Biological Theories of Crime

E. The Criminal Physique

Evaluations and categorizations of a person’s body build or physique also became popular as researchers attempted to link crime with some outwardly observable differences. In 1925, Ernst Kretschmer (1888–1964), a German psychiatrist, published Physique and Character, in which he described three categories of body type (asthenic, athletic, pyknik) associated with three categories of behaviors (cyclothemic, schizothemic, and displastic). Cyclothemes were manic-depressive and typified by soft skin, a round shape, and little muscle development, and tended to commit the less serious offenses that were more intellectual in nature. Schizothemes were antisocial and apathetic, committing the more serious violent offenses, and were either asthenic (thin and tall) or athletic (wide and strong). Displastics could be any body type but were characterized by highly charged emotional states and unable to control their emotions. Kretschmer associated displastics with sexual offenses. Although Kretschmer attempted to develop a typology that associated behaviors with physique, he did not put much consideration into the complex nature of behavior and its interaction with the environment.

Among those who continued this search was a contemporary of Goring, Harvard anthropologist Ernest Hooten (1887–1954). Dissatisfied with Goring’s findings, Hooten spent 12 years conducting research into the criminal nature of man to disprove Goring and to support Lombroso. His first influential publication, Crime and the Man (1939), documented his study of 14,000 prisoners and 3,000 nonprisoner controls in 10 states. Hooten was more rigorous than Goring in his methods, differentiating his subjects on the basis of types of crime and by geographic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds.

Hooten agreed with Lombroso’s idea of a born criminal and argued that most crime was committed by individuals who were “biologically inferior,” “organically inadaptable,” “mentally and physically stunted and warped,” and “sociologically debased.” He argued that the only way to solve crime was by eliminating people who were morally, mentally, or physically “unfit,” or by segregating them in an environment apart from the rest of society.

As Hooten was conducting his research and developing his conclusions, the sociological world was developing an interest in the contribution of social factors and social environments to the development of criminal behavior. Sociological research out of the University of Chicago (i.e., the Chicago School) stressed the impact of the social environment rather than an individual’s biology as crucial to the development of crime. Hooten was widely criticized because of his failure to consider social factors and his myopic focus on biological determinism.

Gregor Mendel (1822–1884)

While scholars debated Darwin’s claims and investigated whether criminals were born and were atavistic throwbacks to earlier historical periods, a piece of research on heredity in plants that was largely overlooked at the time it was published in 1866 was being rediscovered. This work provided quantitative evidence that traits were passed on from one generation to the next (or inherited), making it one of the most critical pieces of research related to biological theories of crime.

Mendel, an Austrian scientist, is known as the “father of genetics” (Henig, 2000). Although Mendel’s work was largely ignored until after 1900 (in part because of the popularity of Darwin’s theories), application of his laws of inheritance to individual and social development resulted in significant advances in biological theories of behavior.

Mendel’s experiments with plants (in particular, peas) and with animals (in particular, bees) provided scientific support to some of the propositions suggested by Darwin in 1868, although Mendel’s research predates that of Darwin. Darwin theorized that pangenesis explained the persistence of traits from one generation to the next. He discussed transmission and development in his laws of inheritance, arguing that cells within bodies shed “gemmules” that carried specific traits from the parent organism to the subsequent generation. Darwin insightfully proposed that a parent organism’s gemmules could transmit traits to the following generation even though those traits may not have been present in the parent and that those traits could develop at any later point.

Mendel, however, was the one who developed support for the theory of inheritance through his experiments with the cultivation and breeding of pea plants, and the scientific support for dominant and recessive characteristics, passed from one generation to the next. His work also led to focus on the study of traits at the cellular level (genotypes) instead of at the observable level (phenotypes).