Theorist Web Page
Nov. 27, 2000
Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), the “father of modern criminology” (Mannheim, 1972: 232), gained much attention in the field of criminology during the end of the 19th Century. His ideas spread not only throughout Europe, but to the United States as well. His theory relied on the idea of atavism, the idea that criminals were a sort of evolutionary “throwback” to an earlier stage in human evolution (Schaefer, 1969: 126). This led to his classification of criminals to include categories such as born criminals, criminaloids, and insane criminals, as well as research on female offenders.
Cesare Lombroso and the pathological perspective can be traced back to the 19th Century following a history of demonic and classical perspectives. It is based on positivist philosophy (the idea that human life can be explained through science), which dates back to the 16th century. Positivism first became evident in the field of biology, with criminology soon following.
Many factors sparked this shift in philosophy from classical to positivist criminology. This period of time was defined by the emergence from an era of faith to one of science, which was strongly influenced by the development of the scientific method (Jones, 1986: 9). This in turn inspired the development of empirical research to predict whether or not an individual would engage in criminal behavior.
Lombroso’s ideas emerged at a time in which Italy was experiencing numerous social problems. These problems included police corruption, poverty, food prices and quality, emigration to the cities, immigration, and the “Southern Question”. The “southern question” was based on debates concerning the stagnant economics of southern Italy, which some believed can be attributed to the racist myths perpetuated by the bourgeois (Beirne, 1993: 148). These factors raised awareness in the area of crime and delinquency throughout the country.
Along with police corruption were concerns of recidivism and prisons. Rates of recidivism were increasing, spreading a belief that criminals were habitual beings. Also, the costs of policing the cities and maintaining prisons were catching up to the cities around the second half of the nineteenth century. There simply was not enough room to hold all violators, therefore an emphasis was placed on the prediction of who was predisposed to commit crime.
Lombroso and his idea of the atavist, the born criminal, became popular for questionable reasons. The ruling class thought his explanation a convenient one as it allowed them to ignore the current social problems. Lombroso’s ideas also rejected the idea that crime was part of society and therefore must be accepted as an inherent factor of social conditions.
Lombroso had many predecessors in the area of pathologically determined deviance. Some believe that the roots of pathological theorizing can be traced back to ancient Greece in which humoral theory was used to predict human behavior (Pfohl, 1994: 104). This theory suggested that an imbalance of human fluids lead to deviance in behavior. Jean Baptists della Porte and his book, The Human Physiognomy, contributes to the idea of physical characteristics determining delinquency (Jones, 1986: 82). Johann Casper Lavater also places emphasis on physical characteristics regarding parts of the face in his book, Physiognomical Fragments (Schaefer, 1969: 113). These ideas led to the study of phrenology, in which brain size and shape were used to determine criminality. Still others, including the physician Benjamin Rush were convinced that deviance and mental disorders were the cause of arterial diseases of the brain (Mannheim, 1972: 242-246).
Many were attributed to influencing Lombroso’s work on atavism. Darwin’s Origin of Species became significant in Lombroso’s later ideas. Later came Virchow, Haeckel and Broca. Virchow was a German pathologist who focused primarily on disease caused by cell structure and formation. Haeckel was responsible for the law of recapitulation and postulated that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The French neurologist and pathologist, Paul Broca developed methods for measuring the ratio of the skull to the brain (Mannheim, 1972: 243-244). The work of these previous scholars influenced Lombroso’s idea that criminality was a biological phenomenon.
Lombroso’s theory of atavism, the idea that criminals are born deviant, was strongly influenced by his medical background. It was at the University of Pavia in 1858 that Lombroso received his degree in medicine. One year later, he received his degree in surgery from the University of Genoa. During his time at the University of Vienna, he became interested in psychology, which evolved into an interest in psychiatry (Mannheim, 1972: 233-234).
Beginning in 1859, and continuing until 1863, Lombroso volunteered as an army physician and began his observation of soldiers in an attempt to measure their physical differences (234-235). After his experience in working with the military, Lombroso was appointed as director of numerous asylums. Soon after, he became a professor of psychiatry and criminal anthropology at the University of Turin, which initiated his interest in criminology (236).
Lombroso believed that some “criminals can be distinguished from noncriminals by their physical manifestation of atavistic or degenerative physical anomalies” (Schafer, 1969:126). In his view they were biologically inferior and were produced from an earlier stage of human evolution. According to Lombroso, “the degenerate was a product of diseased ancestral elements which ceased to evolve progressively and give evidence of the process of devolution, so that pathological individuals manifest rudimentary physical and mental attributes of primitive man” (Manheim, 1972:247). He came to believe that these criminals were not just a variation of man, but its own subspecies.
While conducting his research, Lombroso argued that there were many different types of criminals, each with their own distinct characteristics. His categories included the insane criminal, the criminaloid and the born criminal. Besides these were two other types, the habitual criminal and the political criminal.
In his book, Criminal Man, first published in 1911, Lombroso groups the epileptic and morally insane into a group of lunatics. Lombroso goes on to state that these offenders are not born criminals, “but become such at a given moment of their lives, in consequence of an alteration of the brain, which completely upsets heir moral nature and makes them unable to discriminate between right and wrong” (Lombroso-Ferrero, 1911:74). Those afflicted with general paralysis, melancholia, dementia, and pellagra, as well as idiots and imbeciles constitute the insane criminal. In addition to these, Lombroso makes exceptions for the special forms of criminal insanity to include those afflicted with alcoholism, epilepsy and hysteria.
The second category of criminals, the criminaloid, was responsible for nearly a third of all criminality (8). This category of criminal does not possess the same skeletal similarities as the born criminal; however they may show similarities in physical characteristics. The real difference between the born criminal and the criminaloid is the age at which the latter becomes involved in crime. Criminaloids were thought to commit their offenses later in life and had a tendency to commit criminal acts of lower intensity. They were also known to show reluctance in commission of crime as well as to confess. Over a period of time, this type of criminal is tempted toward crime and finally succumbs.
Lombroso-Ferrero (1972: 8) states that “Born criminals form about one third of the mass of offenders, but, though inferior in numbers, they constitute the most important part of the whole criminal army, partly because they are constantly appearing before the public and also because the crime committed by them are of a peculiarly monstrous character”. While conducting his research, Lombroso believed that the born criminal was related to the imbecile as well as the epileptic. Continued analysis led to the discovery of similarities in physical constitution and mental characteristics between the born criminal and imbeciles (251). Lombroso used epilepsy as a means of explaining the shared bond connecting the two.
The habitual criminal was best described as one who entered a lifestyle of crime by way of a number of circumstances. An example of a habitual criminal would be a member of organized crime. Political criminals were distinguished by their violent nature. Most of these violent acts were based on anger, love, or honor. Although these characters displayed great intellect, altruism, religious ideals, and patriotism, they were also thought to be pathological due to their high rates of suicide.
Lombroso generally used the same techniques to classify female offenders as he did males. Although the amount of crime committed by females was much lower than that of males, he believed that females were more ferocious in their acts. Most of his ideas concerning female criminality were based on the idea that they were more like children than males. He believed that they were vengeful, jealous, morally deficient, and predisposed to cruelty.
As well as physical characteristics, Lombroso proposed a number of other factors including differences in sensory functioning, lack of moral sense and other symptoms. A greater threshold for pain, keener sight, an excellent sense of sight and smell, as well as greater strength in the left side of the body separated born criminals from their counterparts. The lack of moral sense associated with born criminals is expanded to include “an absence of repentance and remorse…cynicism, treachery, vanity, impulsiveness, vindictiveness, cruelty, idleness…” (Manheim, 1972:251). Other characteristics contributing to crime include special criminal slang, a propensity to express themselves visually and tattooing.
One of Lombroso’s strongest critics has been Gabrielle Tarde. Tarde’s attack against the idea of the born criminal began when Lombroso published his 1884 edition of The Criminal Man. Not only was Tarde present at the same conferences as Lombroso when he spoke against him, but he also criticized Lombroso’s theory in a number of articles concerning Lombroso’s empirical flaws. More criticism followed in Tarde’s books, La criminalite comparee and Penal Philosophy (Beirne, 1993:152).
Tarde also cited contradictions in the use of physical characteristics. Lombroso based much of his research on the physical anomalies of humans as a predictor of criminal behavior, but did not use appropriate measurements. For example, when referring to cranial capacity as a measurement of criminal capacity, Lombroso often declined to compare his findings with such physical characteristics as height, weight, age, etc.
By leaving out many other factors aside from biology, Lombroso earns more criticism. Tarde rejected Lombroso’s findings due to the omitting of social problems. Among these, Lombroso declines to include such factors as poverty and alcoholism, as well as, the long-term affects of criminal involvement. The same is apparent concerning race, ethnicity, social class, economics, and intelligence (Manheim, 1972: 265). He also fails to explain how higher rates of illness and deformity correlated with lower rates of crime. Filippo Tarati goes further by disputing Lombroso’s claims based on the assumption that biological anomalies should affect populations equally (Schaefer, 1969:265). These criticisms only supported Tarde’s conclusion that criminal behavior could not be genetic, but a factor of social problems.
Tarde also noted another problem with Lombroso’s theory. Lombroso’s research concerning criminals placed heavy emphasis on the widespread prevalence of tattoos. Lombroso believed that tattoos indicated criminality, whereas Tarde argued that tattoos came after one was convicted. Tarde believed that this phenomenon was learned and practiced among prisoners while they were imprisoned.
The attacks continued throughout Lombroso’s career. These included areas such as methodology, sources, the individualistic fallacy, and his use of statistics. Attacks against Lombroso’s methodology focused on his laymen’s hypotheses as well as his failure to include adequate control groups. Another problem was Lombroso’s failure to research his sources of information for validity. By emphasizing single cases of physical anomalies related to criminal behavior, Lombroso commits the individualistic fallacy. Lombroso’s use of statistics is especially criticized in the field. Although his research was conducted during an earlier part of history, he fails to include certain statistical measures in his analysis of data.
Another major figure in the area of criminology at the time was Charles Goring. Goring produced many criticisms regarding Lombroso’s work. In his book, The English Convict, Goring states that Lombroso’s theory regarding criminal man was “an organized system of self-evident confusion whose parallel is only to be found in the astrology, alchemy, and other credulities of the Middle Ages” (Goring, 1913:16).
Although Goring’s intent was to discredit much of Lombroso’s work, it is emphasized that he is critical only of Lombroso’s methodology. Goring’s criticisms of Lombroso included three parts. These included disagreements based on measurement, statistics, and reliability. Concerning measurement, Goring points out inconsistencies between the physical traits of criminals in portraits compared to sketches. Regarding the statistics used to delineate differences, Lombroso referred to deviations from the norm as abnormal, rather than unusual. Reliability was challenged by Lombroso’s incapability of reproducing measurements, mainly due to inadequate measurement (Manheim, 1972:431).
“The theories of Cesare Lombroso changed drastically over his long professional career from initial publication of The Criminal Man in 1876 to his death in 1909” (Jones, 1986:92). Much of this was due to the criticism of other criminologists including Tarde and Goring. Tarde’s work also caused the majority of France to dispute Lombroso’s findings (Beirne, 1993:154).
Throughout his career, Lombroso revised his theory constantly. At first the theorist believed that criminals were atavistic, and then added factors such as arrested development and disease. When physical characteristics could not explain all criminality, Lombroso quickly turned to epilepsy as the source of criminal behavior. As his theory became less popular, Lombroso began to recognize other factors besides biology in determining criminality. These included such areas as climate, geography, race, population density, subsistence, alcoholism, education, economics, religion, and others mentioned in his last book, Crime: Its Causes and Remedies. His Criminal Man was revised numerous times to refine “his notion of the born criminal and added to it several other types: the insane, the passionate, the female, and the occasional criminal” (Beirne, 1993:149). Ironically, during his last revisions, “Lombroso reduces the proportion of the born criminal type to one-third” (Manheim, 1972:268).
Although Lombroso was strongly criticized for his theories regarding atavism and phrenology, many of his ideas may not have been so far-fetched. There are quite a few criminologists today who would argue that criminals are born deviant. There are also many that believe biology, specifically brain pathology, is a cause of violent crime.
Many theorists conclude that biology is the cause of criminal behavior. Throughout history, many criminologists have popularized this view. After Lombroso’s Criminal Man came many more theorists who related biology to crime. Dugdale, Ferri, Garafalo, Hooton, Glueck, Jeffery, and Ellis are just a few who have agreed with this idea.
Though Lombroso was strongly criticized for his practice of examining the bumps on a criminal’s skull, his ideas began a legacy of study relating to the brain. His methods may not have been technologically sound, but they did lead to a very important discovery. Today, it is widely known that the different regions of the human brain control various aspects of functioning. According to C. Ray Jeffery (1993: 7), “ the brain is divided into sensory, motor, and associational areas which allow sensory information to be taken into the body, organized and stored neurochemically, and then used to control the motor which in turn is connected with the muscles and glands. Jeffery also states that the brain controls certain aspects of behavior found in anger, violence, fear, etc. (Einstadter & Henry, 1995: 77).
Another contemporary view regarding the influence of brain function (including neurological disorders) and criminality is that of Tom Kelly (10/10/2000). Kelly is a proponent of the biological-medical model of crime. The medical model emphasizes disease as the sole cause of criminal delinquency. Disease is seen as the motivator for crime, not as a mitigator. Much of this argument rests on damage, caused by birth or accident, to the frontal lobe of the brain, precisely the left side of the frontal lobe. In the 19th Century, the case of Phineas Gage was cited as an example. Gage experienced damage to his left frontal lobe, became violent and exhibited many antisocial tendencies.
Another contemporary proponent to the biological perspective is Diana Fishbein (Fishbein, 1990). Fishbein stresses many different areas of the biological perspective, including genetics, seratonin levels, drug abuse, alcoholism, head trauma, nutrition, and prenatal drug exposure. The author believes that there is a developmental course model relating to criminal behavior. According to this model, Fishbein (1990: 33) states that “criminal behavior is virtually always secondary to an underlying problem…” This developmental course model illustrates the developmental stages of maladaptive behavior. The first stage includes an insult or trauma (toxins, physical abuse, etc.). Next come behavioral responses (such as schizophrenia, depression, impulsivity), which may lead to school problems. These school problems are capable of evolving into antisocial behavior later in life (35).
Another advancement in the field of criminology based on atavism is that of psychological pathology, which stresses the idea of a sick mind. Its beginnings can be traced to Lombroso and the Italian school of positivistic criminology (Pfohl, 1994: 117). The three major areas of psychological pathology include psychometric assessment, psychoanalysis, and psychopathy. Psychometric assessments are used primarily to measure the aspects of the human personality. Psychoanalysis is divided into two categories; the first emphasizes the imbalance of the id, ego, and superego, while the latter focuses on problems during personality development. Psychopathy, also known as antisocial personality disorder, is used to explain those who suffer from a lack of conscience.
Although most of the modern theories relating crime to biology focus on internal traits rather than external traits, one exception has been the research of Lee Ellis. After reviewing the results of approximately seven studies, Ellis (1990: 176-177) concluded that, “among males, those who are left-handed (and mixed-handed) are more prone to criminality than right-handers”. Although more research is needed, researchers believe this may be the outcome of hemispheric domination of the brain (171).
Although Cesare Lombroso is regarded as one of the pioneers of criminology, his work did not come without criticism. Many of his research methods as well as his theoretical perspectives came under heavy fire with later social scientists. Even so, his work has paved the way for others to look closely at the effects of biology relating to delinquency. This in turn has sparked the development of later biologically grounded theories.
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Einstadter W. & Henry, S. (1995). Criminological theory. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
Ellis L. & Hoffman, H. (1990). Crime in biological, social, and moral contexts. New York: Praeger Publishers.
Fishbein,D. (1990). Biological perspectives in criminology. Criminology, 28, 27-72.
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Kelly, Tom. (2000). Lecture on October 10. Tallahassee.
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