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Sociobiological Approach to Understanding Criminal Behavior Term Paper

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The biological theory that crime was a direct product of heredity held that a criminal is born not made. Because behavior is fundamentally a biological phenomenon, it was only natural that it would be linked to a gene-based evolutionary theory (Hollin, 1989). Osborn and West (1979), for example, found that about 40 percent of the sons of criminal fathers were criminals themselves, compared with a figure of 13 percent for sons of non-criminal fathers.

However, according to Hollin, apart from family criminality and off-spring criminality, there are also environmental causes to criminal behavior. Thus it is not shared genes that cause high correlations in the criminality of family members, but the fact that all the family members had poor schooling, or inadequate diets, or were unemployed, or lived in the same city area, or were of the same social class, and so on. Alternatively, it may be that social and psychological factors within the family are involved in the transmission of criminal values, behavior, and so on. Cesare Lombroso, a nineteenth-century Italian physician, and ‘criminal anthropologist’, argued that criminals had a different kind of genetic constitution.

However, Lombroso also invoked the notion of ‘indirect heredity’, suggesting that criminality could be acquired through contact with other ‘degenerates’ such as insane people or alcoholics. Further, in addition to indirect heredity, Lombroso extended his views still wider with the suggestion that environmental conditions such as poor education could also be numbered among the causes of crime. This gave rise to the sociobiological model to explain criminal behavior.

The chief exponent of the sociobiological theory is Professor Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University. According to him, in the context of criminal behavior, there are genetically implanted tendencies of human conduct such as aggressivity towards strangers, defense of territory and warfare, desire to dominate, spiteful behavior and deceptive practices, and the incest taboo. Wilson suggests that according to the findings of sociobiological research ideals of justice may not, in fact, be justified. Wilson’s position is however reductionist in character as it discounts man’s spirit and reason through which he has endowed the ability to overcome his biological deficit (Bulygin et al, 1985).

Many different theories on crime have emerged in different historical contexts. In the 19th century, the rise of industrial production and the impoverishment of a large sector of the working class can be seen as the background to the sociobiological theory of criminal behavior. The poor laborers during this period were exposed to malnutrition, sanitary problems, poor housing, alcoholism, prostitution, and other forms of outlawed behavior, such as strikes and bread riots (Rothenberg and Heinz, 1998))

. According to the sociobiological model, the highest stage of human evolution is reached in Western European civilization, and social as well as individual problems are interpreted as a regression to a more primitive stage of human development (Heinz, 1997: 169). Mental diseases such as schizophrenia were seen as a remanifestation of a “primitive” mentality, while a crime was supposed to be the consequence of aggressive, apish traits in modern-day humans (Rothenberg, and Heinz, 1998).

This sociobiological account has two advantages: it does not address social conditions and thus does not clash with existing power structures; and it proclaims the primacy of biological factors, which reduces the demand for social interventions. Sociobiological theories on the origin of crime prevailed in American scientific theories until the confrontation with Nazi Germany discredited both biological reductionism and its proposed agenda, eugenicism (Blakey, 1987: 24-26).

Sociobiological Theory of Crime

Wilson and Herrnstein’s book (1986: 78), Crime and Human Nature supports Lombroso’s claim that biological factors play a role in the genesis of criminal behavior. Wilson and Herrnstein claim that the higher crime rates among the African American population are not sufficiently explained by social disadvantage and may be due to increased psychopathy in African Americans (468-472). Wilson and Herrnstein (1986: 173; 204-207) place impulsivity at the center of “psychopathic” behavior that is seen to be the root cause of criminal offenses. Furthermore, the authors implied that “low intelligence” might be a primary factor causing deviant and criminal behavior in both European and African Americans (148-172).

This argument has been reiterated much more bluntly in the Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994: 235-251), in spite of mostly weak or insignificant findings on the correlation between IQ and crime (Moffitt and DaSilva, 1988: 331-332). Murray and Herrnstein construct the “underclass” as a class of people defined by low IQ (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994: 520-522), and the majority of blacks are seen as one group of people that constitute this “underclass.”

Commentator Joe Klein (1996: 32, 35) argues that it was the behavior of the poor that caused work to disappear from inner cities and postulates that the “underclass” suffers from a “sickness”: “intemperance” and “antisocial behavior.” Klein (1996: 35) to validate his argument cites a ‘200-year-old’ quotation from Adam Smith: “the vices of levity” and not the devastating work and living conditions of early capitalism (Rothenberg and Heinz, 1998)) are “always ruinous to the common people” (Klein, 1996: 35).

Scientists who support a biosocial perspective agree that there are four categories of biological variables are involved in explaining variations in human behavior (Ellis and Hoffman, 1990):

  • At the most fundamental organic levels are variables that serve to make the transition from nonliving to living things. These include basic amino acids, nucleic acids, and proteins, DNA, or genes which constitute the basic building blocks of life.
  • The second category of biological phenomena occurs at the cellular level in the context of nerve cells, neurons, located in the brain and spinal cord.
  • The third category involves biochemicals such as hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes. Several studies have related circulating testosterone in the blood and free testosterone in saliva to antisocial and aggressive behavior (Rushton, 1990)
  • The final category of biological variables especially relevant to behavior involves the functioning of various specialized organs of the body. A fundamental tenet of the biosocial perspective is that the most immediate controller of all behavior is the brain.

Scientists hold that these four genetic variables interact with social-environmental variables to alter behavior. Social environmental variables include those resulting from reciprocal interpersonal interactions, and from the influence of mass communication and other social institutions (Ellis and Hoffman, 1990). For sociobiological theorists, both genetic factors and social environmental factors are assumed to determine criminal behavior.

In the 1980s, there have been two major research-based reviews regarding the contribution of genetic factors to variations in criminality. One was published in Criminology (Ellis, 1982b), and the other appeared in American Sociological Review (Rowe & Osgood, 1984). Both reviews concluded that the available evidence strongly indicated that individuals were genetically predisposed to criminal behavior. These reviews were supported by several other studies.

The strongest evidence came from adoption studies, which involve comparing persons who have been adopted at or near birth by persons unrelated to them genetically. These studies found that the probability of adopted children becoming criminals can be predicted with greater accuracy by knowing if one or both of the genetic parents had been similarly arrested and/or convicted than by knowing if one or both rearing parents have been so arrested or convicted (Ellis, 1982b).

Apart from genes sociobiological theorists, in the context of motivation often assume that unlearned neurological factors are important. It has been hypothesized that both aggressive and property crimes are motivated by a largely unlearned drive to possess and control and that this drive is directed not only toward inanimate objects but also toward sex partners (Ellis 1989a). Some of the evidence that sex partners can be the object of the drive to possess and control comes from studies of many nonhuman species, in which both sexes (especially males) behave very possessively toward members of the opposite sex (Tutin & McGinnis, 1981). This implies that many of the techniques involved in committing crimes are fundamentally motivated by unlearned brain-functioning patterns.

Impact of Sociobiological Theory on the Judicial System

The sociobiological perspective considers criminal behavior as one that people all over the world can recognize as socially unacceptable (Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985: 450), even in the absence of a formal political-legal system (Chagnon, 1983). The tendency for sociobiologists to study under the broader concept of antisocial behavior allows them to link the study of criminality with the study of other antisocial behavior, such as psychopathy, childhood conduct disorders, and even moral development.

Sociobiological criminologists are very receptive to the idea that there are universal standards of conduct and that laws pertaining to aggressive and property offenses, by and large, reflect those standards (Daly & Wilson 1988: 259). The sociobiological model is based specifically on child abuse and infanticide and views abuse as a result of decreasing the probability of transmitting “bad” genes to future generations. It hypothesizes that child abuse and infanticide are the results of individuals attempting to increase the probability that their genes will be transmitted to future generations (Daly & Wilson, 1981).

According to this theory and that of Darwin’s natural selection theory, children who have chronic illnesses, physical deformities, or handicaps of any kind are more likely to be the subjects of abuse and infanticide. In addition, when little or no attachment to the child exists, the risk of abuse increases especially when it’s a large family and there is not enough time and energy for all children. Sociobiology theory also holds that both males and females are more likely to invest in offspring when paternity is highly certain. Thus illegitimate children are at risk of abuse. Similarly, stepchildren adopted children, and foster children, being genetically unrelated, are also at an increased risk.

They have not been afforded the natural bonds between a parent and child. This situation particularly holds true for younger children who cannot defend themselves and female adolescents who are at greatest risk of sexual abuse (Reiss & Roth, 1993). Finally, sociobiologists have hypothesized that the circumstances of a child’s delivery, as well as age and gender, can increase the risk of abuse or infanticide (Justice & Justice, 1990). In terms of the former, a difficult birth may predispose a child to abuse. A 2-year-old having tantrums or a rebellious adolescent may also be at increased risk. Moreover, depending on the culture, either males or females may be at greater risk.

Malkin and Lamb (1994) have studied and established five specific hypotheses in the realm of child abuse, using the sociobiological theory research: nonbiological parents engage in more severe types of abuse than biological parents; in two-biological-parent households, biological fathers maltreat their children more than biological mothers do; biological parents are more likely to abuse their children when the children are young, whereas nonbiological parents do not show a predictive age-related pattern; biological parents from poorer families who abuse their children are more likely to be male, whereas biological parents from affluent families who abuse their children are more likely to be female; female relatives past their reproductive prime are less likely to abuse their children than females relatives in their reproductive prime.

In the light of the above knowledge, it is possible to take preventive measures to reduce child abuse and molestation. One can have a base to suspect some people who are more likely to be child abusers than others.

Sociobiology also provides a valid account of psychopathy. Powers of verbal persuasion, deception, parasitic lifestyle, and frequent sexual relationships, irresponsible behavior as a parent, and nomadic lifestyle are the key features of psychopathy (McCord and McCord, 1964). Sociobiological theory predicts that individuals assessed on these specific characteristics would show stronger evidence for the role of genetic and biological factors underlying their psychopathy than “psychopaths” defined by other criteria. Hence by changing behavior it might be possible to reduce the impact of genetic and biological factors. This implies that the inclusion of behavioral programs for psychopaths in prison can help them in the long run.

Smuts (1992) applied an evolutionary perspective to male aggression against females. Smuts (1992) argues that male aggression against females is often because of male reproductive striving. Both human and nonhuman male primates are postulated to use aggression against females to intimidate females so that they will not resist future male efforts to mate with them and to reduce the likelihood that females will mate with other males.

Thus males use aggression to control female sexuality to males’ reproductive advantage. The frequency of male aggression varies across societies and situations and depends on several factors such as the strength of female alliances, the support women can receive from their families, the strength of male alliances, the degree of equality in male-female relationships, and the degree to which males control the economic resources within a society. Male aggression toward females, both physical violence and rape, is high when female alliances are weak when females lack kin support when male alliances are strong when male-female relationships are unbalanced, and when males control societal resources.

Thus, the implications for the justice system, in this case, are: laws should be revamped to help form strong female alliances. Counseling and guidance can help to balance male-female relationships. Women should be encouraged to take up jobs and become economically independent. These social measures can help reduce violence towards females in society.

Criminal and aggressive behavior is also linked, however, to cortical processes, as is evidenced by the fact that criminal and aggressive individuals show a high incidence of unusual patterns of left-hemisphere functioning. These patterns are indicated by atypical lateral responses of certain body parts such as hands, eyes, and feet and abnormal response modes on laterality tasks. Studies show that (Nachshon, 1983) under threatening conditions a malfunctioning left hemisphere might cope with the impending stimuli in an inappropriate manner thereby causing violent responses. The violent behavior is generally linked to the amygdala though it is accepted that the cortex may exert some control in the process. Uncontrollable aggression associated with a malfunctioning amygdala can be cured by surgical excision of this area.

Genetic research on crime can help in identifying the biological mechanisms that shape antisocial and criminal behavior (Ferri, 1905). Many studies have clearly demonstrated that there is a biological basis for antisocial and violent behavior, including factors such as hormone levels and poor functioning of the prefrontal region of the brain. However, the two best replicated biological markers of antisocial, aggressive behavior are low resting heart rate and low levels of serotonin.

Environmental manipulations can be used to reduce the incidence of crime by preventing the full expression of genetic predisposition factors. For example, even very specific genetic disorders such as phenylketonuria (PKU), which results in mental impairment, can be prevented by environmental (dietary) interventions (Ishikawa, 2002).

Thus sociobiological explanations for criminal behavior can affect criminal justice policy, sentencing, and correctional treatment programs in the criminal justice system. When a criminal act is an outcome of genetic factors, nothing much can be done but imposing stringent punishments on the doer. But when it is the result of other biological factors such as hormones, neuro system, brain, etc, clinical intervention by a physician or surgeon may be necessitated.

For example, when a crime is committed under the influence of alcohol, the sentencing should also involve therapeutic measures such as counseling, group therapy, drug therapy, etc. When the criminal act is an outcome of social factors such as poverty, discrimination, and suppression, social measures alone can prevent such criminal acts. In this case, mere sentencing will not be enough to prevent further such acts. When, as sociobiological theory suggests, a criminal act is truly an outcome of a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors, the justice system should view the case in a holistic manner and deliver judgment accordingly.

The sociobiological theory holds that not all criminals can be treated alike. Lombroso has drawn a clear distinction between two varieties of occasional criminals: the “pseudo-criminals,” or normal human beings who commit involuntary offenses, or offenses which do not spring from perversity, and do not hurt society, though they are punishable by law, and “criminals,” who commit ordinary offenses, but differ from true criminals for the same reasons.

Though the act may be the same, the difference in the criminal nature requires they be perceived differently in a court of law. Garofalo has said that while the accepted criminal science recognizes only two terms, the offense and the punishment, criminal sociology on the other hand recognizes three: the crime, the criminal, and the means best calculated for social self-defense. And it may be concluded that general science, legislation, and, to a minor degree, but without any scientific method, the administration of justice, have judged and punished crime in the person of the criminal, but in the future, sociobiological theory suggests that it will be necessary to judge the criminal as well as the crime (Ferri, 1905). It is strange that these thoughts of Enrico Ferri published in 1905 are still relevant today.

Sociobiological Theory and Other Countries

For over 70 years, the psychological study of the race focused mainly on the differences between blacks and whites in the United States, especially in educational achievement and intelligence. J. Philippe Rushton has broadened the database on race by including Mongoloid samples, including other Negroid samples, and considering other life-history variables including speed of physical maturation, brain size, longevity, personality traits, rate of twinning, reproductive behavior, and social organization. He concluded that the average racial group differences are to be found worldwide, in Africa and Asia as well as in Europe and North America (Rushton, 1990).

Next, the relation between race and antisocial behavior has been found even for children in a uniquely Canadian setting in Montreal. Here, 825 4-to-6-year-olds from 66 different countries speaking 30 different languages were assessed by 50 teachers. Teachers reported better social adjustment and less hostility-aggression from Mongoloid children than from Caucasoid children than from Negroid children thereby proving that racial differences do exist and crime can be related to race, the world over (Rushton, 1990).


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