Biological Theories of Crime

D. Heredity and Evolution

As the search for explanations of individual and social behavior improved through the application of statistical methods and the positivist insistence that the only real knowledge was that obtained through systematic observation (i.e., the scientific method), beliefs about the nature and potential of man within society became more sophisticated and grounded. Although Lemarck had earlier discussed the passage of certain acquired traits from generation to generation (soft inheritance), theorists in the mid-1800s benefited from Malthus’s propositions about the progress of society and from increasingly sophisticated inquiries into the nature and source of biological and behavioral predispositions.

1. Herbert Spencer (1820–1903)

An early English social theorist and philosopher, Spencer articulated a theory of evolution in Progress: Its Law and Cause (1857), prior to the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. Spencer proposed that everything in the universe developed from a single source and progressed in complexity with the passing of time and generations, becoming differentiated yet being characterized by increasing integration of the differentiated parts. Spencer also coined the phrase survival of the fittest, in 1864, after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and he applied the idea of natural selection to society.

2. Charles Darwin (1809–1882)

Although the preceding paragraphs illustrate the development of scientific thought on the concepts of heredity and evolution, most scholars primarily note the impact of Charles Darwin. Darwin described his theories in two main publications: (1) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (1859) and (2) The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).

In On the Origin of Species, Darwin detailed the theory that organisms evolve over generations through a process of natural selection. Darwin reached his conclusions and supported his observations through evidence that he collected during a sea voyage on a boat, the HMS Beagle, during the 1830s.

The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex applied Darwin’s theory to human evolution and described the theory of sexual selection. Although he had earlier hinted that natural selection and evolution could and should be applied to the development of man, others (Thomas Huxley in 1863, Alfred Wallace in 1864) had actually applied his theories to the human animal first.

3. Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909)

Among the first to apply Darwin’s findings to criminal behavior and criminals, Lombroso was an Italian criminologist and founder of the Italian School of positivist criminology. Lombroso rejected the established Classical School, which held that crime was a characteristic trait of human nature. Instead, using concepts drawn from earlier perspectives, such as physiognomy, Lombroso argued, in essence, that criminality was inherited and that someone “born criminal” (this phrase was coined by his student, Enrico Ferri) could be identified by physical defects, which confirmed a criminal as savage, or atavistic.

Lombroso published Criminal Man in 1876, helping to establish the newly forming Positive School of criminology. Inspired by Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, he believed that criminals were not as evolved as people who did not commit crime and that crime is a result of biological differences between criminals and noncriminals.

A central focus of Lombroso’s work is the concept of atavism. Atavism describes the reappearance in an organism of characteristics of some remote ancestor after several generations of absence. It often refers to one that exhibits atavism, that is, a throwback. It can also mean a reversion to an earlier behavior, outlook, or approach. Lombroso approached this concept believing that criminals were throwbacks on the evolutionary scale. He believed that modern criminals shared physical characteristics (stigmata) with primitive humans. In his later years, he eventually thought that social and environmental factors can contribute to criminality.

Lombroso reached his conclusions by studying the cadavers of executed criminals for physical indicators of atavism, developing a typological system (with four main criminal types) to categorize these individuals. Although his methods were flawed, and most of the traits he listed failed to distinguish criminals from matched samples of noncriminals, he was among the first to apply scientific principles to the collection of data and to use statistical techniques in his data analysis. In addition to examining the physical characteristics of the criminal, he also evaluated the conditions under which crime is committed. He also was among the first to study female criminality, speculating that females were more likely to be criminals “by passion.”

Lombroso determined that serious offenders inherited their criminal traits and were “born criminals,” atavistic throwbacks to earlier evolutionary ancestors. They had strong jaws, big teeth, bulging foreheads, and long arms. These types of offenders constituted about one third of all criminals. The remaining two thirds were “criminaloids” (minor offenders) who only occasionally commit crime.

Although primarily remembered for his claim that criminal behaviors were inherited, Lombroso also argued that environmental factors can play an important role in crime. He speculated that alcoholism, climate changes, and lack of education may contribute to criminality.

Lombroso’s work started other researchers on the path to determine a hereditary source for criminal behavior. His student, Enrico Ferri (1856–1929), disagreed with Lombroso’s focus on the physiological, preferring instead to examine the interactive effects of physical factors, individual factors, and social factors and to blame criminality on a lack of moral sensibility.

Another Italian contemporary, Raffaele Garofalo (1851–1934), developed a theory of natural crime, focusing on those acts that could be prevented or reduced by punishment. Garofalo also suggested the elimination of individuals who posed a threat to society, to improve the quality of the society and ensure its survival. Like Ferri, he believed crime was more the result of a lack in moral sensibilities rather than a physiological problem.

Lombroso’s conclusions were challenged and refuted by Charles Goring (1870–1919), who wrote The English Convict in 1913. In a carefully controlled statistical comparison of more than 3,000 criminals and noncriminals, Goring found no significant physical differences between the two populations except height and weight (criminals were slightly smaller). His findings essentially discredited Lombroso’s idea of the born criminal, although research into the search for criminal types continued.