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Biological Theories of Crime

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Biological Theories of Crime

Why a person commits a crime is controversial, and many psychologists have theorised about the possible biological and psychological causes of criminals’ decision making. Is it because of biology? Are criminals helpless because they listen to their genes? Or is it because of a person’s upbringing?

Firstly, let us cover the definition of a biological theory of crime.

Biological theories of crime causation assume a person’s biological characteristics predetermine crime. Although psychological explanations of crime have largely moved away from this, biological explanations still have a solid basis in the history of forensic psychology.

The theories that discuss the origin of crime and the influences on a person’s decision to commit a crime include classical, biological, sociological, interactionist and psychodynamic approaches.

Biological Theories of Crime Causation DNA StudySmarterDNA, Flaticon

Biological theory of crime examples

There are some important theories that we will cover in the context of biological explanations/theories of crime. These include the physical characteristics of a ‘criminal’, the genetic basis of crime, and the neural explanation of crime.

Lombroso's atavistic form

One of the oldest biological explanations for crime is the atavistic form. In 1876, Cesare Lombroso proposed that criminals are primitive and genetically different from law-abiding citizens. Not only that, criminals look different, according to Lombroso.

Biological Theories of Crime Biological theory of crime examples Lombroso atavistic form characteristics StudySmarterLombroso’s atavistic form - StudySmarter. Made in Canva.

Lombroso wanted to find out if there were common characteristics that could be used to identify these different individuals. He examined the physical characteristics of criminals and found that they had primitive features, in particular:

  • Strong, protruding jaws
  • Narrow, slanted brows
  • Facial asymmetry
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Large ears, etc.

He also suggested these features are more pronounced in different types of criminals (for example, a thief may have small, quick eyes that take in the scene and tend to wander off, and a murderer may have bloodshot eyes).

Genetic and neural explanations of offending behaviour

More recently, psychologists have identified genes that they believe make a person prone to crime. This genetic predisposition and environmental factors make them susceptible and lead to someone becoming a criminal. Scientists have identified several genes they believe may be involved:

  • The MAOA gene (controls dopamine and serotonin and has been linked to aggressive behaviour).

  • CDH13 (linked to substance abuse and attention deficit disorder).

Biological Theories of Crime Genetic and neural explanations of offending behaviour StudySmarterGenetic and neural explanations of offending behaviour - StudySmarter. Made in Canva.

Psychologists also cite differences in brain function as an explanation for criminal behaviour. Specifically, criminals have decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotions.

  • They also have difficulty empathising with others. Unlike neurotypical people, criminals with antisocial personality disorder cannot naturally empathise with others, but they can when prompted.

  • The neurons that are activated when they are asked to empathise (or copy a behaviour) are known as mirror neurons. This means that criminals are much less likely to feel empathy for the victims of their crimes.

Neural explanations usually focus on brain dysfunction as the cause of criminal behaviour.

Consider the study by Raine et al. (1997), where, in the brains of 41 murderers, there were observable abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex, the corpus callosum, and asymmetrical activity in the hemispheres.

Adoption and twin studies

One of the best ways to study the effects of genes on a person’s behaviour is to analyse monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins.MZ twins share 100% of their DNA. Therefore, if we want to determine the influence of the environment on a person, we can study twins.

Biological Theories of Crime Adoption and twin studies StudySmarterTwins, Flaticon

Adoption studies are also a great source of information because they show the influence of biological and psychological explanations on behaviour. We can essentially ask if the parents are to blame, the environment, or if a person’s genes are at play.

For an example of adoption studies showing biological relationships, see Mednick et al. (1984). Here, a genetic correlation was found between the delinquency rates of adopted children and their biological parents (although concordance rates were low, so we can generally assume that the biological explanation is not the only one at play here).

Biological theory of crime: strengths and weaknesses

Let’s evaluate the biological theories discussed above.

Strengths

In regards to Lombroso’s theory and physical characteristics:

  • When Lombroso first highlighted the role of the physical characteristics of crime, he lent scientific credibility to the role of biology in criminology. Using empirical evidence, he identified a scientific area of criminology that could be further investigated.

  • Some argue that the work here led to the basis used in offender profiling techniques we use today, providing a point of research for further areas of study to develop from. This also highlighted how a criminal’s past and upbringing, including their criminal records, could be used to identify their future behaviours.

In regards to the genetic role:

  • Research supports the theory, as established in Mednick et al. (1984). One great strength of adoption studies is that it helps us identify and rule out the environment as an influence, which some twin studies cannot.

  • Studies have also linked the genetic origins of aggression and the genetic basis to crime, suggesting it can lead to offending behaviours, further supporting the links.

In regards to neural explanations:

  • Like the research in the genetic role in offending behaviour, research supports the theory, as seen in Raine et al. (1997) on their study on the brain abnormalities in murderers. This again increases the scientific credibility of the theories.

Overall, biological theories of crime show strengths in that:

  • The studies cited often provide clear proof of some correlation or connection between biological factors and offending behaviours.

  • Overall, biological theories are observable and measurable, which increases the scientific credibility of the research on the topic.

Weaknesses

In regards to Lombroso’s theory and physical characteristics:

Biological Theories of Crime - Key takeaways

  • Although widely rejected today, Lombroso’s atavistic form was one of the first explanations to establish a biological basis for crime.
  • An atavistic form is a biological approach to crime that attributes criminal activity to the fact that offenders are primitive subspecies unable to adapt to the rules of modern society.
  • The atavistic form is characterised by fleshy lips, a protruding jaw, dark skin, facial asymmetry, and tattoos, among other features.
  • Genetic explanations for crime suggest that offenders have genes that predispose them to commit crimes.
  • In studying genetic influences, researchers analyse twins and cases of adoption to determine the effects of genes and the environment.
  • The MAOA gene and the CDH13 gene are particularly important for aggression.
  • Neural factors such as the prefrontal cortex and mirror neurons have also been linked to aggression, which may be related to criminal behaviour.
  • Neural explanations focus on brain dysfunction as an explanation for criminal behaviour.
  • Lombroso highlighted these features as common in criminal subjects. However, he did not compare them to a non-criminal control group, so he cannot confidently say these features are inherent only in criminals.

  • He also ignored other factors that may have affected these physical traits, such as the presence of psychological or mental disorders that present physically in participants.

  • It also unfairly attributes these features to criminal behaviour, which suggests all criminals have these physical traits. Those who have not committed a crime may be unfairly judged based on this. It is a reductionist argument.

In regards to the genetic role:

  • When using studies, especially in twins, the concordance rate of criminal behaviour should be 100%, yet this isn’t the case. This outright shows biological factors are not the only factor in offending behaviours and crime.

  • Consider Christiansen (1977): in monozygotic twins, there was a concordance rate for males of 35% for criminal behaviour and 21% for females for criminal behaviour. These rates are low, indicating that biological factors are less important than we may suspect, and environmental factors are more important than we first thought.

In regards to neural explanations:

  • Despite Raine et al. (1997) highlighting abnormalities in the brains of criminals, they did not establish if this was a cause or result of the criminal behaviour or something else entirely unrelated. There is only a correlation.

  • The neural explanation is also very simplistic and somewhat reductionist as well. It does not consider the environmental influences that may affect a person’s behaviour or their life situations which may directly encourage or necessitate criminal behaviours. Higher levels of neurotransmitters such as testosterone do not always result in criminal behaviour.

In regards to biological theories of crime overall:

  • Biological explanations suffer from being reductionist in that they often ignore or do not fully acknowledge other factors and instead rely too heavily on the role of biological factors.

  • They are also deterministic.

  • Research into this field’s implications on how our judicial and punishment system works requires a sensitive approach to this subject area, as ethical issues can arise from statements such as ‘all criminals have a prominent brow bone’, as we have discussed above.


Frequently Asked Questions about Biological Theories of Crime

The theories which discuss the origin of crime and what can influence a person’s decision to commit a crime include classical, biological, sociological, interactionist and psychodynamic approaches.

Neural factors such as reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, mirror neurons and genetic factors such as the MAOA and CDH13 genes are all biological factors of crime. 


Lombroso believed a criminal has an atavistic form; they have primitive, identifiable features common for a criminal.

Biological psychology sees behaviour resulting from genetic, biological and neural characteristics. 

That criminals are genetically and neurally predisposed to crime. When they interact with the environment, they can make someone commit the crime.

That criminals are genetically and neurally predisposed to crime which when they interact with the environment can make someone commit the crime.

Final Biological Theories of Crime 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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What name did Lombroso call criminals?

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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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Answer

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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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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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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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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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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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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Whose earlier work on the biological foundations of criminality does this research draw on?

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This research draws from Lombroso’s work on the biological foundations of criminality.

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What do genes consist of?

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Answer

Genes consist of strands of DNA.

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Our DNA provides ‘instructions’ for two kinds of physical features of an organism, which can then influence psychological features. What are the two kinds of features?


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DNA provides instructions for the general physical features of an organism (e.g., height) and specific physical features (e.g., neurotransmitter levels).

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What is a neural explanation?

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Neural explanation is any explanation of behaviour (and its disorders) in terms of (mal)functions of the brain and nervous system.

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What was Lombroso’s theory of crime called?

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Answer

Altruistic form.

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What is a genetic explanation for crime?


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Answer

Offenders have a gene that predisposes them to commit crimes.

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Question

In 1930, Johannes Lange studied 13 MZ and 17 DZ twins, where one twin had spent time in prison. He found that 10 of the MZ (compared to 2 of the DZ) twins had a co-twin who had also been in prison. Does this research support the idea of genetic explanations of criminality?

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Answer

Yes, Lange’s findings support genetic explanations as it shows that twins who share lots of the same genes are more likely to be similar in regard to criminality.

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Question

How could we criticise the results of Lange’s twin study?


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Answer

Most twins are raised in the same environment is a significant confounding variable, and their similarities could be due to environmental factors rather than genetic ones.

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Question

Tihonen et al. (2014) found two genes on which abnormalities were linked to criminal behaviour. What were the two genes?

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The MAOA gene (controls dopamine and serotonin and has been linked to aggressive behaviour), and the CDH13 gene (linked to substance abuse and attention deficit disorder).

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What did the Tihonen et al. (2014) research find about these two genes? 

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Answer

People with only the MAOA gene were 13 times more likely to have a history of violent behaviour.

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Much research into neural explanations of criminal behaviour has found that a particular disorder characterises people prone to criminal behaviour. What is this disorder called?

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Answer

Antisocial personality disorder.

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How could we relate the diathesis-stress model to the study of genetic explanations of criminal behaviour?

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Answer

A combination of genetic predisposition and being raised in a dysfunctional environment causes criminality.

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Which psychologists studied Danish adoptees in 1984? What do their findings suggest? 

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Answer

The Mednick et al. study showed that though genetic factors may influence criminality, we cannot deny environmental factors.

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There are problems with adoptive studies, including the difficulty differentiating between environmental and biological factors. Which of the following factors influence this? 

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Answer

Many adopted children are late adoptees (therefore already under the environmental influence).

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What problem related to free will could the idea of genetic explanations of criminal behaviour cause?

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Answer

If offenders have a genetic disposition to behave criminally, it might be that they are not acting out of free will when they commit a crime. Thus, it would not be fair to punish them.

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What is biological psychology? 

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Answer

The idea that biological characteristics, such as genes and neural features, influence our behaviour.

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Who came up with the atavistic form? 

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Answer

Lombroso

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Question

____ skin was a feature of Lombroso's atavistic form.

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Answer

Dark

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Was facial asymmetry or symmetry a feature of Lombroso’s atavistic form? 

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Answer

Asymmetry 

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When did Lombroso come up with the atavistic form theory?

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Answer

1879

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____ Lombroso came up with atavistic form.

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Answer

Cesare

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___ neurons can predispose someone to criminality.

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Answer

Mirror

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Which area of the brain controls emotion?

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Answer

The pre-frontal cortex.

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Which genes predispose someone to criminality?

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Answer

MAOA and CDH13.

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Which gene predisposes someone to criminality?

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Answer

MAOA

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Which gene predisposes someone to criminality?

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CDH13

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What are mirror neurons?

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Answer

Neurons that are activated when we copy another person’s behaviour.

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Question

Is someone with the MAOA gene definitely going to be a criminal? 

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Answer

No, they are only more vulnerable to becoming one. 

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