Biological Theories of Crime

The positivists (who used experimental or inductive method in making generalisations) rejected the concept of ‘free will’ advocated by the classicists and the neo-classicists and laid emphasis on the doctrine of ‘determinism’.

They paved the way for a philosophy of individualised scientific treatment of criminals, based upon the findings of the physical and social sciences. Lombroso, Ferri and Garofalo were three major positivists who laid stress on the physiological incapacity of an individual or the biogenic or hereditary aspects of criminal behaviour.

(Heredity is the parental contribution made through 46 chromosomes. Of these, two determine sex of the infant and 44 affect other qualities of the body. Combinations and permutations among genes determine an infant’s particular genotype, that is, genetic contribution of an organism).


Lombroso, an Italian physician and professor of clinical psychiatry and criminal anthropology, and described as the “father of criminology”, propounded the theory of evolutionary atavism (also called theory of physical criminal type, or theory of born criminals) in 1876. He claimed that:

(1) Criminals constitute a distinct ‘born’ type.

(2) This type of criminal can be identified by certain physical abnormalities or stigmata or anomalies such as asymmetrical face, large ears, excessively long arms, flattened nose, retreating forehead, tufted and crispy hair, and insensibility to pain, eye defects, and other physical peculiarities.

(3) The stigmata are not the causes of crime but rather the symptoms of atavism (reversion to a more primitive type) or degeneracy. Thus, according to Lombroso, atavism and degeneracy are the basic causes of crime.


(4) A person who is the criminal type cannot refrain from committing crime unless he lives under exceptionally favourite circumstances.

(5) Not only criminals differ from non-criminals in physical characteristics but they (criminals) can also be distinguished according to the type of crime they commit.

Initially, Lombroso came out with only one type of criminals the born criminals (a term which, in fact, was introduced by Ferri) but later on he identified two other types of criminals too: criminality or occasional criminals (who differed from born criminals only in degree, and who indulged in crime owing to precipitating factors in environment, i.e., when they got an opportunity to commit crime), and criminals by passion (who were in complete contrast with the born criminals in terms of nervous and emotional sensitiveness, and in motives of crimes such as love or politics).

Although Lombroso obviously emphasised the biological causes of crime, he did not entirely neglect, as erroneously claimed by many critics, the sociological causes. While going through his later works, one reaches this obvious conclusion.


Lombroso’s research had serious methodological problems. Of these, Reid (op. cit.: 117) has pointed out four: One, he depended on collection of facts which were limited to organic factors. Although, he realised the importance of psychic factors, yet he found them hard to measure.

Two, his method was mainly descriptive and not experimental. Three, his generalisations about atavism and degeneracy left a large gap between theory and fact. Four, his method was largely one of analogy and anecdote, from which he drew his conclusions. Such a method is unscientific for drawing generalisations.

As for the policy towards criminals, Lombroso was of the opinion that if the criminal was not responsible for his or her actions, it made no sense to punish him/her. Instead, we must replace punishment by treatment.

A panel of experts should diagnose the condition of the individual and prescribe appropriate treatment. He thus holds that punitive response, as advocated by classicist theorists, is applicable.


Charles Goring, an English psychiatrist and philosopher, criticised Lombroso’s theory on the basis of his own study in which he measured the characteristics of 3,000 English convicts and a large number of non-criminals in 1913.

He maintained that there was no such thing as a ‘physical criminal type’. However, he himself explained crime on the basis of hereditary factors (1919: 11), using statistical treatment of facts, or what is called statistic-mathematical method. Goring’s work was also criticised because (Reid, 1976: 120-21):

(1) He committed the same errors in statistical analysis for which he had criticised Lombroso. He measured intelligence not by the available Simon-Binet tests but by his own impression of the mental ability of criminals;

(2) He completely ignored the impact of environment on crime;


(3) The sample of non-criminals which included undergraduate university students, inmates of a hospital, mental patients and soldiers was defective; and

(4) He was violently prejudiced against Lombroso.

Garofalo and Ferri had supported Lombroso in his biological school. Garofalo in his book Criminology, published in 1885 (its English translation appeared in 1914), talked of physical differences between criminals and non-criminals, but he differed from Lombroso in the emphasis he (Lombroso) placed on the physical abnormality of the criminal.

Garofalo was not sure whether or not physical abnormality of the criminal was caused by physiological factors. Rejecting Lombroso’s ‘physical anomaly’, he focused on ‘psychic anomaly’ of the criminal and referred to ‘moral degeneracy’.


He admitted that environmental factors might play a role in individual’s criminality but there was one element (organic deficiency) in the criminal which was inherited or somehow acquired early in infancy. He did not believe in the ‘casual’ offender and disagreed with Lombroso (as well as Ferri) in the classification of offenders.

He himself (Criminology, 1914) classified them as typical criminals (murderers), violent criminals, criminals deficient in probity and lascivious criminals. Garofalo believed that since crime was basically the result of an inherited organic deficiency, the criminal could not be reformed. He also criticised the reform plans as suggested by Ferri.

Ferri was another Italian scholar who supported Lombroso’s biological school. He not only coined the term ‘born criminal’ for Lombroso’s ‘atavistic criminal’ but he also talked of three other types: the ‘insane’ (who suffers from some clinical form of mental alienation), the ‘habitual’ (who has acquired the habit of crime), the ‘occasional’ (who commits insignificant criminal acts), and the ‘passionate’. His classification, thus, closely parallels that of Lombroso.

Referring to causes of crime, Ferri (Criminal Sociology, 1917: 54) rejected the classicists’ doctrine of free will and talked of criminal behaviour as the result of interaction between the personality and the environment of a man. In order to be a criminal, it is necessary that the individual should face such personal, physical, and moral conditions and social environment which draw him towards crime.

Ferri believed that crime was primarily caused by society. It can be corrected by making economic, social and political changes in society, like freedom of emigration, changes in tax structure (lower tax on necessities and higher tax on luxuries), providing employment opportunities, cheap houses, electoral reforms, changes in marriage and divorce laws, and so forth. Ferri was also in favour of penal reforms.

Taking Lombroso’s, Garofalo’s, and Ferri’s views together, we may analyse contribution of the positive school of criminology. First, it placed emphasis on empirical research and use of scientific approach to the study of criminal behaviour and on reform of the criminal law.

Two, it drew attention to the principle of determinism in criminality. Three, it introduced the concept of environment in the study of crime. Four, it advocated substituting the indeterminate sentence for the definite sentence.

However, Lombroso’s theory in particular and positivist school in general have been criticised. The main criticisms against Lombroso’s and positivists’ theoretical explanation are:

(1) Lombroso’s collection of facts was confined to organic factors and he neglected psychic and social factors. Garofalo and Ferri, however, did place emphasis on these factors. Hans Eysenck (1977: 77-79) has said: “Criminality is a social concept, not a biological one. The very notion of crime would be meaningless without a context of learning or social experience and of human interaction.

What the studies on heredity have demonstrated is that it is a very strong predisposing factor as far as committing crimes is concerned. But whether the crime is actually committed by an individual or not and the way in which he carries it out is subject to the changing vicissitudes of his everyday life.”

(2) Positivists’ method was mainly descriptive.

(3) Their; research samples were often too small and not representative, being taken only from prison populations.

(4) They made no use of control groups or follow-up studies.

(5) Operational definitions of their terms were not ‘ always clear and concise.

(6) They did not use sophisticated statistical analysis.

(7) There were logic-of-science errors in their research as they assumed that institutionalised populations represented criminals.

(8) Their approach has no predictive value because many who have the characteristics they attribute to criminals do not become criminals and many who do not have these characteristics do become criminals.