Criminology | Section 4.4

Fundamentals of Criminology

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Scott D. Bransford, Ph.D.


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Genetics and Crime

The idea that we inherit criminal tendencies from our parents is nothing new.  Influential modern theories center around arousal levels—those with low arousability are less likely to learn prosocial behavior and more likely to learn criminal and deviant behavior patterns.

Researcher Lee Ellis has proposed that some people are more prone to crime, drug use, and other deviant behaviors because they have a general tendency to engage in risk-taking, thrill-seeking, or impulsive behavior.  This reflects “attempts to compensate for suboptimal arousal levels.”  That is, those whose neurological arousal levels are low are more apt to seek out more stimulating and exciting situations.

Scientists have used adopted boys with criminal biological fathers to evaluate whether criminality can be passed from generation to generation.  With one notable exception—a study in Denmark—there has been no strong evidence to support the theory.

Evolution and Crime

One way of explaining crime is through evolution—criminal behaviors come about as survival adaptations by segments of the human population.  A disposition to commit rape, for example, could be explained because it has a reproductive advantage for the rapist.  The scientific community has taken these sorts of modern theories seriously, which is a change from the recent past.  Ideas like phrenology gave biological and medical theories a bad name.  These new theories have greater theoretical sophistication, less reliance on biological defects and destiny (atavists will be criminals—there’s nothing we can do about it), and greater attention to interaction with social and psychological variables.

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/13/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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