The Root Causes of Crime – The Biological Approach

What are the Root Causes of Crime – the Biological Theory of Cesare Lombroso

In the beginning of the 19th century a whole body of theories regarding the root causes of crime emerged. These theories were based upon a belief that crime originated in defected biology.

One of the Italian leading criminologist who was at the front of this new thinking was Cesare Lombroso. Being a physician, Lombroso tried to look for bodily factors that stood behind unlawful conduct. He rejected the meta-physical axiom according to which the tendency to commit a crime was a part of human nature.

Instead, he resorted to physiognomic, eugenic, psychiatric and Darwinist explanations to crime. Basically, what he claim was that the tendency to criminal behavior is hereditary and criminals can be identified based on external characteristics.

This positivist approach was an attempt to find conceivable reasons for a social phenomenon and nothing can provide better positivist explanations than biology. Cesare Lombroso served as a military doctor in prison, and he exploited his position to conduct tests and experiments on deceased inmates.

In one of his most noticeable cases, he discovered abnormalities in the skull structure of one of his “patients” he was posthumously examining. An area in the brain, which is usually developed among mammals, was under-developed in that man. He concluded that the tendency to criminal behavior is atavistic.

Lombroso published his findings in a book calledL’uomo delinquent in 1876. This book created much sensation but Lombroso’s doctrine never really took roots for three main reasons:

  • His research was not broad enough. There was a need for much more studying and experimenting to establish the tip of an iceberg of what could be an established theory.
  • His methodology was flawed as it did not follow strict scientific standards.

His doctrine ignored social and environmental aspects which undoubtedly play a major role in criminal behavior. Biology can never be the sole cause of a social phenomenon.

Further Reading:

Criticism of Lombroso’s work, Washington and Lee University.

An academic article about the root causes of crime and the prospect of rehabilitation.