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Atavistic Form

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Atavistic Form

Is criminality a product of biology or the environment? Are criminals born that way? Can you spot them just by looking at their facial features? Cesare Lombroso thought so when he developed his atavistic form explanation for offending.

The atavistic form is a biological approach to crime that attributes criminal activity to offenders being genetic throwbacks or a primitive subspecies unable to adapt to the rules of modern society. According to this approach, we can recognise such individuals are distinguishable by certain facial and cranial features.

Atavistic Form Forensic scientist StudySmarterForensic scientist, YB - StudySmarter Originals

A historical approach to offending

In 1876, Cesare Lombroso proposed that criminals were ‘genetic throwbacks’ who were primitive and biologically different from the rest of us. He believed that they lacked evolutionary development and that their inability to adapt to society would lead them to commit crimes. He, therefore, thought that crime was a natural tendency rooted in genetics.Today, Lombroso’s work is considered naïve and speculative, but it was important in initiating a discussion about the biological basis of criminality.

What are the atavistic form features?

Lombroso believed that we could recognise criminals by their ‘atavistic features,’ physical characteristics that distinguish them from others, especially the head and face.

Atavistic Form Facial atavistic characteristics non-physical atavistic characteristics StudySmarterFacial atavistic characteristics (specifically those of murderers and sexual deviants) and non-physical atavistic characteristics, YB - StudySmarter Originals

Atavistic form, Non-physical atavistic characteristics, StudySmarter

Lombroso’s research

Lombroso reached these conclusions by examining the facial features of hundreds of living or dead Italian convicts (383 dead, 3839 living). He claimed that atavistic form features could determine 40% of criminal acts.

Evaluation of atavistic form

What are the advantages of the atavistic form in psychology? And what about its weaknesses? Let us now evaluate the atavistic form explanation for offending and see what other studies have to say about it.

Strengths

  • Contribution to criminology: According to Hollin (1989), Lombroso is the ‘father of modern criminology’. He shifted the discourse from a moral view (as it had always been before) to a scientific view, from ‘weak and evil’ offenders to ‘genetically programmed’ ones. He also heralded the beginning of offender profiling, a significant contribution to the science of criminology.

Weaknesses

  • Scientific racism: Many critics, including Matt DeLisi (2012), have pointed out the racist undertones of his work; many of the ‘atavistic traits’ are the typical traits of people of African descent. His references to ‘primitive, savage, uncivilised’ people are also consistent with many eugenicist philosophies of the time.
  • Conflicting evidence: In 1913, Charles Goring pursued the same goal as Lombroso. He studied 3000 criminals and 3000 non-criminals and found no evidence that one group had specific facial characteristics that the other group did not.
  • Methodology: Lombroso did not compare his criminal sample to a control group of non-criminals, as Goring did. He might have found that his ‘atavistic features’ had disappeared had he done so.
  • Confounded findings: Lombroso’s findings may also have been confounded as he studied many criminals who had previously suffered from physiological disorders.
  • Causality: There is also a problem with causality. Even if his findings had been significant, who is to say that the atavistic traits cause criminal behaviour? These traits may be due to other factors, such as poverty or poor nutrition.

Atavistic Form - Key takeaways

  • Lombroso proposed the theory of the atavistic form in 1857.
  • An atavistic form is a biological approach to crime that attributes criminal activity to offenders being genetic recidivists or primitive subspecies unable to adapt to the rules of modern society. We can recognise such individuals by certain facial and cranial features.
  • The atavistic form is characterised by fleshy lips, a protruding jaw, dark skin, asymmetry, and tattoos, among other atavistic form features.
  • Although widely discarded today, Cesare Lombroso’s atavistic form was one of the first explanations to provide a biological basis for crime.
  • The atavistic form can be criticised for its methodological approach and racial undertones.

Frequently Asked Questions about Atavistic Form

Atavistic form got us thinking about what types of people commit crimes. It is the basis of offender profiling.

Biological theories of crime causation are founded on the belief that crime is an innate tendency that is genetically determined or due to brain structure.

The idea is that crime is an innate tendency that is genetically determined or due to brain structure.

The word ‘atavistic’ means relating to something old or ancestral. The atavistic form is named so because it refers to genetic ‘throwbacks’, genetic abnormalities that cause certain people to behave criminally.

Yes. Atavistic form believes that criminality is innate and genetic, i.e., grounded in biology.

The atavistic form is characterised by fleshy lips, a protruding jaw, dark skin, asymmetry, and tattoos, among other features.

Final Atavistic Form Quiz

Question

Who created the theory of atavistic form?

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Answer

Cesare Lombroso created the theory of atavistic form.

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Question

Define atavistic form.

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Answer

Atavistic form is a biological approach to crime that attributes criminal activity to offenders being genetic throwbacks or a primitive subspecies unable to adapt to the rules of modern society. According to this approach, we can recognise such individuals are distinguishable by certain facial and cranial features.

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Question

What name did Lombroso call criminals?

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Answer

Genetic throwbacks.

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Select the correct statement:

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Atavistic form claims that criminality is a natural tendency, rooted in genetics.

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What did Lombroso believe was different about criminals compared to the rest of us?

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Lombroso believed criminals lacked evolutionary development, and their inability to conform to society would lead them to crime.

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What are ‘atavistic characteristics’?

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Answer

Atavistic characteristics are physical markers that distinguish criminals from other people, especially the head and face.

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Which of the following are NOT atavistic facial features? (select all that apply)

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Answer

High cheekbones.

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What are the atavistic characteristics of murderers?

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Answer

The atavistic characteristics of murderers are bloodshot eyes, curly hair, and long ears.

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What are the atavistic characters of sexual deviants?

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Answer

The atavistic characteristics of sexual deviants are glinting eyes, swollen fleshy lips, and projecting ears.

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True or false: Lombroso claimed tattoos and unemployment are non-physical atavistic characteristics.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What were Lombroso’s findings after examining the facial features of hundreds of Italian convicts?

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Answer

Lombroso claimed 40% of criminal acts could be determined by atavistic characteristics.

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What did Hollin (1989) name Lombroso?

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Answer

Father of modern criminology.

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How did Matt DeLisi (2012) criticise Lombroso?

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Answer

He pointed out that many of the ‘atavistic characteristics’ are typical of people of African descent. Also, his references to ‘primitive, savage, uncivilised’ people resonate with many of the eugenicist philosophies of the time.

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Question

What were Charles Goring’s study findings of 3,000 criminals and non-criminals?


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Answer

Charles Goring found no evidence showing that one group exhibited distinct facial characteristics the other group did not.

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Question

Explain why one of Lombroso’s research weaknesses is the issue of casualty.

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Answer

His study suggests a correlation between criminality and particular characteristics, not direct causation. Therefore, these characteristics may have been due to other linked factors, e.g., poverty or poor diet.

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