CRM 1301: Reading 03/06/2012
Biological Theories of Crime:
From the earliest points in life we are taught that we can control our activities, and that what happens in our
minds is what is most important for our behavior. Central to this idea is that people can control their
behavior and that everything we do is a result of choices and decisions that we make.
Biological theories of crime focus on identifying and understanding unique qualities or characteristics of
individuals and on showing how the presence (or absence) of some chemical, hormonal, or physical
structure in our bodies is related to participation in illegal activities.
When explaining crime with biological theories the obvious policy implication is that we need to identify
what exactly is wrong with her body or brain and then come up with a way to fix or cure that problem.
The medical model view of crime, based on biological theories for explaining why crime occurs, suggests
that society has the responsibility to try to help correct the biological/physical problems that cause the
Think about how crime and criminals are often presented on television or in the movies. Frequently the “bad
guy” looks different from the “good guys” and has something distinct about him.
In their earliest forms of biological theories emphasized the idea that some people had visible biological or
physical trait or condition that lead them into crime, regardless of their social environment or other factors.
More recent biological theories have expanded to recognize he importance of social environment or other
factors and today these types of theories suggest that criminal’s (all, or maybe just some) have some
variety of biological or physical characteristic that can be “turned on” or that makes the individual more likely
to commit a crime.
The Positivist School of Thought:
The foundation for biological theories of a crime is a positivistic way of thinking.
Positivism is the idea that it is possible to identify specific causes of behavior using scientific approaches.
The positivist school of thought has its roots in the scientific revolution of the 16 century.
Science in these early theories was based on observation and simple comparison; sophisticated tools,
analytic methods and advanced statistics are all modern developments.
Positivists thinking in criminology is based on three core assumptions about individuals and how their
bodies relate to behavior.
1. it is assumed that all individuals are biologically unique from all other people.
2. these differences in our individual makeup are believed to account for our differences in behavior.
3. criminal behavior is assumed to be a result of specific differences in physical constructions and
characteristics of individuals that can be identified through observation or other scientific means. No longer was it assumed that people chose their behavior. Rather behavior was a part of the individual
over which he or she had little (if any) control.
Just like our physical traits, early positivist thinkers believed our behavior was determined for us.
Physiognomy and Phrenology:
The earliest biological theories of crime focused on the study of facial features and the size, shape, and
contours of peoples heads.
The focus of these scientific investigations was to locate features that could be found among criminals but
not among noncriminal and then use these features to identify who are (or who would be) criminals.
Physiognomy made popular by Johan Casper Lavater during the 1770s was a n early form of science that
sought to identify distinct facial features of people who committed crimes.
The idea that physiognomy was well received by society and caused people to watch out for people with a
wide range of facial features believed to be associated with criminal behavior.
Phrenology, was popular in the 1790s and early 1800s. The basic idea of phrenology was that different
parts of the brain controlled different types of social activities and thinking, and when particular areas of the
brain were more developed, they would be larger and