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Biological Theory

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Biological Theory of Crime can be traced back to the nineteen-century work of Cesare Lombroso. Shortly before his death, Lombroso help his daughter Gina translate the text of Criminal Man for an English speaking audience. Prior to Lombroso’s Biological theory of crime, Cesare Beccaria and Jermey Bentham had introduced the Classical School of Crime. The Classical School of Crime was a theory based on the notion that, an individual who possesses “free will” chooses a life of crime. Cesare Lombroso would dispute the concept behind the Classical School, on the basis that the individual and the crime itself are two different components.

In the text Criminal Man (Mary Gibson and Nicole Hahn Rafter, 2006), Lombroso retells a moment in his life were he filled his leisure time working as a doctor for the Italian army. While working as a doctor, Lombroso was captivated by the extent of the bodies of many soldiers covered in tattoos while other comrades bare none. This would lead to Cesare Lombroso being fascinated of a possible correlation in distinguishing, “the honest comrades from the vicious comrade” (David G. Horn, 2003, p.29). Cesare was quickly met with defeat, as he realized that there was in fact no relation distinguishing the honest comrades from the vicious ones.

This minor setback did not discourage Cesare Lombroso’s ambition in supporting his causation of crime theory which was based on biological factors. Lombroso’s major break came when he was instructed to perform a post-mortem examination on Guiseppe Villela, who had been imprisoned for theft. Upon examining Villela’s skull, Lombroso noticed what he classified as a  “depression in the middle of the occipital part of the skull” (Horn, 2003, p.30). Furthermore Horn states how, “historians have tended to discount the significance of this story due in part by the several exaggerations and inconsistencies pertaining to the incident” (Horn, 2003, p.31). As a result of the unusual structure of the skull, Cesare Lombroso would refer to the skull as “atavism.” Charles A. Ellwood defines atavistic as, “reproducing the physical psychical characteristics of remote ancestors, he is a savage born into the modern world” (Ellwood, 2003, p.720-721). For example Lombroso describe an atavistic criminal as one who possesses primitive traits that can be linked to evolutionary times. For example some primitive traits that were of importance in evolutionary times consisted of gall bladders, pubic hair and appendix. At one point in the evolutionary cycle, these primitive features serve a primary function in the survival of human beings, but as humans adapted these atavistic features outlived their function. As a result, this enabled Lombroso to argue the reason for crimes being outlawed because as Lombroso interpreted it, human beings were just reproducing similar acts that were customary in evolutionary pasts. For example Lombroso would describe a time in which, “vendetta killings among uncivilized Italians were labeled as customary duties rather than crimes” (Horn, 2003, p.34).

In support of his theory, Cesare Lombroso conducted studies in which he measured the length in space from the first and second toes of criminals. Lombroso would then compare the measurements of the criminals to that of non-criminals toes. Surprisingly the results concluded that when relaxed, the length in space between criminals’ toes had an interdigital space of 3mm greater than of that of non-criminals. This analysis supported Lombroso concept of an atavistic criminal, in which they tend to have distinct physical characteristics. In addition to measuring the length in space of first and second toes, Lombroso would further compare physical measurements such as length of arms, abnormal teeth as take into consideration the amount of body hair in individuals bodies.  

Besides noting the abnormality in physical characteristics within criminals, Lombroso was also intrigue by the difference in writing styles. For example Lombroso argued that criminals were capable of writing in words but choose the alternative expressing themselves through images. Lombroso states that the difference in writing and language can be attributed to, “the tendency for criminals to express their thoughts in images even though they were capable of writing words they resorted to pictography” (Horn, 2003, p. 47).   

Furthermore Cesare Lombroso conducts a study in which he presents images of criminals to young girls in which he classifies as “inexpert in the world of good and evil” (Horn, 2003, p.74). The study consisted of young girls viewing images of criminals and non-criminals the objective being to differentiate them based solely on facial features. To the surprise of many experts, the young girls who were referred as unknowledgeable in the world of good and evil had more often than not correctly identified the criminals from the non-criminals solely on facial characteristics. As a result of the various studies conducted in support of his theory, Lombroso claimed to have found numerous biological features that help classify criminals from non-criminals.  

            Cesare Lombroso’s theory did not go unchallenged, for instance many criminologist in France rejected the overall concept behind Biological Theory of Crime. One of the biggest critics of Cesare Lombroso was a prison medical doctor named Charles Goring. Charles Goring conducted a statistical study in which he set out to measure the accuracy of Lombeoso’s theory of crime, which was based under the notion of distinct physical differences between criminals and non-criminals. Results from tehe study ultimately concluded that there were in fact no distinct physical abnormalities differentiating criminals from non-criminals.

Additional criticism can also be noted in the way, “legislators refused to replace a system of penalties with measures of social defense” (Horn 2003, p. 133). To the surprise of many, juries also criticized the concept of distinct physical features noted in criminals. For example when the inception of Biological theory came about, may jurors lack the knowledge to grasp the meaning of many scientific terms, resulting in many jurors feeling overwhelmed. Furthermore David G. Horn would detailed how, “jurors would become fed up by an excess of subtle scientific analyses and not be able to follow the witness” (Horn 2003, p.136).

Cesare Lombroso comes from a relatively small group of social scientists that lived long enough to fully complete his research. Overall can make the case that Cesare Lombroso accomplished his task by strictly arguing that crime was an effect of biological traits of a born criminal. Lombroso’s contributions can be noted by the numerous studies he conducted to support his theory of a born criminal. Ellwood states that, “the criminal man must be studied and not simply crime in the abstract, the criminal must be treated as an individual and not his act alone considered” (Ellwood, 2003, p.723). Even though critics criticized the concept of Biological Theory of crime, overall it brought out a new thinking among social scientists that considers the biological inheritances of an individual when measuring the cause of committing a crime. Ellwood states, “the problem still remains, however, whether these biological roots are the true causes of crime or whether crime can still exist without them” (Ellwood, 2003, p.718).



 David G. Horn. (2003). The Criminal Body. New York, New York: Routledge. p. 1-146

Ellwood C. A. (1912). Lombroso's Theory of Crime. Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, 2(5), pp. 716-723.

Hermon, Z., Friedman, E., & Rocca, S. (2007). In M. Berenbaum, & F. Skolnik (Eds.), Encyclopedia judaica (2nd ed. ed., pp. 178). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.

Lawrence, Taylor (Ed.). (1984). Born To Crime. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. Pp. 1-164

Published by: Hector Gabriel 


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