Essay on Physiological Theories of Crime

Interest in biogenic variables got revived when emphasis on physiological characteristics came to be placed. The science of endocrinology (glands) devoted itself to the study of the glands of internal secretion. Schlep and Smith (The New Criminology, 1928) explained crime as the product of endocrine deficiencies, excesses and disturbances.

Barnes and Shalloo (Contemporary Social Theory, 1940: 688-89) are of the opinion that though this theory contributes something or a good deal to our understanding of crime, yet it does not completely explain it. Glands do affect personality but personality is something more than glands. Crime cannot thus be related to the functioning of glands alone.

Hooton, a Harvard physical anthropologist, was another scholar who tried to determine whether there was any relation between anti-social conduct and physiological characteristics.


On the basis of his 12-year study of 13,873 male prisoners compared to a small number of 3,203 male non-criminals, he concluded (Crime and the Man, 1939) that the primary cause of crime is ‘biological inferiority’.

He did not claim 1 that inferiority directly causes crime but he asserted that crime was the result of biological and social forces because of which mentally and physically inferior individuals were selected for criminality. The four conclusions he drew from his study were:

(1) Criminal behaviour is the direct result of inherited biological inferiority as shown by characteristics like sloping forehead, thin lips, straight (and not curved) hair, body hair, small ears, long thin neck and sloping shoulders.

(2) Particular types of crime are caused by particular types of biological inferiority. Tall and thin men tend to be murderers and robbers, tall and heavy men tend to be cheats, short-statured and thin men tend to be thieves and burglars, and short heavy men are prone to commit sexual crimes.


(3) Criminals are organically inferior.

(4) Increase in criminality can be checked only by the sterilisation of the physically and mentally defective persons.

Hooton further held that in every society, there were a few geniuses, hordes of mediocre, masses of morons, and regiments of criminals. He named three types of biologically inferior people: organically unadoptable, mentally stunted, and sociologically warped.

His theory was, however, criticised by Albert Cohen, Alfred Lindersmith, Karl Schuessler, and others (see, Sutherland, 1955: 118-19; Void, 1958: 59-64; Gibbons, 1977:139-40) on the following counts:


(1) His studies were based on biased samples. The non-criminals represented types that could be expected to be superior intellectually (university students) and physically stronger (firemen), military men, members of a bathing house, and outpatients of a hospital.

The sample of criminals was unrepresentative as criminals were drawn only from an imprisoned population;

(2) His research methodology was defective;

(3) He had no explicit criteria of ‘biological inferiority’ as he did not operationally define it; and


(4) He offered no evidence that physical inferiority is hereditary.

Sheldon related crime to physiological make-up or body constitution in 1940. He classified individuals on the basis of their physique (or body types) into three groups: endomorphic, ectomorphic, and geomorphic.

Individuals with the first type of physique (with small bones, short limbs, and soft, smooth and velvety skin) love comforts and luxury and are essentially extroverts; those with the second type of physique (with lean, fragile, delicate body, small delicate bones) are introverts, full of functional complaints, sensitive to noise, complain of chronic fatigue, and shrink from crowds and individuals; and those with the third type of physique (with strong muscles and bones, heavy chest and large wrists and hands) are active, dynamic, assertive and aggressive.

Sheldon developed scales for measuring the body-type dimensions in which individuals were scored on each component between 1 and 7 scores. However, Sheldon’s hypothesis that there is a relationship between delinquent behaviour and body-types and those delinquents are somewhat more geomorphic in body structure than are the non-delinquents has not been convincingly proved. Crime is a social process and not a biologically determined pattern of behaviour.


Besides the above theories, some studies on identical twins have also laid emphasis on heredity as an important factor in crime. For example, the German psychiatrist Johannes Lange (Crime as Destiny, 1931) compared the behaviour of male twins in several prisons with those of non-institutionalised twins.

He found that in the case of identical twins (bom of a single fertilised ovum), 10 of the 15 pairs were ‘concordant’ (both members of a twin pair having the same characteristics) while in the case of fraternal twins (born of separate ova), 15 of the 17 pairs were ‘discordant’ (both twin members having different characteristics).

Kranz (Cf. Rosenthal, Genetic Theory and Abnormal Behaviour, 1970), in his study of twins and criminality in 1936, found 66 per cent twins concordant among identical twins and 54 per cent among fraternal twins.

Christiansen (Cf. Reuck and Porter, The Mentally Abnormal, 1968) in his study of 6,000 pairs of twin’s bom between 1880 and 1890 in Denmark found that with respect to criminal behaviour, male identical twins were concordant in 35.8 per cent cases as compared to 21.3 per cent in the case of male fraternal twins.


The criticism against explaining criminal behaviour in terms of inherited factors is that similarities in the behaviour of identical twins could be the result of living in the same environment and be totally unrelated to heredity.

Secondly, if heredity is the cause of crime, there should be no cases of identical twins where one is a criminal and the other is not. On similar lines, the studies of family lines 0ukes by Dugdale in 1877; Kallikaks by Goddard in 1911, etc.) As evidence of inherited criminality have also been rejected.