Criminology | Section 4.1

Fundamentals of Criminology by Adam J. McKee

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The Positivists

Early biological theorists shared the common belief that criminals tended to have a “criminal nature.”  Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), Raffaele Garofalo (1852–1934) and Enrico Ferri (1856–1929) all suggested that this criminal nature was accompanied by certain physical characteristics that could be used to detect the criminal.  One of the most important figures of this period was Cesare Lombroso.  Lombroso’s manuscript L’Uomo Delinquente (“The Criminal Man“) is perhaps the most famous of these early theories that specified a biological cause of crime.

Lombroso observed the physical characteristics of Italian prisoners (head, body, arms, skin, etc.), and concluded that prisoners are different from normal, law-abiding people.  He believed that he could use specific physical characteristics to identify the born criminal.  Born criminals were an atavism.  The term atavism was used by Lombroso to describe a person who was a genetic throwback to a previous, more primitive state of human evolution.  These throwbacks could be identified by what he called atavistic stigmata.  These stigmata included such characteristics as an asymmetrical face, large monkey-like ears, large lips, a receding chin, a twisted nose, long arms, and skin wrinkles.  Lombroso’s basic idea was that criminal activity, especially violence, was an instinct born into certain individuals.  The controversial corollary of this was the idea that since criminal behavior was the result of biological forces, these individuals

While not everyone agreed with Lombroso, his way of thinking motivated others to search for characteristics of individuals that would explain criminal behavior.  Such things as inherited traits, physical abnormalities, body type, feeblemindedness, and biochemical imbalances were considered.

Another important figure was an English medical officer named Charles Goring.  Goring compared known criminals to college undergraduates, soldiers, professors, and hospital patients.


The positivists suggested something new in thinking about crime.  What they essentially suggested was that crime was a biological feature, and thus could not be controlled by the individual criminal.  Under this model, free will was an illusion.  Without free will, there really could be no criminal intent as was (and is) required by the criminal law.  Today, this is a major problem in criminology.  While the notion of the “born criminal” has fallen into disfavor, the idea that people behave as directed by outside forces (or fixed internal forces) is very popular.  The ideological position that biological, psychological, or social forces beyond their control determine people’s behavior is known as determinism.  A popular alternative to “hard” determinism is the position of soft determinism.  Soft determinism is the position that social, psychological, and biological forces are important predictors of social behavior, they do not act alone.  Choice interacts with outside forces (and unconscious internal forces according to some) to predict behavior.

By the standards of the modern scientific community, the work of Lombroso and the other criminologists of his era were lacking.  Most of the studies done during this time presented results based on inadequate samples that were both small and nonrandom.  Important components of scientific research such as control groups were absent.  The absence of proper controls failed to eliminate myriad other causes of criminality among the men in these studies.  The most notable competing explanations that followed would be sociological in nature.  These methodological errors were a major factor in the decline of biologically based theories of crime in the early twentieth century.

After nearly a century, a resurgence of interest in biological explanations of crime began in the 1970s.  Many authors credit the publication of Edmund O. Wilson’s influential book Sociobiology for this renewed interest.  Wilson’s view of crime was different from the earliest biological theories in that humans were biosocial organisms.  This meant that behavior is influenced not only by genetics (heritable traits) but also by the organism’s environment.  The modern theories catalyzed by Wilson’s work suggested that behavior is a complex mix of genetic, environmental, and social conditions.

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/04/2018

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