An Introduction to Biocriminology

Longer than our usual posts, this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education looks at the emerging field of Biocriminology. One of the leading scholars quoted in the article is Nicole Rafter, whose book The Criminal Brain: Understanding Biological Theories of Crime was published by NYU Press in 2009.

By Peter Monaghan

The idea that a person’s genes or hormones could lead to criminal behavior has long been out of favor and provokes hostility among most criminologists. Yet startling discoveries in genetics and neurology that have prompted a biological turn in other social sciences have also led to the emergence of a subfield in criminology.

The Background

Biocriminology, or biosocial criminology, emerges from the shadows of eugenics and social Darwinism, long condemned as pseudoscientific and vilified for stoking the German Nazi movement. In the late 19th century, the Italian “father of criminology,” Cesare Lombroso, claimed he could prove scientifically that criminality was inherited and criminals uncurable. For him, they were evolutionary throwbacks who could be identified by such “atavistic stigmata” as beaked noses, fleshy lips, and shifty eyes — features suspiciously suggestive of race. As recently as the 1960s, the criminal “feeble-minded” in American asylums were forcibly sterilized.

Such precursors do not benefit biocriminology, the study of how biological and social causes of crime intersect. While the biosocial approach is only nascent, it “promises to dominate criminology and other behavioral sciences for decades to come,” writes Nicole H. Rafter, a senior research fellow of criminal justice at Northeastern University in her recent The Criminal Brain: Understanding Biological Theories of Crime (New York University Press, 2008).

Her reasoning: The new biosciences are coming on so strong that criminology will be unable to ignore them. Rafter’s book attempts to describe the new field and separate the wheat from the chaff. While she finds that a good deal of the new research consists of naïve attempts to dip into large surveys of social and biological information and pull out statistically significant links, on balance, she says, the new approaches hold great promise. By taking into account that human beings are not just social and cultural creatures but biological ones, too — in fact, biologically inclined to be social and cultural — criminologists will learn more about the sources of crime, she says, and that should lead to better policy.

Read the rest of the article here.