Biological Theories of Crime

G. Social Darwinism

Developments that ensued after Galton’s propositions of eugenics, and after the rediscovery and replication of Mendel’s work on the heritability of traits, were crucial to the study of man’s behavior, its potential biological roots, and to the study of man’s role and obligation in society. Malthus’s struggle for existence, Comte’s sociology, Quetelet and Guerry’s social physics and moral statistics, and the work of scientists (most notably Darwin) on transmutation, natural selection, survival of the fittest, and evolution resulted in perfect conditions under which scientific principles and statistical analysis could be applied to the human condition and to human behavior. A compilation of these philosophies resulted in the theory of social Darwinism, originally applied to the structure and function of social processes and organizations (e.g., government), with the primary belief that competition drives all social progress and only the strongest survive.

Mendel’s contribution was critical to the ideas of social Darwinism, explaining how observable characteristics (phenotypes) were inheritable and how a trait may appear in one generation that had not appeared in many prior generations. These atavisms, or throwbacks to an earlier evolutionary period, could be physical (e.g., vestigial tails, useless appendages) or behavioral (e.g., violence). Social Darwinists became interested in the question of whether social development (progress, evolution) could be engineered or controlled through manipulation of these traits. Other scientists studying the more undesirable behaviors of man (e.g., crime) were interested in whether social problems could be controlled through this type of manipulation. Many, however, such as noted political economist William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), advocated a laissez faire philosophy with respect to the survival and progress of societies, noting that problems like poverty are the natural result of inherent inequalities and that the process of natural selection and survival of the fittest would mean a natural reduction in the problems over time (without social engineering or interference; Hodgson, 2004). Viewing society through the lens of social Darwinism, however, inevitably led to viewing man through the lens of social Darwinism.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, while Goring, Hooten, and others were debating the role of biology in criminal behavior, others were quietly merging Malthus’s ideas on competition and survival among societies, Spencer’s insistence that individual evolution leads to social evolution, Mendel’s ideas on the heritability of traits, Darwin’s ideas on natural selection and evolution, and Galton’s ideas on eugenics into warped interpretations and applications of eugenics and social Darwinism.