Biological Theories of Crime

II. Classical and Positivist Views of Behavior

Biological theories are a subtype of positivist theory. Positivism evolved as instrumental in explaining law-violating behaviors during the latter part of the 19th century as a response to the perceived harshness of classical school philosophies. Classical thought, which emerged during the Age of Enlightenment (mid-1600s to late 1700s), asserted that man operated on the basis of free will and rational thought, choosing which courses of action to take. According to classical theorists, individuals would engage in behaviors that were pleasurable and avoid behaviors that were painful. Punishment (of the right type and in the right amounts) would deter an individual from committing an act if that punishment resulted in pain that outweighed the pleasure. Classical theorists, for the most part, denounced torture as a type of punishment because it was more punishment than was necessary to prevent a future occurrence of the act; they believed that punishment should be proportionate to the crime to be effective as a deterrent.

Classical views were not very concerned about the causes of behavior. Behaviors were seen as the result of choice rather than as the result of inherent or external factors largely uncontrollable by the individual. The significant progression of scientific thought and method, however, led to the application of science in the study of human and social behavior. The central focus of these new ideas was that the aim of any social action toward individuals who violated law should be curing them, not punishing them.

Positivist criminology is distinguished by three main elements: (1) the search for the causes of crime, whether biological, psychological, or sociological; (2) the use of the scientific method to test theories against observations of the world; and (3) the rejection of punishment as a response to law-violating or deviant behavior, replaced with treatment based on the medical (rehabilitation) model. Positivism rejects free will and replaces it with scientific determinism. Finally, it rejects focus on criminal law and replaces it with a study of the individual.