Early Biological Perspectives on Criminal Behavior Essay

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  6
Wordcount:  1510 Words
Date:  2022-02-17


The researchers in the anachronistic times conducted biological studies on the relationship between genetics and criminology. It was determined through the rather simple research that heredity bore a close association with criminology. The kind of research mainly considered the presence or absence of criminal activities among the members of one's family tree and the findings drew associated conclusions (Schmalleger, 2015). Today, behavioral theorists tend to agree with these anachronistic biological theories on the premise that the determinants of human behavior are more often than not inherited. The principles of early biological approaches focused on both physical appearance and heredity in the determination of the possibility of passing on behavioral traits from one individual to the other. Modern biological theorists opine that biologically inspired criminal behavior should include that which is caused by genetic defects and that which is environmentally-induced. For instance, researcher Hilger Ropers and geneticist Han Brunner discovered that the members of a dysfunctional family possessed a gene that was suspected to be the cause of their (family members) criminal characteristics (Schmalleger, 2105). This paper studies the biological theory on criminal behavior as proposed by early researchers. It explains the micro-components of this theory in addition to highlighting its advantages and drawbacks. Further, this paper presents an analysis of a peer-reviewed article that supports this theory.

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Biological Theory on Criminal Behavior

Of interest is the early biological perspective that focuses on the genetic make-up of an individual. Cesare Lombroso, an Italian prison psychiatrist, declared that criminals were an evolution drawback. He based this argument on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution; specifically on the thought that it is a gradual process thus a criminal's brain was underdeveloped or mal-developed (Akers, 2013). This idea was labeled atavism. This oldest biological theory bases its arguments on the presence of biological markers which foretell the possibility that one will be a criminal. Strimbu & Tavel (2010) define biomarkers as a characteristic that can be measured objectively and evaluated as a sign of biological and pathogenic processes. These biological markers include DNA molecules and hormones. According to Lombroso, criminals portrayed similar physical characteristics such as receding chins or twisted noses (Akers, 2013). Lombroso indicated that it was possible to identify criminal types by their facial features and it meant that the involvement in the crime was involuntary as it was an innate biological characteristic. Also, Lombroso posited that it was possible to identify and isolate potential offenders based on these physical traits. He came to this conclusion after measuring the heads and faces of the living criminals as well as making similar observations on the skulls of dead criminals. It, therefore, meant that biological treatments were ideal in crime prevention and control.

Micro Components of the Biological Theory of Criminal Behavior

The biological theory of criminal behavior comprises the micro-components. There is a total dissociation between the offenders and non-offenders in the case of the study of the physical traits of the criminals. It means that there is a set of conditions; in this case, a prison and this demarcation allow the researcher to arrive at more specific conclusions. Also, the consideration of the skulls of dead criminals in the research to prove that atavism causes criminality is an embodiment of a micro level component. It means that the researcher's sample was specific to a particular group of people who are united by a micro trait hence the results are based on some particular attribute as opposed to a generalization.

Strengths of the Biological Theory of Criminal Behavior

Importantly, Lombroso's proposition was the first ever attempt to study criminal behavior scientifically. According to him, criminality was genetically inspired. The decision by contemporary researchers to take the genetics direction is a clear indication that Lombroso's propositions were valid however amateurish his analytical methods. Also, it is important to note that by the time Lombroso was making his case, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was his primary inspiration. Understandably, this theory had a lot of loopholes that Lombroso may have transferred to his study. Therefore, Lombroso's findings were the best that he could come up with given the circumstances. In fact, another researcher named Goring discovered that the criminals' unifying characteristic was a low intelligence quotient. The evidence from contemporary research suggests that genes partly cause low intelligence. Goring's discovery, therefore, proves that Lombroso's argument that criminality is genetic is valid.

Weaknesses of the Biological Theory of Criminal Behavior

It is important to note that Lombroso was researching at a time when there was little evidence on the theory of evolution. Also, no one had attempted to study genetics, and it was, therefore, challenging to refer to an array of evidence-based research. As such, his reference to atavism was marked by some drawbacks including the possibility of bias. It could be that Lombroso's need to refer to atavism as the cause of criminal behavior resulted in some bias in measurement. This partiality resulted in the inability of other researchers such as Goring to replicate Lombroso's analyses.

Lombroso's study lacks a control group. At no time did he compare the findings from his criminal sample to that of non-criminals. It means that it is not right to conclusively state that some of the characteristics that he observed on criminals are non-existent in non-criminals. Further, even if it were true that these characteristics are exclusive to criminals, there is no evidence that atavism caused those features. It is, therefore, inaccurate to conclusively cite atavism before considering other possible factors that may be the cause of the criminals' physical appearances.

Application of the Theory

The research titled "Examining the Genetic Underpinnings to Moffitt's Developmental Taxonomy" was conducted by Dr. Kevin Beaver, Brian Boutwell, and Dr. J.C Barnes (Barnes, Beaver, & Boutwell, 2011). This research intended to determine whether a person's genes could make them become a criminal during their lifetime. Notably, one of the markers of possible criminal behavior was a display of antisocial tendencies during one's childhood and the culmination of this behavior to a liking for violence or illegal acts as one progressed to adulthood. This research was inspired by Dr. Terri Moffitt's developmental taxonomy of anti-social behavior which posited that biosocial factors carved the etiologies of different pathways (life-course persistent offenders, adolescence-limited offenders, and abstainers); one of which was an individual's genetic composition. Beaver, Boutwell, and Barnes realized that no researcher had endeavored to link genetic factors to various offending patterns directly. The researchers used a sample size of 4000 people and used the twin-methodology study design to determine the effect of genetic and environmental factors on a person's trait.

It was discovered that genetic factors largely determined whether one would be a life-course offender. Environmental factors influenced the characterization of adolescent offenders and abstainers (Barnes, Beaver, & Boutwell, 2011). Although the specific genes that underlined the different pathways were not studied, it was concluded that genetics contributed to offending patterns and it was recommended that genetics be integrated into future studies that examined offending trajectories.

Importantly, Lombroso emphasized the presence of biological markers in the determination of criminal tendencies. Similarly, Barnes, Beaver, and Boutwell indicate that genetics plays a vital role in determining the choice of criminal path. It means that the article supports the early biological theory on criminal behavior which identifies genetics as being linked to criminality. Also, it is notable that Barnes, Beaver, and Boutwell considered the environmental factor in their study. It was mentioned earlier that Lombroso's research paid no attention to external factors in his determination of the factors that influence criminal behavior. These researchers factored in and concluded that although the environment was a force worth reckoning in the decision of criminality, it was not as significant as genetics. It means that both sets of researchers are in agreement that an individual's genes are a strong predictor of the possibility of engaging in criminal activities in one's lifetime.


The early biological explanations of criminal behavior charted the pathway for contemporary scientists to delve deeper into the field of genetics and criminology. Lombroso's observation of the physical characteristics of criminals in the determination of one's predisposition to criminal activities was as eye-opening as it was flawed. His discovery that criminality was genetically instigated was backed by Goring's finding that most criminals were less intelligent than their non-criminal counterparts. However, one cannot rule out the possibility of biases in Lombroso's research as well as the lack of a control experiment. Years later, researchers such as Beaver, Boutwell, and Barnes showed that there is a significant relationship between genetics and criminality. As such, this finding not only strengthens Lombroso's propositions but also paves the way for a future probe into the specificity of the genes in question.


Akers, R. L. (2013). Criminological theories: Introduction and evaluation. Routledge.

Barnes, J. C., Beaver, K. M., &Boutwell, B. B. (2011).Examining the genetic underpinnings to Moffitt's developmental taxonomy: A behavioral genetic analysis. Criminology, 49(4), 923-954.

Schmalleger, F. (2015). Criminology today: An integrative introduction (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

Strimbu, K., &Tavel, J. A. (2010). What are Biomarkers? Current Opinion in HIV and AIDS, 5(6), 463-466. http://doi.org/10.1097/COH.0b013e32833ed177

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Early Biological Perspectives on Criminal Behavior Essay. (2022, Feb 17). Retrieved from https://proessays.net/essays/early-biological-perspectives-on-criminal-behavior-essay

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