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Sunday, August 29, 2010



Cesare Lombroso was an Italian physician, psychiatrist and pioneer criminologist, who caused a sensation with the publication in 1876 of his book L'uomo delinquente... (Criminal Man). In this work, Lombroso employed Darwinian ideas of evolution to account for criminal behavior.
Measuring the heads of living and executed criminals against the skulls of apes, prehistoric humans and what he and his contemporaries saw as 'primitive' peoples, Lombroso concluded that criminals were in fact victims of atavism.
Lombroso believed that his theory of atavistic criminality had clear implications for the prevention and punishment of crime.
Not all of Lombroso's contemporaries were inclined to accept his claims as to the biological basis of criminality. In many circles, his ideas met with concerted opposition.
Even so, Lombroso had his admirers throughout Europe, and his theory of atavism captured the imagination of middle class writers and readers.
Over time, Lombroso gradually came to think that social factors were also significant in disposing people to criminal behavior. Even so, he still believed that at least forty percent of criminals were prisoners of their biological inheritance.


The earliest “scientific” studies examinig human behaviour was biologically oriented. Physiognomists, such as J.K.Lavater(1741-1801) studied the facial features of criminals to determine whether the shape of ears, nose, and eyes and the distances between them were associated with anti social behaviour. Phrenologist, such as Frenz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann K.Spurzheim (1776-1832) studied the shape of the skull and the bumps on the head to determine whether these physical attributes were linked to criminal behavior. Phrenologist believed that external cranial characteristics dictate which of the brain control physical activity. Although their primitive techniques and quasi-scientific methods have been thoroughly discredited, these efforts were an early attempt to use scientific method to study crime
A criminological pioneer Henry Maudsley (1835 – 1918) believed that insanity and criminal behavior were strongly linked. He stated, “crime is a sort of outlet in which their unsound tendencies are discharged; they would go mad if they were not criminals, and they do not go mad because they are criminals”.

BIOLOGICAL DETERMINISM: In Italy Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) studied the cavaders of executed criminals in an effort to scientifically determine whether law violators physically differed from people of conventional values and behavior. Lombroso known as the “father of criminology” was a physician who served much of his career in the Italian Army. That experience gave him lot of opportunity to study the physical characteristics of soldiers convicted and executed for criminal offences. Lombrosian theory can be outlined in a few simple statements.
• Lombroso believed that serious offenders, those who engaged in repeated assault or theft related activities, inherited criminal traits. These “born criminals” inherited physical problems that impelled them into a life of crime.
• Lombroso held that born criminals suffer from atavistic anomalies – physically, they are throwbacks to more primitive times when people were savages. For example, criminals were believed to have the enormous jaws and strong canine teeth common to carnivores and savages who devour raw flesh.
• Lombroso compared criminal’s behavior to that of the mentally ill and those suffering some forms of epilepsy. According to Lombrosian theory, criminogenic traits can be acquired through indirect heredity, from a “degenerate family with frequent cases of insanity, deafness, syphilis, epilepsy and alcoholism among its members”.

One useful way to approach Lombroso's theory of atavistic criminality is through recalling Francis Galton's thinking on human heredity.
Galton assumed that, over successive generations, character and talents would revert towards an average for the population as a whole. He saw the average as a measure of intellectual and physical mediocrity. Further, Galton sought to understand the workings of human hereditary processes so that they could be manipulated, to increase the frequency of desirable, over undesirable, traits.
Lombroso was intrigued by the extremely undesirable qualities that Galton was concerned to eradicate.
Drawing on Darwin's theory of natural selection, Lombroso reasoned that, in any population, a small number of individuals were likely to exhibit extremely primitive instincts. They were, in effect, evolutionary throwbacks.
In early human societies, individuals with such traits were likely to have been more fitted for survival. A strong desire to kill, for example, would have made them successful hunters and desirable mates. However, in civilized urban Europe, atavism, the reversion to evolutionarily primitive traits, was highly likely to cause criminal behavior.
Lombroso further argued that, ideally, in civilized society individuals who exhibited atavism would rarely, if ever, produce offspring. Reproductive failure would restrict the frequency with which socially dangerous primitive instincts were likely to appear.
• Criminals constitute a distinct born type.
• This type of criminal can be identified by certain physical abnormalities or stigmata or anomalies.
• The stigmata are not the cause of crime but rather the symptoms of atavism or degeneracy.
• Atavism and degeneracy are the basic causes of crime.
However, Lombroso was greatly concerned that in the remoter parts of the European countryside, and, more importantly, in the growing slums of Europe's urban manufacturing centers, individuals with primitive characteristics appeared to be producing offspring who exhibited the same highly undesirable social qualities.
While Criminal Man was probably Lombroso's most influential work, he also wrote at length about women and crime, and wrote many papers, which sought to demonstrate how phenomena such as tattooing amongst criminals were indicative of the survival of primeval instincts.


Cesare Lombroso and Atavism
Cesare Lombroso's groundbreaking work was a direct reversal of the statistical method employed by Quetelet and Guerry. His atavistic theory effectively argued that the nature of the criminal determines the character of the institution, and not vice-versa.
His theory of criminal anthropology was also very popular during its inception, since "L'Uomo Delinquente (Criminal Man)" (1876) was published short after Darwin's "Origin of the Species" (1859). Lindesmith explains:

"It may be that the theory of the born criminal offered a convenient
rationalization of the failure of preventive effort and an escape from the implications of the dangerous doctrine that crime is an essential product of our social organization."

Darwin, then, first suggested atavism, when he wrote:

"With mankind some of the worst dispositions which occasionally without any assignable cause make their appearance in families, may perhaps be reversions to a savage state, from which we are not removed by many generations."

Lombroso, who was busy studying the physical characteristics of criminals and soldiers, claimed to have discovered proof of this supposition in a "flash of inspiration" while studying the skull of famous brigand, Vihella:

"The problem of the nature of the criminal - an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals."
One could further determine the people in this category of evolutionary 'throwbacks' by their "enormous jaws, high cheek bones … insensibility to pain" and even behavioral traits, such as "tattooing, excessive idleness [and] love of orgies", all of which led to "the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake."

Lombroso's theory obviously presented a great challenge for older psychological theories and ideas of jurisprudence. It posited that criminals were born with an innate potential for anti-social behavior. They did not become criminals simply because they fell victim to unfortunate social circumstances.
Even though Lombroso believed that the root causes of many social problems lay in human biology, he was no fatalist. He maintained that government had a duty to adopt more humane attitudes to crime and punishment. It would be immoral, he maintained, arguing for the law to seek retribution from those who were biologically incapable of restraining from anti-social behavior.
Like Galton, he came to believe that the prevention of crime required the development of a science of eugenics that would allow state agencies to implement programs of social and moral improvement through breeding.
In 1896 an English translation of a paper on tattooing amongst criminals appeared in the American journal Popular Science Monthly. It provides a fascinating introduction to Lombroso's thinking about crime and human evolutionary history.

Sutherland in chapter titled ‘Physical and Physiological Factors and Crime’ has said that Lombroso and his followers used comparisons of criminals and ‘savages’ as their method of studying inheritance of criminality. They considered that the typical criminal was a born criminal and attribute this to atavism to lower savage life. Their principle evidence that criminality was atavistic was the resemblance of the criminal subjects to the savage, but the characteristics of the savage were assumed, not determined by reliable methods. Lombroso insisted that criminals different from non-criminals with reference to certain physical traits, which he called “stigmata of degeneracy”. He found these physical deviations in parts of the anatomy but placed particular emphasis on deviations in the shape of the cranium.
Postulates of Lombroso’s theory given by Sutherland:
• Criminals are of distinct type by birth.
• They have to be identified by stigmata or assemetry.
• Physical anomalies do not itself cause crime, rather they identify the personality predisposed to criminal behaviour.
• Because of their criminal nature these people cannot refrain from crime uness circumstances of crime are usually favourable.


Lombroso’s version of strict biological anthropology was brought to the United States via articles and textbooks that adopted his ideas. He attracted a circle of followers who expanded upon his vision of biological determinism. His work was actually more popular in United States than it was in Europe. By the turn of the century, American authors were discussing “the science of penology” and “the science of criminology”.
Lombroso’s version of strict biological determinism is no longer taken seriously. Today criminologist who suggests that crime has some biological basis also believe that environmental conditions influence human behavior. Hence the term biosocial theory has been coined to reflect the assumed link between physical and mental traits, the social environment and behavior.
Although it may be true that society has changed since the days of Lombroso and Ferrero, past theories appear to remain within much of today's criminal justice system. Women have so many choices of which they didn't before. It would appear naive to assume that women and crime may be explained by any one theory. Any crime for that matter, whether male or female, may not be explained by any one theory. It is an established and non-arguable fact that males and females differ biologically and sociological influences, such as gender-specific role-playing appears to continue within most families. It's a matter of proportion not difference.
The work of Lombroso and his contemporaries is now regarded as a historical curiosity, not scientific fact. In fact, their research methodology has been discredited because they did not use control groups from the general population to compare results. Many of the traits they assumed to be inherited are not really genetically determined but could be caused by deprivation in surroundings and diet. Even if most criminals shared some biological traits, they might be products not of heredity but of some environmental condition, such as nutrition or health care. It is equally likely that only criminals who suffer from biological abnormality are caught and punished by the justice system. In his later writings, Lombroso admitted that the born criminal was just one of many criminal types. Because of these deficiencies in his theory, the value of individual oriented explanations of criminality became questionable, and for a time these theories were disregarded by the criminological mainstream.

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