Discourse on the origins of criminal and antisocial behaviour has continued for many decades. Criminologists have developed many theories and concepts in their quest to understand and explain the genesis of the criminal. One of the most frequently discussed and controversial ideas is biological positivism. Adherents of this concept believe that it is genetic and biochemical factors that are the critical determinants of criminal behaviour (Newburnm, 2017). The objective of this essay is to discuss the evidence that criminals are physically different from non-criminals through the prism of biological positivism.
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It is essential to clarify what biological positivism is. Newburn (2017) notes that in biological positivism, the criminal and antisocial model of behaviour is determined by physical and physiological prerequisites and the outcomes of the interaction of biological and social factors. These influencing social factors could be, for example, law enforcement (Abbas, Tripathi, and Neha, 2017). Moreover, Biological positivism theorists believe that criminals and non-criminals are physically different. According to Newburn (2017), specialists distinguish between two groups of physical differences, namely genetic or biochemical. Biological positivism comes from works on criminology by Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri, and Raffaele Garofalo (Burke, 2017). According to Sian (2017, p. 2) “Lombroso is regarded as the founder of positivist criminology.” They initially considered only biological criminogenic aspects, but then they all concluded that the interaction of genes and the environment plays a key role.
The difference in Intellectual Abilities and IQ
One of the first attempts by theorists of biological positivism to explain why people become criminals was that they were innately feebleminded. However, as researchers continued to develop intelligence testing, the concept of feeble-mindedness was debunked (Newburn, 2017). Criminal and antisocial behavior is not associated with IQ and intellectual ability. People like Nathan Leopold, Ted Kaczynski, and Jeffrey Dahmer had high IQs and were criminals (Serial killers’ IQs ranked, n.d.). However, criminals do possess different innate characteristics.
Difference in Genetics
Another argument of biological positivists is that criminality is an inherited trait. According to Ling, Umbach, and Raine (2018, p. 6), “a variety of psychological and psychiatric constructs associated with antisociality/criminality, such as intelligence, personality, and mental health disorders, have been found to be heritable.” If criminogenic genes are inherited, it means that criminals and non-criminals have significant genetic differences. According to Ling, Umbach, and Raine (2019, p. 7), “there have been several candidate genes implicated in the serotonergic and catecholaminergic neurobiological systems that have been examined in relation to antisocial/criminal behaviour.” However, it should be noted that despite the presence of differences in genetics, these candidate genes have little influence on the emergence and development of criminal behaviour.
The difference in Chromosomal Structure
It has been found that chromosomal abnormalities are also possibly an influencing genetic factor. Biological positivists claim that biological men with Klinefelter’s syndrome have “an abnormally high incidence of criminal behaviour” and biological men with Super male syndrome are more aggressive (Burke, 2017, p. 72). It is worth noting that Klinefelter’s syndrome is when a male has an XXY chromosome structure, and Super male syndrome is when a male has an XYY chromosome (Newburn, 2017). However, criminological studies of people with these syndromes were carried out in inmates undergoing treatment in special psychiatric institutions. It makes it unclear whether these differences are biological or psychological.
The difference in Biochemical Brain Processes
According to the theorists of biological positivism, specific non-hereditary abnormalities in the brain and central nervous functioning are also contributing factors to criminal behaviour. Ling, Umbach, and Raine (2019) argue that offender’s exhibit reduced brain volumes in most prefrontal and subcortical regions of the brain while showing increased volumes in the reward area. It is worth mentioning that the reason why these particular regions of the brain were examined is that “conventional criminal behaviour has typically been associated with prefrontal cortex (PFC) structural aberrations and functional impairments” (Ling, Umbach, and Raine, 2019, p. 3). Therefore, criminals and non-criminals differ in brain biochemical processes.
Difference in Laterality
Laterality, as one of the predetermining factors of criminal and antisocial behaviour, is also the argument of biological positivism. Criminologists who study laterality state that people who display the left-sidedness of the brain functioning are more prone to antisocial and criminal behaviour. It can be said that this statement is partially true. A study by Savopoulos and Lindell (2017) showed that the brain of criminals has atypical structural asymmetries and abnormal interhemispheric connectivity. Moreover, it was found that the amount of left-handers among criminals is more than among non-criminals.
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Abbas, S., Tripathi, J. P., and Neha, A. A. (2017) ‘Dynamical analysis of a model of social behavior: Criminal vs non-criminal population’, Chaos, Solitons & Fractals, 98, pp. 121-129.
Burke, R. H. (2017) An introduction to criminological theory. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.
Ling, S., Umbach, R., and Raine, A. (2019) ‘Biological explanations of criminal behavior’, Psychology, Crime & Law, 25(6). pp. 626-640.
Newborn, T. (2017) Criminology. London: Routledge
Savopoulos, P., and Lindell, A. K. (2018) ‘Born criminal? Differences in structural, functional and behavioural lateralization between criminals and non-criminals’, Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition, 23(6). pp. 738-760.
Serial killers’ IQs ranked (2020) Web.
Sian, K. (2017) ‘Born radicals? Prevent, positivism, and ‘race-thinking’, Palgrave Communications, 3(1). pp. 1-8.