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Friday, September 3, 2010

Criminology - Lombroso’s Theory of Biological Determinism

Biological theories have appeared since the 16th century human physiognomy of J. Babtiste della Porte (1535-1615). He studied the relationship between crime and the human body. John Casper Lavater (1741-1801) claimed to have identified relationship between crime and facial features. In 1810 Franz Joseph Gall developed his famous work on craniology or phrenology in which he hypothesized that crime was one of the behaviours organically controlled by a specific area of the brain. Criminality could be analyzed by measuring bumps on the head.
The general claim of all these theories was that a close relationship existed between the exterior shape of the skull, unusual cranial protuberances or other cranial abnormalities and the structure of the brain.
In the past, theories which advanced this type of explanation tended to adopt the stance that crime was sickness or illness which affected individual criminals and was result of some biological dysfunction or disorder. Lombroso was the first one who turned from crime (i.e. act) to criminals and studied primarily their physical characteristics and laid down the foundation of ‘modern criminology’ and is often called the ‘father of modern criminology’

In 1859 Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution in the Origin of Species in which he argued that the development of a species proceeds through natural variations among offspring.
The weakest strains die off while the strongest survive.

Cesare Lombroso, an Italian, (1835-1909) applied these ideas to the study of crime. He rejected the concept of free will and replace it with an assumption of determinism. They rejected the notion of equality expressed by the classicists in which any individual through free choice makes rational decisions to behave as a criminal. This new scientific criminology valued the experimental method based on empirically discovered facts and their examination. The knowledge gained was to be achieved carefully, over time, through systematic observation and scientific analysis.

Lombroso (1835-1909): In 1859, upon completion of his medical studies, he joined the Italian army as a physician. During the four years he spent in the army he studied about 3000 soldiers systematically measuring and observing each. He noted a relationship between soldiers with tattoos and those who engaged in criminal activities. From 1864 to 1872 he worked at various mental institutions and carried on the same kinds of measures he used with the soldiers. In 1876 he publishes a detailed account of his original thinking as it applies to the physical constitution of the individual and his/her behaviour titled- L Uomo delinquente (the criminal man)

Lombroso’s Theory of Atavism:

If one term is associated with Lombroso it is atavism. Lombroso’s theory propounded the concept of ‘born-criminals’- who is likely or even bound to commit crime. The type he isolated was, he claimed, the result of an ‘atavism’, a term borrowed from Darwin, from whom Lombroso gained much of his inspiration. According to this ideas, a criminal is supposed to be a throwback in the evolutionary chain, a reversion to an earlier and more primitive being, who is both physically and mentally inferior. In other words, the criminals reflected our lower and more ape like ancestors; their physical characteristics, he claimed, resembled those of apes or primates. He found that in the skulls and brains and other parts of the skeletons, muscles, and viscera of criminals anatomical peculiarities. He felt these were similar to forms found in remnants of earlier prehistoric man, more primitive peoples, and monkeys. The principle cause of criminal tendencies was organic in nature.

The physical characteristics measured by him were:

1. Deviation in head size and shape from type common to race and region from which the criminal came
2. Asymmetry of the face
3. Eye defects and peculiarities
4. Excessive dimensions of the jaw and cheek bones
5. Ears of unusual size, or occasionally very small, or standing out from the head as do those of the chimpanzee
6. Nose twisted, upturned, or flattened in thieves, or aquiline or beak-like in murderers, or with a tip rising like a peak from swollen nostrils.
7. Lips fleshy, swollen, & protruding
8. Pouches in the cheek like those of some animals
9. Peculiarities of the palate, such as are found in some reptiles, and cleft palate.
10. Chin receding, or excessively long, or short and flat, as in apes.
11. Abnormal dentition; Abundance, variety, and precocity of wrinkles
12. Anomalies of the hair, marked by characteristics of the hair of the opposite sex.
13. Imbalance of the hemispheres of the brain (asymmetry of cranium)

The list was amended from time to time, but it as always made up of similar types of physical anomalies. If a person portrayed 5 or more of these atavisms, then accoding to him, that perso was a born criminal. In his earlier works, he always claimed that all criminals fell into the category of born criminals, a claim which he was later to revise.

In addition to the purely physical characteristics he claimed that the born criminals portrayed certain other factors, such as:
• Sensory peculiarities, including greater sensibility to pain and touch, more acute sight etc
• Functional peculiarities, including greater agility, more ambidexterity and greater strength in life limbs.
• A lack of moral sense, including an absence of repentance and rumour, the presence of vindictive, impulsiveness, cruelty.
• A tendency to express idea pictorially
• Excessive use of tattooing and excessive idleness
• Use of special criminal slang

He also connected epilepsy to criminality. The connection between criminality and epilepsy is one of derivation rather than identity. Epilepsy represents a genus of which criminality and moral insanity are the species. Initially, he claimed that all criminals were also epileptics. But in later works, he amended his claims and said that only 30% of criminals were epileptics.

In his early works he stressed only and only upon physical characterstics, but later he included many other factors such as climate, rainfall, sex, marriage, customs, banking practices, structure of government, church, religion, criminal law and poor education, which have effect on criminality.

Three Categories of Criminals:

Lombroso’s early views that almost all criminals were born criminals were later on revised by him to include only a third of all criminals in this group. Their remaining 2/3rd he placed in 2 other categories- insane and occasional criminals

1. Insane Criminals: in this he included idiots, imbeciles, paranoiacs, sufferers from melancholia and those affected with paralysis, dementia, alcoholism, epilepsy or hysteria. This type commits crime because of a defect in the brain which makes the unable to distinguish right from wrong. These individuals were considered truly insane and without responsibility for their actions.

2. The Occasional Criminal: The broadest and most inclusive category and included four types.
2.1. The Pseudocriminal: Example is an individual who kills in self defense. Not criminal in real sense they break the law, not because of any natural depravity, nor because of distressing circumstances, but by mere accident. These criminals can also be called Judicial Criminals.
2.2. Criminaloid: These are epileptoids who suffer from a milder form of the disease so that without adequate cause criminality is not manifested. These are individuals with weak natures who can be swayed by circumstances to commit crime. Often show hesitation before committing crime.
2.3. Habitual Criminals: Individuals who regard the systematic violation of the law in the light of an ordinary trade. Includes those convicted of theft, fraud, arson, forgery, and blackmail. .


• He consistently emphasized the need for direct study of the individual, utilizing measurements and statistical methods in anthropological, social, and economic data.
• He began with the basic assumption of the biological nature of human character and behavior:
o A. He first conceived of the criminal as a throwback to a more primitive type of brain structure, and therefore of behavior.
o B. He later modified this to include general degeneracy of defectiveness.
o C. He never claimed that the born criminal constituted more than 40% probably less, only about 1/3 of the total criminal population
• With successive years of study, discussion, and contact with critics, he modified his theory and method more and more to include all kinds of social, economic, and environmental data. Through It all, he always attempted to be:
o A. Objective, in method, often statistical
o B. Positive in the sense of deterministic
o C. Faithful to the basic idea of cause as a chain of interrelated events, not the more

Also with the inclusion of many other factors in his later works, he drew the attention of later criminologists to focus on the basic premise of the modern criminology- psychology, biology and environment.


Lombroso had many methodological drawbacks in his work.

One of the major drawbacks with his work arose in sampling. First, many of the criminals he studied were mentally ill and were therefore unrepresentative lf the general criminal population. Secondly, he often worked with no, or inadequate control group. For example, some of his work was based upon samples from prison populations where, compared to the population as a whole, there was an over representation of those of Sicilian origin. The characteristics which Lombroso indicated as being atavistic may have been more prevalent in that part of Italy, but he has assumed that these physical attributes led to criminality.

Apart from the drawbacks pointed out, the attributes he pointed out generally do not necessarily mean that in presence of these attribute a person can be termed as born criminal. Even a person who does not possess these characteristic may be a criminal and similarly it is also possible that a person having many such characteristic may not be criminal. Also it is a sociological fact that a person is, generally, never a born criminal.

Another major drawback of his theory was his assumption that congenital and physical characteristics were static and so always available for observation. He paid little heed to transient characteristics or physical processes. He carefully measured skulls in order to determine the cranial capacity of criminals. He did this without knowing either the stature or the age of the criminal, factors which affect the capacity or size of the brain within the skull.

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