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Biological Theories of Crime. Main assumptions Lombroso Sheldon XYY Male. Biological Theories. Biological theories tended towards seeing crime as a form of illness, caused by pathological factors specific to certain classes of individuals “bad” behaviour vs “sick” behaviour

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Biological Theories of Crime

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Biological theories of crime

Biological Theories of Crime

Main assumptions



XYY Male

Biological theories

Biological Theories

  • Biological theories tended towards seeing crime as a form of illness, caused by pathological factors specific to certain classes of individuals

  • “bad” behaviour vs “sick” behaviour

  • How can we blame someone for being sick?

Biological theories1

Biological Theories

  • The criminal is radically different from the non-criminal

  • We can assume that some people are "born criminals“

  • Punishment is inapplicable

Character and physical appearance

Character and physical appearance

  • We frequently make inferences about another person’s character based on his/her appearance

  • Ancient Greeks and Romans believed in “physiognomy” (physical features can reveal a person’s natural disposition)

  • “Do not trust beardless men and bearded women”

Physiognomy as practiced in europe

Physiognomy as Practiced in Europe

A choleric person has a "hot" temperament, is irritable and easily roused to angerA melancolic person is sensive and tends to feel sadA phlegmatic person is not easily aroused to excitement and lacks emotion expression A sanguine person is confident and optimistic

Criminal type

Criminal “Type”

  • Most defense attorneys coach their clients on how they should dress and groom themselves for court so jurors will get the impression they are not the “type” of a person who would commit a crime

The underlying logic

The Underlying Logic


Inability to

Learn and

Follow legal


Mental and







Cesare lombroso 1835 1909

Cesare Lombroso (1835 –1909)

  • Italian Criminologist

  • Lombroso rejected the Classical School (or rational choice model)

  • Instead, he stated that criminality was inherited

Lombroso s theory

Lombroso’s Theory

  • Bodily constitution indicates whether a person is a “born criminal”

  • “Born criminal” violates the laws

  • “born criminal” is an “atavism” (throwback to an earlier stage of human evolution)

  • Physical makeup,

    mental capabilities,

    and instincts of primitive man

Lombroso s theory1

Lombroso’s Theory

  • Observed the physical characteristics of Italian prisoners and compared them to Italian soldiers

  • Concluded that criminals were physically different

  • Lombroso presented a long list of physical characteristics used to identify criminals

Cesare lombroso 1835 19091

Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909)

  • Asymmetry of the face or head, large monkey-like ears, large lips, twisted nose, excessive cheek bones, long arms, excessive skin wrinkles

  • The male with five or more of these physical anomalies is marked as a born criminal

  • Female criminals are also born criminals, but they may be identified with as few as three anomalies



  • Were significant to Lombroso

  • Most of the “born criminals”

    had them

  • Obscene nature of their depictions and messages

  • Tattoos stood as evidence of both insensitive to physical pain and immorality

Criminal women

Criminal Women

  • Official records, according to which women had a far lower crime rate than men, can be misleading

  • Women are less evolved: naturally vengeful and jealous, their moral sensibilities are deficient, less sensitive to pain than men

The female offender 1897

The Female Offender (1897)

  • Co-authored with William Ferrero

  • Natural selection is the reason for existence of a greater number of male than female born criminals

  • Men are less likely to breed with physically deformed women

The female offender 18971

The Female Offender (1897)

  • Women have less chances to transmit their genes

  • Degenerative traits in women would be less likely than such traits in men to survive over time



  • Born criminal is unsuited for society

  • Inevitably violate social and legal rules

  • Theories of genetic superiority call for policy in which whole peoples are to be eliminated from the genetic stock of the world in order to prevent crime

  • Theories of individual genetic inferiority call for castration of those said to be habitual criminals in order to prevent their producing more defective children who, presumably will be criminals

Frontispiece of criminal man

Lombroso claimed that to the trained eye, the eye of the detective, these people would clearly be organized into categories

Those in group "A" are all shoplifters, "B" are swindlers, "H" are purse snatchers, "E" are murderers, etc.

And supposedly you can see a man's real character at a glance.

Frontispiece of Criminal Man

The new sciences of detection

The New Sciences of Detection

  • By the 1880s, urban police forces began developing new techniques for keeping track of criminals, especially new techniques of record-keeping

  • Most of these techniques were heavily influenced by criminology

Mug shots

The mug shot originated in the 1880s, in studies designed to explore the relationship between appearance and criminal behavior

These men are all forgers. The New York Police Department compiled this record in part to see if all forgers looked alike, or all murderers looked alike, or if all burglars had the same facial features

Mug Shots

Critique of lombroso

Critique of Lombroso

  • Theory overlooks the bright and handsome criminals

  • Theory ignores those who are ugly and live lives of productive and cooperative labor

  • Theory does not look at the variations over time in crime rates. Since genes change very slowly, there should be a steady rate of crime over the centuries. That is not the case. Crime rates vary dramatically.

Critique of lombroso1

Critique of Lombroso

  • He was studying the very poor - people whose physical development had been affected by poverty, poor nutrition

  • Not everyone who breaks the law ends up in prison

  • This type of theorising neglects the idea that there is a "grey area" of criminality - people who commit crimes but who are not caught and therefore not imprisoned.

Charles goring 1913

Charles Goring (1913)

  • Junior medical officer in the English prison service

  • Tested the concept of “born criminal”

  • He used statistical analysis to determine the presence of 37 Lombrosian characteristics in the criminal population (2,348 convicts)

  • Compared criminals with “non-criminal public” (undergraduate students, soldiers, inmates of two separate hospitals)

  • Findings: no evidence of a physical type criminal

Body types

Body Types

  • Criminality is explained by reference to the offenders’ body types

  • Genetics, or external observable physical characteristics

W sheldon 1898 1977

W. Sheldon (1898-1977)

Sheldon was an American psychologist who spent his life observing all the variety of human bodies

As a child he was an avid observer of animals and birds, and as he grew up, this hobby turned into a strong ability to observe the human body.

Three types of human body:




Endomorph mesomorph ectomorph

Endomorph, Mesomorph, Ectomorph

The ectomorph


  • Definitive "Hard Gainer"

  • Delicate Built Body

  • Flat Chest

  • Fragile

  • Lean

  • Lightly Muscled

  • Small Shouldered

  • Takes Longer to Gain Muscle

  • Thin

Famous ectomorphs

Famous Ectomorphs

  • Lisa Kudrow, Kate Moss, Brad Pitt, Seth Green, Edward Norton

The mesomorph


  • Athletic

  • Hard Body

  • Hourglass Shaped (Female)

  • Rectangular Shaped (Male)

  • Mature Muscle Mass

  • Muscular Body

  • Excellent Posture

  • Gains Muscle Easily

  • Gains Fat More Easily Than Ectomorphs

  • Thick Skin

Famous mesomorphs

Famous Mesomorphs

  • Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone

The endomorph


  • The body is round and soft

  • The physique presents the illusion that much of the mass has been concentrated in the abdominal area.

  • The hands and feet of the endomorph are comparatively small, and the upper arms and thighs are often more developed than the lower parts of the arms or legs.

  • The body has a high waist

  • The skin is soft and smooth, and the hair is fine

  • The head is large and the face broad.

Famous endomorphs

Famous Endomorphs

  • John Goodman, Roseanne, Jack Black

Combinations of body types

Combinations of Body Types

  • Very frequently, people fall into mixed categories, where largely, they are like the mesomoph, but with traits of the ectomorph (such as small joints or a trim waist), or traits of the endomorph (such as a tendency to gain fat easily)

Research on body types

Research on body types

  • Study-200 boys, Hayden Goodwill Institute. 7 point somotyping scale, 650 psychological attributes. Disproportionately mesomorphic--more prone to delinquency.

  • Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck (1950's): 800 delinquents/matched sample of non-delinquents==> delinquents more likely to be mesomorphs.

Questions problems


  • Maybe need a tough body to gain acceptance/survive on the streets.

  • Body type and social meaning--the boys were already judged to be delinquent.

Xyy the super male

XYY: The super-male

  • The extra Y chromosome creates a strong compulsion that the XYY carrier is at extreme risk of committing violent crimes

  • The findings of some studies that the proportion of XYY males is prison population (from 1 to 3 %) is higher than in general male population (less than 1%) is accepted as evidence of the theory

The xyy super male

The XYY “Super-male”

  • Patricia Jacobs (1965) examined 198 Scottish prisoners for chromosomal abnormalities (blood test known “karyotyping”)

  • 12 members of the group displayed XYY (only 3.5% of prison population)

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