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Role of Human Biology in Contemporary Criminal Justice


Crime refers to the involvement of an act or behavior that is contrary to the set laws and regulations of a society and, hence, punishable by set criteria of verdicts. Crimes vary in nature, intensity, and form, country to country. Some common forms of crime may include sexual abuse, engagement in international terrorism, hate speech, kidnapping, and war crimes (McLaughlin and Muncie, 2001).

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Criminology, on the other hand, refers to the scientific study that seeks to determine the causes and intervention as well as prevention measures of crime in society. Criminology appears to crop from the broader discipline of sociology and it draws from smaller sub-divisions of psychology, anthropology, biology statistics, and psychiatry among others. Over the years, criminology has played a significant role in the development of the criminal justice system and criminal law. In a bid to regulate the administration of criminal justice, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, investigators, and prison, administrators have borrowed greatly from the developments and new scientific findings in criminology (Legal-dictionary 2012, p.1).

This paper focuses on biological positivism theory and its effect on the contemporary criminal justice system. It will attempt to introduce the sister theory of criminal justice, the Classical theory. The study of criminology relates to two main theories, namely Classical theory, and Biological theory, presenting a hotly contested front between their proponents. Classicism and Biological positivism came into force in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


In biological positivism theory, scientific methods are applied to seek to determine identifiable causes of human behavior. Theorists in this biological inclination tend to relate criminal behavior to the doer’s characteristics placing blame on probable defects in his brain, sickness, or other biological disorders that cause him to commit the crime. On the other hand, classical theory seeks to challenge the modern ways of understanding and conceptualizing human behavior. Such ways are the spiritual-based considerations of crime and defiant behavior (Lombroso, 1876).

The classical theorists tended to compare crime to natural laws of God and equate crime to sin. Response to crime often looked at the moral front, frequently met with intense brutality thus prompting classical reformists to seek ways of amending powers of the state to more humane ways of dealing with crime. Biological positivists were not satisfied with this and reacted by claims that ‘criminals were born’, did not deserve sympathy or any fair treatment, and should receive equal treatment in the same way they committed the crime (Palmer and Spivakovsky, 1997).

Biological positivism theory, through Lombroso, used science to cement this thinking that a criminal is born’ (1876). He used physical features of inmates where he associated criminal behavior with certain elements in an individual such as neurological, cranial, and skeletal abnormalities.

He went ahead and asserted that physical traits could be used to identify criminals in society. Although traits do not cause criminal behavior, he was keen to associate elements like a long lower jaw, not-proportionate cranium with true criminal elements in them. Lombroso further accuses biology of creating a class of criminals amongst the human population. Where Lombroso’s findings received lots of criticism from fellow and subsequent criminologists, they remain significant in modern crime detection and prevention. An example is the use of DNA features in forensic crime investigations. The use of DNA is one of the most efficient ways of identifying and detecting crime in modern-day society (ProCon, 2008).

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On the question of what causes crime in society, their study fails to point out the specific causes or drivers of crime. They allude that it remains an enigma to understand what motivates an individual to act beyond the norm in breaking set taboos, set laws, or socially set sanctions. In their study, they compare the presence of a crime to the presence of disease or death in any contemporary society.

This would only go with Lombroso’s assertions that such individuals possess biological traits inclining them towards committing the crime. In their findings, they hold to the idea that crime is recurrent as seasons and even with more laws and sanctions, crime will continue to multiply increasing evil in the society. The more the suppression to the crime, the individual criminals develop new strains and tricks towards the deterrence methods set for the crime (Taft and Ralph, 1964).

The biological theory postulates that some men possess an extra male chromosome, XYY, in the genotypic makeup, hence, often referred to as the super male criminal. The theory claims that such men commit more acts of crime owing to the presence of this extra male chromosome that provides extra testosterone making such men act more violently and aggressively. Critics of this theory, however, say there is little or no experimental support for this theory (Akers and Sellers 2004, p. 114).

Other scientists argue that while biological aspects may cause crime, the group causes surrounding the personalities may have a direct influence on the lives of individuals such as the family, work, peers, and school. Each of these aspects contains variables that portray either positive or negative motivations for crime (Agnew, 2005). While theories of crime suggest an endless list of the causes of crime, Lombroso’s assertions continue to receive scientific backing from other like-minded scientists who borrow from the works of Charles Darwin. While these contemporary scientists believe that a maladaptive process in the environment causes crime, mainstream biological positivists continue to resist the possibility of a failed adaptive process.

Contemporary scientists continue to pursue the possibility with support from scientific developments in psychology and anthropology. Neuroscientists associate crime with psychological and psychopathological defects. As a fact, according to studies by Sheldon (1949), he categorized body types into somatotypes such as the mesomorphs, endomorphs, and ectomorphs. He concluded that ectomorphs stood a high chance of committing a crime as opposed to the others. His study received a boost from Kretschmer’s (1921) study, a fellow German psychiatrist who came up with other somatotypes such as pyknic, athletic and leptosomic.

The biological theory claims that certain features within individuals cause them to commit criminal acts. Scientific research, medical and statistical reports support the claim that features among the individuals determine personalities thereby predisposing them to commit criminal acts. According to Williams (2008), biological theorists also recognize the impact of environmental and social factors in a multi-disciplinary set in determining the nature of offenders.

Scientific revelations and findings by Lombroso and subsequent researchers strikingly showed the reluctance of states in reviewing their ways of dealing with crime. For instance, a Belgium Statistician and Mathematician, Adolphe Quetelet (1984, p.231), looked at official data for crimes committed in France between 1826- 1829 where they found remarkable regularities in the French justice system. Their findings indicated thousands of similar crimes were committed in the same manner and reproduced in the same way over the same period. In addition, he noted that such crimes attracted the same penalties and in similar proportions within the French criminal justice system. The same study also argued that with an increased level of academic knowledge, crime rates drastically go down as opposed to the less educated who seemingly carry out most of the crimes.

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McLaughlin and Muncie (2001), after their empirical study on how states have responded to crime in the past, express discontent in the way police currently handle criminal matters. They attribute causes of crime to factors such as unemployment, unequal distribution of socio-economic opportunities, civil freedoms, and varied age distribution with high numbers being in the youthful population who have time to plan and execute acts of crime.

Everyone agrees that police cannot solve such irregularities, the same way they cannot handle crime emanating from such sources. However, if their recommendations are anything to go by, then the police can effectively eliminate crime by changing their current mode of dealing with criminal behavior. They suggested the following measures police set priorities, target serious offenders, catch them, and give treatments that deter crime. In this way, they will raise public confidence that will then cooperate and help clear up existing prolific criminals. This will create more time for the police to prevent potential offenders and only deal with current and unavoidable incidents of crime.

Attempts to deter crime have been fruitful in one way and futile in another hence hampering the achievement of justice within the criminal justice corridors. As William (2004) argues, the criminal justice system has attempted ways of reducing crime in a number of ways including rehabilitating the offender, instead of punishing him. This method tries to negate from the Classical determinants of crime prevention measures that center on the offender rather than on the crime itself, a means that will not end crime any time soon. The biological positivism theory argues that by eliminating biological factors that motivate crime leads to the needed solutions for crime problems.

Some of the proposed methods to counteract biologically motivated factors of crime performance include provision of psychological and psychiatric solutions, dietary and diet supplementation controls, education and poverty reduction. This list of suggestions is not exhaustive and all methods attempting to alter biological determinants of crime could contribute greatly to the achievement biological positivism goals.

According to other scientists who doubt the correctness of the biological positivism theory, there are five distinct solutions to crime to solidify that biological positivism is a true reflection of crime. Such suggestions sound controversial and include subjecting the offender to medical treatment, physically isolating the suspect from the society by locking him up, sterilising the offender to ensure defective genes do not pass on to future generations, deporting the offender away from the main society and finally eliminating the offender’s life. These measures appear effective but rather barbaric, atrocious and brutal in nature focusing on the offender rather than what caused the crime (Akers and Sellers, 2004).

Administration of the criminal justice in our societies have been largely criticised in the manner justice is twisted to fit certain facets of the system. Where the biological theory of criminal justice attempts to provide suggestions of solutions aiming at altering biological determinants of crime, it focuses on individual crime doers and their biological and genetic defects in them and leading to crime acts. This operation of justice seems to ignore certain aspects of society that may lead to crime like the rotten nature of many institutions that seems to favor affluent offenders, while acting harshly on poor and racial minority crime doers.

There is need, therefore, to adjust systems of administration of justice to focus on methods that deter crime not from the individual level but from the societal level. Such means may include attempts to reform institutions and existing laws to provide long-term solutions in diminishing acts of crime. This, however, will always be met with utmost resistance from those whose livelihoods and affluent nature have been earned by bending the laws and thriving on the ignorance of the poor majority. Lombroso’s biological influence on the institutional administration of the justice system, despite criticisms from antagonists of his theory, continues to play a major role in the justice system.

Fishbein (2006) found out that biological factors continue to play a major role in development of antisocial behavior, the same way biological methods should be used to curb criminal behavior. She suggested a multi disciplinary approach where methodological parameters, biological research findings in criminal behavior and implementation of relevant recommendations in predicting, averting and handling criminal behavior in the contemporary society. She felt that incorporating data from across the disciplines such as those of behavioral sciences into the framework of criminology would help form an evidence base for developing and improving current methods of crime management.

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Going by the scientific developments in biological research, Lombroso’s theory can help advance improvements in the criminal justice system. Where the DNA technologies lead to a breakthrough in conclusion of convict identification, it has met protagonists and antagonists with ready answers to accept or refute its reliability. In the ProCon Journal (2008) on Death Penalty, protagonists argue in favor of DNA technology that it has provided indisputable evidence to convict 15 death row prisoners and 200 others for murder or rape charges in the US.

The biological technology received credit for its accuracy in identifying perpetrators of justice. However, antagonists claim that DNA results are inconclusive, time consuming, costly and only twelve percent of one hundred and sixteen cases were accurate. In eighty eight percent of cases, judges had to rely on other sources of evidence. The police, courts and pursuant of justice greatly acknowledge the DNA profiling which is viewed as the improved version of the former fingerprint technology. Antagonists of this scientific breakthrough however, maintain that justice through DNA can achieve results where cases leave evidence behind such as in rape cases where semen is left or pieces of the body like hair, saliva or fingernail fragments.


In conclusion, if states have to reduce crime, then there must be concerted efforts aimed at alleviating crime as a whole and shifting attention from the person committing the crime. While many nations seem to pay respect and apply attributes of the biological criminal theory, they should consider an integrated approach such as the attributes of the neo-classism theory.

Reference List

Agnew, R 2005, Why Do Criminals Offend? A General Theory of Crime and Delinquency. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Co.

Akers, R & Sellersâ, C 2004, Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Applications. Youngstown State University, Roxbury Publishing Company, Los Angeles.

Anthony, T & Cunneen, C 2008, The Critical Criminology Companion, Hawkins Press, New York.

Braithwaite, J 1989, Crime, Shame & Reintegration, Cambridge University Press, London.

Braithwaite, J & Pettit, P 1990 Not Just Deserts: A Republican Theory of Criminal Justice, Cambridge Press, London.

Brown, W 2004, Criminal Justice in America: A Critical View, Allyn and Bacon, Boston.

Downes, D & Rock, P 1998, Understanding Deviance: A Guide to the Sociology of Crime & Rule Breaking. New York: Hawkins Press.

Ferrell, J & Sanders, C 1995, Cultural Criminology, Northeastern University Press, Boston.

Fishbein, D 2006, Biological Perspectives in Criminology, Sociology Journal, vol. 28 no. 1.

Gabor, T 1994, ‘Everybody Does It!’ Crime by the Public, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Cullen, F. T & Ball, R. A 2002, Criminological Theory: Context & Consequences, Sage Publishers, California.

Legal Dictionary 2012, Criminology. Web.

McLaughlin, B & Muncie, N 2001, Controlling crime, Sage Publications, Boston.

Muncie, J. M & Langan, M 1996, Criminological Perspectives: A Reader, Sage Publishers, London.

Palmer, D. & Spivakovsky, C 1997, Criminology, Deakin University Press, Geelong.

ProCon. 2008, Has DNA Testing led to Significant Improvements in the Criminal Justice System? Web.

Quetelet, A & Anderson, P 1984, Research on the Propensity for Crime at Different Ages, Northeastern University Press, Boston.

Taft, D & Ralph, W 1964, Criminology. England 3-17. Web.

Williams, K 2008, Textbook on Criminology, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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