Are Criminals Born, or made?
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The statement ‘Are criminals born, or made?’ is wide reaching and still the subject of many debates. Beginning over a hundred years ago in the late 18th century social and criminal anthropologists began to wonder at the causes of criminality and delinquency and set about to investigate. Most theorists at the time believed that it had to be a deep-rooted trait, an innate tendency. Over the years that followed, many other sociologists and psychologists have tried to decipher this complicated question, some staying on the side of biological causes, and some looking further into environmental causes. There are many factors surrounding the arguments for both sides, a few of which will be addressed in this essay. This essay will attempt to conclude which of these theories holds the most weight, and why.
Called ‘The father of Modern Criminology’, Cesare Lombroso believed that particular physical characteristics or attributes could predict criminality, creating a ‘born’ criminal. This was, he theorised, a result of certain atavisms whereby the criminal would be both mentally and physically inferior to ‘normal’ human beings, and that they would resemble our predecessor, the ape. He used certain physical characteristics as indicators of criminality, and measured them. These included: Size or shape of the head; Enlarged cheekbones and jaw; Fleshy protruding lips; Abnormal teeth and dark skin to name but a few.
His first conception of the criminal, which was greatly modified later, was that the criminal is an atavistic phenomenon reproducing a type of the past. This of course was the theory or Charles Darwin in his book “The Descent of Man”, written in 1871. Lombrosso found that when a criminal displays a tendency towards crime, which results from pathological, physiological, and psychological characteristics it is necessary to search in the lower species for the characteristics that correspond to those of the criminal.
If a person were to portray five or more of these atavisms, then they were seen to be a born criminal. He also added other factors to this theory, including that of an excessive use of tattooing, excessive idleness and a tendency to express ideas pictorially! Sheldon had similar ideas, but these were mainly based around body types. He described three basic body types and different temperaments that corresponded with them. These were: Endomorphs, who would be soft and round with relaxed extrovert personalities; Mesomorphs, who were athletic and tended to be aggressive; and finally, Ectomorphs, who were thin frail and introverted.
The study of anatomical characteristics of the criminal enabled him to separate the born criminal from the criminal of habit, passion or of occasion who is born with very few or no abnormal characteristics. He found that one of the characteristics (as mentioned above), of the born criminal was tattooing;
” One of the most characteristic traits of primitive man or of the savage is the facility with which he submits himself to this operation, surgical rather than aesthetic, and of which the name even has been furnished to us by an Oceanic idiom. “
In the first volume Lombroso mentions the physical attributes of the born criminal, but in the second volume he wrote of certain analogies, which he believed existed between born criminals and other abnormal types of human:
” The characteristics of the born criminal that we have studied in the first volume are the same as those of the moral imbecile. “
Under the term moral imbecile psychiatrists classified these as the insane with almost or complete absence of moral feeling or ideals. Henry Maudsley went on to describe this moral imbecile:
” A person who has no moral sense is naturally well fitted to become a criminal, and if his intellect is not strong enough to convince him that crime will not in the end succeed, and that it is, therefore, on the lowest grounds a folly, he is very likely to become one.”
Lombroso contends therefore that this is some kind of identity between the moral imbecile and the born criminal, but he does not suggest that every moral imbecile is a born criminal. He states that external factors influence the development of the criminal. He then goes on to suggest that the analogy between the moral imbecile and the born criminal demonstrates many likenesses to the epileptic in height, weight and physiognomy. However whilst all born criminals are epileptics according to Lombroso, not all epileptics are born criminals.
William H. Sheldon rated these physical attributes in any given individual, and gave ratings of 1 – 7 to indicate the extent of each body type they possessed then the person would be given a three-figure rating showing his/her possession of characteristics. Sheldon compared these ratings on a group of 200 male delinquents, against 200 non-delinquent students. He found that the delinquents were significantly higher in mesomorphy and lower in ectomorphy (1949). He concluded that a Mesomorph was the most likely to be a criminal. Other studies, based around heredity, by Francis Galton and his students, were set up to measure degrees of resemblance or correlation.
Charles Goring used these new statistical techniques in the analysis of criminality. He concluded that crime was inherited much in the same way as ordinary physical traits and features. He also found that those with frequent and lengthy terms of imprisonment were physically smaller and less intelligent than other people and although there could be a distinct environmental explanation for this, Goring believed that these were primarily inherited characteristics.
However, there are many criticisms of these theories, mainly that a majority of Lombrosso’s atavisms could describe almost any ethnic minority, and any fit or sporty person in Sheldon’s books, would be delinquent. Lombrosso’s theory however, was very popular at the turn of the century and dispelled any theories that a person became criminal, simply because they fell victim to unfortunate social circumstances. However, the ‘International Congress of Criminal Anthropology’ was critical. They believed that the origins of crime lay in social conditions rather than with innate tendencies. This however was initially a dangerous tact as it bred a belief that the prevention of crime required the development of eugenics, whereby state agencies could implement programs of social and moral improvement through breeding.
This kind of genetic engineering was dependent on chromosomal studies. Patricia Jacobs et al held one of the first studies of this kind in a maximum-security prison in Scotland. They found that a statistically significant percentage of men had an extra Y chromosome. Normal patterns are XX for females and XY for males yet this study found that the subnormal wing of the hospital had patients with XYY patterns. Patricia Jacobs described these men as having ‘dangerous, violent or criminal predisposition’s’. This was seen as a breakthrough but since then the extra Y chromosome has been found in the general population also, in non-criminal members of society.
Nevertheless these three theories do not explain the reasons why poorer areas of society have more criminals, or the theories that chemical imbalances are to blame. This leads us to environmental theories of criminality, or that criminals are made. There have also been many studies into the effects of certain vitamins and minerals and their toxic effects in relation to criminality. For instance the toxic effects of lead and its adverse effects on learning are widely accepted, yet Bradley has only recently suggested the link between lead levels and criminality in 1988. Bryce-Smith (1983) also found that high levels of lead could be linked to impulsiveness, daydreaming and frustration.
Other minerals have also been linked with negative behaviour patterns, namely Cobalt (vitamin B12) and Vitamin B. Two recent studies on Cobalt found that there was a definite link between Cobalt and violent behaviour, the lower the mineral level, the more violent the behaviour pattern. With Vitamin B, it has been found that a deficiency is common amongst both criminals and hyperactive children. A shortage of B1 gives rise to aggression, hostility and irrational behaviour and B3, it is claimed by Lesser (1980), may cause people to become fearful and act immorally as they are unable to discern right from wrong. A concoction of any of these deficiencies could produce a violent, criminal personality.
Interactionism plays a significant part in deciding whether a criminal is born or made. Interactionism starts from a fundamentally different conception of the social world than that of which we have seen in certain strands of positivism, i.e. a social world held together with common values and specialized divisions. Interactionist theory was a crucial framework for a pluralist conception of crime and deviance. Positivism constructed crime as a pathological act that violated controlled norms. However, Interactionism provided writers with a framework in which they argued that crime and deviance was something created in the process of social interaction in which some people who commit deviant acts some to be known as deviants where as others do not. Tannebaum in 1938 wrote:
The process of making the criminal is a process of tagging, defining, identifying, Segregating, describing, emphasising, making conscious and self-conscious; it Becomes a way of stimulating, suggesting, and evoking, the very traits that are Complained of. The person becomes the thing he is described as being.
Poverty, unemployment and class are also social issues connected closely with crime and delinquent behaviour. Sainsbury (1955) found that crime was closely linked to poverty, but criticisms show many tribes, and peoples who are materially poor but have no crime, therefore poverty itself does not cause crime but is only a factor. Evidence now suggests that criminality is linked to economic and income inequalities.
Glaser & Rice found unemployment to be a significant factor when it came to property crime for example. They also found that delinquency is inversely related to unemployment; that is, delinquency is high when unemployment is low, and vice versa. They suggested that this might be due to the fact that in times of unemployment, parents are more available to their children. However, Block found in 1979 that it is young adults who are most likely to have criminal tendencies if they are also unemployed.
However Howard Nagel found a strong relation between crime rates and unemployment rates in his study of the fifty states of America. Brenner in 1973 found that from 1940 to 1973 where there was a sustained growth in unemployment of 1%, there was a sustained growth in murder of 5.7%. It seems from research, that the correlation between unemployment and crime depends on the type of crime committed and therefore researched. Theodore Chiricos concluded that the relationship between property crime such as burglary and car theft is positive and frequently significant. In his essay, Saleem Shah backs up the point of the environment influencing the mind of a criminal. He states:
” It is important to emphasise that what is inherited is not a particular trait or characteristic, but the way in which the development of the organism responds to its environment.”
It is therefore a very complex and ongoing argument about whether criminals are born, or made. Goring continued his studies into criminality and eventually postulated that it was caused neither by environment nor heredity, but as the result of an interaction between the two. A view held by many criminologists today. He did however still favour heredity.
Despite this, it can certainly be shown that modern studies and theories are much more in favour of environmental causes of criminality, causes that can be controlled and repressed. In addition to the theories we have discussed, there are many others on the side of environmental factors, such as labelling, and learning theories tested by psychologists like Bandura and Skinner showing how criminality can be conditioned. It is therefore much more likely, taking into account the evidence we have seen on behalf of both biological and environmental factors; that with today’s mass array of chemical substances, enhancers, and habit forming hobbies; conjoined with poor living conditions, conditioned morals and lifestyles; and lack of wealth and education, that criminality is certainly not an innate tendency, but a lifestyle imposed upon certain individuals by their environment. It could be an imbalance in their genetic make-up caused by a lack of vitamins or exposure to certain minerals. In retrospect, it is a definite fact shown through the evidence in this essay, that criminals are made and not born.