Biological Theories of Crime

IV. Physical Trait Theories

The belief that one can determine a person’s character, moral disposition, or behavior by observing his or her physical characteristics is ancient. Pythagoras, a philosopher, mathematician, and scientist who lived during the period around 500 BCE, may have been one of the first to advocate this practice, known as physiognomy.

A. Physiognomy

The term physiognomy comes from the Greek words physis, meaning “nature,” and gnomon, meaning “to judge or to interpret.” It refers to the evaluation of a person’s personality or character (i.e., his or her nature) through an examination of that person’s outward appearance. Early physiognomy concentrated on characteristics of the face through which to judge the person’s nature. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who lived from 384 to 322 BCE, was a proponent of physiognomy, as were many other ancient Greeks. The practice flourished in many areas of the world and was taught in universities throughout England until it was banned by Henry VIII in 1531.

1. Giambattista della Porta (1535–1615)

The publication of On Physiognomy in 1586 by Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta once again brought renewed focus to this belief and practice of the ancient Greeks. Della Porta, often considered the first criminologist, examined patients during his medical practice and concluded that appearance and character were related. He approached the study of this relationship from a magico– spiritualistic metaphysical perspective instead of a scientific one, classifying humans on the basis of their resemblance to animals. For example, men who look like donkeys are similar to donkeys in their laziness and stupidity; men who resemble pigs behave like pigs.

2. Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801)

Della Porta’s ideas were extremely influential to Johann Kaspar Lavater, a Swiss pastor who published his painstakingly detailed study of facial fragments in 1783. He concluded that one could determine criminal behavior through an examination of a person’s eyes, ears, nose, chin, and facial shape.