Nature vs Nurture in crime theory

Biological Theory of Crime- Explanation and Examples


Cesare Lombroso developed the biological theory of crime, a theory based on the fact that criminal behavior can be traced down to physical characteristics. For example, some individuals are born with a mental abnormality and therefore are predisposed to criminality.

According to Lombroso’s 19th-century scientific study, one can observe the physical characteristics of the head and face when classifying criminals. These distinguishing factors are known as ‘stigmata'(physical characteristics).

Lombroso theorized that criminals possessed atavistic characteristics or traits common in primitive human species but died out as human beings evolved.

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Genetic Explanations of Criminal Behavior

The theory stipulates that several physical abnormalities or ‘stigmata’ are found more often in criminals than in general. This is an example of how physical characteristics can determine a person as a criminal. These ‘stigmata’ consist of long arms and legs, a large jaw, dark hair, asymmetrical features, and skull defects.

According to Lombroso, the physical characteristics of a criminal are innate and are caused by degeneration, meaning that these biological traits are inherited. The theory states that these physical abnormalities can be traced back to atavistic characteristics common in primitive human species, such as apes.

This theory was the first to develop a psychological profile of criminals. Lombroso also believed that criminality could be caused by degeneration and directly linked the degeneration of the individual with biology.

Lombroso’s theory was also the first scientific attempt to classify criminals based on physical stigmata. He classified criminals into three categories:

  1. Born criminal
  2. Crime due to degeneration
  3. alcohol
  4. head injury
  5. disease and malnutrition.
  6. Crime due to factors not yet identified.

Born Criminal

Born criminals are those who possess features commonly seen in primitive human species, such as apes. They are aggressive, impulsive, and prone to violence. They display primitive emotions and lack moral direction.

These are physically strong due to the development of their nervous system, particularly in areas that control aggression. Lombroso also believed that criminals of this category were unable to learn from punishment and would re-offend.

Other characteristics of the born criminal included a primitive brain, small cranium, and contractions in the skull.

Lombroso believed that these features were due to inheritance (atavistic characteristics) and therefore could not be changed or altered by society. According to this theory, the individual would have committed a crime even if brought up in society.

The early stages of child development are crucial in identifying some of these traits. Children who get adequate health attention can get some help in correcting the traits.

Criminal due to degeneration

Criminality can also be caused by degeneration, according to Lombroso’s theory. This is a result of trauma or disease and malnutrition. For example, an infection of the central nervous system can cause delusions and hallucinations, which are symptoms associated with insanity.

Crime Caused by Alcohol

Alcoholism (which was much more widespread in the 19th century) can also cause criminal behavior. Criminality can be a result of degeneration rather than an innate, inborn characteristic.

Some criminals also suffer from mental defects, which can be attributed to alcohol. According to the theory, alcohol reduces inhibition and increases aggression and criminal behavior. Alcohol stimulates brain centres that control emotions and behavior but dulls those that allow for critical thinking.

Therefore, a criminal that has been drinking can easily lose self-control and engage in criminal acts. This happens because alcohol is a disinhibitor, which lowers the threshold for aggressive behavior.

Furthermore, the mental retardation caused by alcohol can affect a person’s judgment and allow them to commit crimes such as murder or arson.

This theory states that alcoholics commit half of all crimes, with the majority being violent offences such as assault and murder.

Crime Caused by Head Injury

Head injuries can also lead to crime. They cause a long-term change in brain structure and function; the injury may either damage or destroy brain cells.

Criminality results from the injured area at the front and back of the brain. Here, there is a reduction in the size of certain parts. The frontal lobes are responsible for controlling emotions and impulses; therefore, head injuries can lead to emotional instability, which increases aggression and impulsive behaviour.

A study conducted in 1997 into the causes of criminality among young offenders showed that those who had sustained head injuries were more likely to commit crimes.

Crime Caused by Disease

Diseases such as syphilis and sexually transmitted diseases can cause physical abnormalities, increasing aggression and making it easier for a person to engage in criminal behaviour.

They also affect the brain’s frontal lobe, which is where emotion and impulse control are located. A person suffering from these diseases will be more likely to commit crimes due to their inability to control aggression or impulses.

This theory suggests that criminality is caused by an imbalance in chemicals in the brain, a hormone deficiency or a genetic defect.

Crime Due to Factors Not Yet Identified

This category is comprised of those whose crime cannot be attributed to any other factors. This group includes the mentally ill and prostitutes (who are subjected to sexual abuse).

Although a specific factor does not cause their crimes, they could still cause crime if their illicit activities were subject to legal regulation.

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Examples of Biological Theory of Crime

  • Violent criminals were often found to have features such as oversized jawbones or prominent ears. Some traits are associated with deviant behaviors, such as skull defects, asymmetrical features, and dark hair.
  • Other individuals are born with a mental abnormality and therefore are predisposed to violence.
  • An example of a criminal who exhibited the physical characteristics of atavism is Henry Louis Wallace, an individual born with a very small head and a large jaw. He did not exhibit any criminal tendencies from childhood until he suffered head trauma caused by an unknown assailant. This resulted in him joining a gang and becoming violent.
  • Another example of atavism is Richard Speck. He was an American serial killer who killed eight student nurses in one night in a Chicago townhouse. He had several physical abnormalities, including an abnormality of the jawbone and asymmetry of his facial features.

Speck also had a history of violence and alcohol abuse. It’s said that he was sexually inadequate’ and had a high level of testosterone. The latter is often correlated with sexual aggression.

Critiques of the Biological Theory of Crime

More recent research has questioned whether these physical characteristics are significantly related to criminality.

However, Lombroso’s theory was the first to suggest that biological factors may play a role in criminality. This is in contrast to earlier theories that claimed criminals were either immoral or insane.

The Biological Theory of Crime has been criticized on many grounds, such as lack of reliable evidence and poor methodology. However, it was the first to produce a psychological profile of criminals.

There is also a debate about how much importance should be placed on this theory, as contemporary theorists have not adequately supported it.

However, recent research has shown that biological factors may indeed play a role in offending behavior.

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Other Biological Theories of Crime

Apart from Lombroso’s theory, there are several other biological theories. These can be grouped into two main categories: psychopharmacological and neuropsychological.


These theories focus on the effects of drugs on neurotransmitter or hormone levels. The psychopharmacological theory teaches three main phases in a person’s life cycle: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Adolescence is associated with high levels of testosterone which can lead to anger, hostility and aggression. On the other hand, adults have low levels of this hormone and are more likely to be calm.

Low testosterone levels can lead to a lack of aggression; therefore, they will be less prone to crime in adulthood.

An example of this is the case of David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam. He was found not guilty because of insanity after being diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia.

Berkowitz was also found to have high testosterone levels, which was said to have made him more aggressive. At the age of eight, he began torturing animals and setting fires in the neighborhood. This behavior continued until adulthood, when he killed several people in New York City.


These theories focus on an individual’s brain functions and structure.

An example of this is the case of Sally Clark, who was wrongly convicted of murdering her two baby sons. She was convicted largely based on a controversial expert witness, Professor Sir Roy Meadow. He testified that the chances of both babies developing cot death were extremely low. Therefore, he said that the likelihood of this happening was so unlikely that it must be foul play.

Although Prof Meadow is a highly respected doctor, in 1995, he was referred to the General Medical Council to exaggerate the risk. He lost his license to practice medicine and was suspended as a clinical lecturer at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London.

Biosocial Theories and the Biological Theory of Crime from Ted Bundy

The Biosocial theory suggests that psychological factors such as social learning, cognitive skills and mental illness can be acquired through biological and environmental factors.

Furthermore, this theory is concerned with the interaction between these two sets of factors. The interaction helps to explain criminal behavior in terms of a person’s biology (as well as their social experiences).

An example of the biosocial theory is Ted Bundy, a serial killer who was executed in 1989. Bundy’s childhood was characterized by severe abuse, as he had been born with an extreme form of haemophilia – a condition that required blood transfusions.

Later studies showed that children with this disorder have low serotonin levels, which can lead to abnormal brain development and impulsive behavior.

Application of the Biological Theory in Criminology

In the early 20th century, Cesare Lombroso argued that physical anomalies such as a large forehead and chin were indicators of criminal behavior.

This theory was widely discredited as it did not provide sound evidence for his assessment. Therefore, this led to the modern biological theories that are more based on scientific research than superstition.

Biological theories have been used to explain the high rate of recidivism in violent crimes. This explanation is particularly true for serial killers. However, it is not unheard of in other types of crimes such as assault and rape.

This area continues to be a controversial issue as there have been no proven biological indicators that can determine whether or not a person will commit a crime in the future.

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Psychological Applications of the Biological Theory of Crime

The biological theory of crime has developed programs that help rehabilitate criminals by developing treatments for mental disorders.

For example, a person who has committed crimes due to psychological problems can be sentenced to attend anti-psychotic treatment sessions.

These programs aim to reduce their aggressive behavior, hoping that this will eventually lower the risk of them re-offending.

Behavioral Applications of the Biological Theory of Crime

The biological theory has been used to develop programs that aim to reduce criminal behavior through environmental factors.  For example, there have been attempts to rehabilitate people by using behavioral therapy in place of imprisonment. This treatment aims to change antisocial behavior by using psychological and environmental interventions.

However, there is no consistent evidence for the success of these programs, as many criminals continue to re-offend after treatment. This may be due to an individual’s refusal to participate in the program or failure of the treatment methods. For example, a man who had been convicted of rape refused to participate in a sex offender group treatment, and he went on to re-offend two years later.

The Biological Theory of Crime in Society

Since there is no conclusive evidence supporting the biological theory of crime, criminals who have committed violent crimes are often described as “evil” or “monsters”.  This causes society to develop stereotypical views on criminals based on their appearance rather than their crime.

The biological theory has been used to develop programs and treatments for violent criminals. Some people have suggested that this will only make them more prone to violence in the future. This is because they may believe that they are unable to change or control their behavior.

Another concern is that these programs may release criminals who are considered a “low risk” because they have been successfully treated for aggressive behavior. However, as there is no accurate assessment for this prediction, such concerns are not based on facts.

Aside from the lack of evidence, another criticism is that biological theories ignore social factors that play a role in criminal behavior. For example, a person from an impoverished neighborhood may have grown up in a community that lacks education and economic opportunities.

This situation will affect the individual’s exposure to violence at an early age and maybe influence their decisions when they grow up. However, since poverty is not always associated with violent behavior, it can be difficult to determine whether or not they have any influence on criminal behavior.

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In conclusion, crime may be caused by many factors including behaviorism, classical conditioning, and biological theories. However, crime is generally attributed to factors that are beyond the individual’s control. Therefore, we can say that crime is caused by those who do not have an adequate understanding of consequences and cannot make a positive contribution to society.

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