing corticosterone a stress hormone similar to cortisol) increased levels of stress, therefore applied to humans could explain why aggressive incidents can easily become escalated and uneasy to stop.

An important explanation why contemporary theorists may doubt the biological explanation is due to the moderation of determinist views, however now show the approach as “holistic” biological explanations, taking into consideration interactions between everything, from gene, organ, psychological and social process (Niehoff, 1999). The contemporary biological explanation revolves around “biology is not destiny”(Niehoff, 1999).

An example of this is, Fishbein, 2005 suggests that criminals are considered more for their behaviours and traits activated by environmental factors, and must examine brain function and environmental triggers in relation to the criminal behaviour.

A significant criticism of the biological explanation that could distort the view for contemporary criminologists is the mistaken idea as biological determinism. According to Nelkin, (1993) geneticists use “overblown rhetoric and misleading metaphors” to emphasize the importance that is attached to their work, which in all distorts the view of biology. Nelkin claims the media then magnifies images of crime with headlines such as “bad genes” or an example of predispositional explanations, “Is Crime in the Family Tree?” Due to this propaganda some textbooks carry over these theories, and the real explanation that environmental interaction with genes is lost (Einstadter ; Henry, 2006) ‘

Nevertheless, those claiming a predisposition to criminal behaviour have the rhetorical advantage of being both falsifiable and unquestionable. There is no experiment that can be carried out that would disprove the notion, therefore genetic predisposition could be applied to any kind of behaviour; an individual could respond poorly or well to an environment depending on pre-existing biological tendencies (Nelkin and Lindee 2004).

An understated factor that could influence modern criminologists view on the biological explanation is the theory that people are driven into crime by uncontrollable forces (Carrabine et al., 2004). Thus, suggesting that people have no free will where there biology is concerned (Ferri, 1886). From this they were able to develop and discover biologically differences to “normal people” and “deviant people” (Einstadter & Henry, 2006). Due to this constructed definition contemporary criminologist define the “law” and “crime” inappropriate concepts for scientific study as are “socially constructed and a function of the political climate” (Fishbein, 2005).

A reason that contemporary criminologists may doubt the biological explanation revolves around the idea that the theory predicts far more criminals that are actually found (Matza 1964). David Matza, (1964), goes on to say,

“If delinquents were in fact radically differentiated from the rest of conventional youth…Delinquency would be more permanent and less transient…Theories of delinquency yield an embarrassment of riches which seemingly go unmatched in the real world.”

It is important to state that these predictions could potentially be dangerous and used abusively. In order to eliminate criminal behaviour, lobotomies and castrations (hormonal therapy) were popular from the 1930’s until 1950 (Einstadter ; Henry, 2006). Ferri, 1886 suggested that castration and the death penalty be the only way to eliminate those unfit to be in society. Other theorists supported this idea of sterilization, such as Hooton (1939) and Garafalo (1914). It is still suggested that certain people pose a threat to society, due to their genes. The potential of abuse is shown historically, when using the biological theory in order to eliminate inferior groups through totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany (Sagarin ; Sanchez, 1988). By using eugenics it developed the removal or containment of those consider “inferior”. For example, Nazi Germany targeted non-white races, gypsies, Jews and Mentally ill (Treadwell, 2006)

Nevertheless recently a report by Nuffield Council on Bioethics in 2002, proposed that genetic information be kept in isolation in case of those who haven’t acted in an anti-social manner, be unjustified due its unreliability (Jones, 2006). Conversely, calculations of foreseeing future risks can never be exact science (Maguire et al, 2007).

Although there are various criticisms both positive and negative about the Biological explanation, there are other theories to explain crime. Eysenck (1964) influences the psychological explanation of crime, stating that personality influences criminal behaviour. He believed that personality could be mapped into three segments, extroversion, psychoticism, and neuroticism. It is believed that an exaggeration of one of these traits could lead to a predisposition to anti-social behaviour (Treadwell, 2006). Sociological, as well as behavioural theories can also be considered to explain criminal behaviour. An example of this shows social learning as form of explaining criminal behaviour. Some theorists believe criminal behaviour originates from an individuals social learning experience, claiming that this behaviour has no associations with biology or personality (Jewkes, & Letherby, 2002).

In conclusion, it can be seen from the explanations throughout this essay, that it is plausible for contemporary criminologists to doubt the biological explanation of crime. These range from, lack of other factors influencing biology, social construction, lack of free will, and abusing knowledge that could predict possible criminals. Although it cannot be completely be denied that the biological explanation has significance, it has to be taken into consideration that the time of the most influential discoveries, it was based on the scientific knowledge and research techniques of the time (Jones, 2007). In addition, the theories may be seen as far more significant if environmental settings were accepted (Jones, 2007). An important factor that appeals for the biological explanation is the removal of responsibility and guilt. It is believed that “biology” is to blame, not people, collectively or individually for criminal behaviour (Gross, 2005).


Carrabine, E., Iganski, P., Lee, M., Plummer, K., & South, N. (2004). Criminology: A Sociological Introduction. UK. Routledge.

Dugdale, R. (1877). The Jukes. New York: Putnam.

Einstadter, W.J., & Henry, S. (2006). Criminological theory: An Analysis of the underlying assumptions. (2nd Edition). London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Eysenck, H.J. (1964). Crime and Personality. London:Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ferri, E. [1886]. 1917. Criminal Sociology. Boston: Little and Brown.

Fishbein, D.H. (2000). Biobehavioral Perspectives in Criminology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishers.

Fishbein, D.H. (2005). “Integrating findings from neurobiology into criminological thought: Issues, Solutions and Implications.” In The Criminology Theory Reader, ed. Stuart Henry and Mark M. Lanier. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp 43-68.

Garafalo, R. [1885]. 1914. Criminology .Boston: Little and Brown.

Glueck, S., & Glueck, E. (1956). Unravelling Juvenile delinquency. New York: Harper & Row.

Goddard, H. (1914). Feeblemindedness: It’s causes and consequences. New York: Macmillian.

Goring, C (1913). The English Convict: A Statistical Study. London hmso

Gross, R. (2005). Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour. 5th edn, London: Hodder and Stoughton Educational.

Hooter, E, (1939). The American Criminal. Cambridge MA.: Havard University Press.

Hooton, E. A. (1939). The American Criminal: An Anthropological study. Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press.

Hunter, R.D. ; Dantzker, M.L. ( 2005). Crime and Criminality: Causes and Consequences. US: Willow Tree Press.

Hutchings, B., ; Mednick, S. (1977). Criminality in adoptees and their adoptive and biological parents. A pilot study. In a Mednick and K Christiansen (eds) Biological bases of criminal behaviour. New York: Gardner press.

Jacobs, P.A., Brunton, M., Melville, M.M., Brittain, R.P., ; McClemont, W. (1965). Aggressive behaviour, mental sub-normality, and the XYY male. Nature. 108:1351-1352.

Jewkes,Y ; Letherby, G. ( 2002).Criminology: A reader. UK: Sage Publications ltd.

Jones, S. (2006). Criminology, Third edition. UK. Oxford University Press.

Kruk, M. R., Van der Poel, A. M., ; De Vos Frerichs, T.P. (2004). The induction of Aggressive behaviour by electrical stimulation in the hypothalamus of male rats. Behaviour. 70, 292-322.

Leon-Guerrero, (2005) Social Problems: Community, Policy and Social Action. London: Pine Forge Press.

Lombroso, C. (1876). Criminal Man. Milan: Torin.

Maguire, M. (2007). Crime data and statistics, in Maguire, al,.(eds) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, 4th Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Matza, D. (1964). Delinquency ; Drift. New York: Wiley.

Maudsley, H. (1874). Responsibility in Mental Disease. London: Macmillian.

Mednick, S. A., ; Christansen, K. O. (1971). Bisocial Bases in Criminal behaviour. New York. Gardner.

Nelkin, D. (1993). The grandiose claims of geneticists. The Chronicle of Higher Education. (March 3):B1-B3.

Nelkin, D., ; Lindee, M.S. (2004). The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural icon. US. The University of Michigan Press.

Niehoff, D. (1999). Seeds of Controversy. In the biology of violence: How understanding the brain, behaviour environment can break the vicious circle of aggression. New York: Free Press.

Rafter, N. (1992). Criminal Anthropology in the United States. Criminology 30: 525-45.

Sagarin, E., ; Sanchez, J. (1988). Ideology and deviance: The case of the debate over the biological factor. Deviant Behaviour. 9(1): 87-99.

Sheldon, W. (1949). Varieties of Delinquent Youth. New York: Harper.

Tarde, G .(1886). La Criminalite. Paris: Alcan.

Treadwelll, J. (2006). Criminology. UK: Sage.