Biological Theories of Crime

E. Biosocial Perspectives

Some scholars who study criminal behavior began to synthesize sociological perspectives with biological perspectives. One of the most influential publications in this area was Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, written by E. O. Wilson in 1975. Wilson was among the first criminologists to express disillusion with current sociological and behavioral theories by emphasizing that an individual was a biological organism operating within social environments. Publications by Dawkins in 1976 (The Selfish Gene) and by Ellis in 1977 (“The Decline and Fall of Sociology, 1975–2000”) illustrated criminological disillusion with purely sociological explanations and renewed hope for improved biological perspectives that would not operate under the faulty assumptions of earlier biological research. Major scientific developments from the 1950s to the mid-1970s (e.g., in the study of genetics) also contributed to the resurgence of interest in explanations of behavior with biological bases. Other advances in the mid- 1980s led scholars to examine the brain more closely as a potential factor in criminal behavior.

Modern biosocial theories attempt to integrate beliefs about the sociological development of behavior (i.e., social learning, conditioning) with the biological development of the individual who engages in behavior. In contrast to earlier biological theories that imply the heritability of behaviors, biosocial theories suggest there may be a genetic predisposition for certain behaviors.

These predispositions are expressed in terms of biological risk factors associated with increased probabilities of delinquency and crime when paired with certain environmental (social) conditions. Various risk factors that have been evaluated include IQ levels and performance, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and conduct disorder. Although low IQ is not directly associated with crime or delinquency, individuals with lower IQs may experience frustration and stress in traditional learning environments, resulting in antisocial, delinquent, or criminal behaviors. A diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder also has been associated with increased levels of delinquent and criminal behavior. However, some scholars point out that this is true only for individuals who also are diagnosed with conduct disorder. Both disorders can be traced to abnormalities in the frontal lobe, so it is difficult to disentangle the relationship of each to undesirable behaviors.

In contrast to risk factors that may enhance the probabilities of an individual engaging in delinquency and crime, biological protective factors, such as empathy, may inhibit this development. Empathy is the ability of one person to identify with another person and to appreciate another person’s feelings and perspectives. Research has indicated that empathy is largely (68%) inherited. This biological tendency may counter the impact of biological risk factors. Research on these inhibiting protective factors is still quite sparse but may help explain why some people who have genetic predispositions toward delinquency and crime refrain from those behaviors.