The nature versus nurture discussion – that is, whether criminals are born or made – is arguably one of the most heated debates in contemporary criminological thought. While there is a growing body of evidence in the field of genetics and neuroscience suggesting that criminals have distinct biological features, these findings should be treated with caution as this research has several important drawbacks.
The claim that criminal behavior is something that people have since their conception because of certain intrinsic characteristics has gained much support in recent years. In fact, now that researchers try to control for genetic and other biological factors, sociological variables do not always explain deviant behavior. According to neuroscientists, certain parts of the brain, such as those responsible for rational control, emotions, communication, and concentration, are structured differently in criminals (Canavero, 2014). Self-control, in particular, is being extensively researched: for instance, Mehta and Beer (2009) found that higher testosterone levels, affecting the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, increase an individual’s propensity toward aggression. Similarly, a longitudinal twin study conducted by Beaver et al. (2009) found that self-control does not seem to be linked to one’s environment or parental treatment; rather, it appears to be an inherited quality. These biological characteristics are thus something that gets passed from generation to generation, as violent behavior is frequently exhibited by relatives, even if they were separated as a result of adoption (Frisell, Lichtenstein & Långström, 2010).
Nevertheless, such findings should not be taken as a definitive answer to all of the criminology’s questions, as these studies have several limitations and drawbacks. History knows some examples when criminology was led by uninformed claims regarding human biology – namely, the pseudoscience of phrenology and the studies made by an Italian researcher Cesare Lombroso, both claiming that outward physical appearance can predict whether an individual engages in criminal behavior. Surely, contemporary studies are based on more solid statistical evidence and research. Nevertheless, brain, in general, is an area not yet well-understood, and localizing complex human behavior to particular brain areas may not be quite appropriate (Pustilnik, 2008). Pustilnik (2008) also warns about the social implications of linking neuroscience and criminology, particularly, about the danger of “alterity” – in other words, construction of a criminal’s image as that of a biological “Other” and consequent dehumanization (p. 232). At the same time, alternative “nurture” theories also offer compelling evidence to explain delinquent behavior (Williams & McShane, 2013).
My approach to this problem would be to combine the two theories to get a comprehensive picture instead of perceiving them as competing and potentially mutually exclusive explanations. Simple observation suggests that people are inherently different, but it does not mean that they or those around them cannot have some influence on their behavior. This is consistent with the anomie theory positing that removal of certain external forces may result in more crimes being committed (Williams & McShane, 2013). Thus, individuals possessing particular biological traits can be identified early on and offered help and guidance, in a similar manner to patients receiving treatment. In other words, social learning theories should be used to mitigate the potential dangers of one’s genetic or neurological characteristics.
To sum up, while the proponents of the “nature” argument have significant findings to offer, these studies should be treated with caution. As historical examples illustrate, police departments, acting as agents of law enforcement, should be particularly careful in considering such findings so as not to revert to racial profiling or other unjust practices.
Beaver, K.M., Shutt, J.E., Boutwell, B.B., Ratchford, M., Roberts, K., & Barnes, J. C. (2009). Genetic and environmental influences on levels of self-control and delinquent peer affiliation: Results from a longitudinal sample of adolescent twins. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36(1), 41-60.
Canavero, S. (2014). Criminal minds: Neuromodulation of the psychopathic brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 1-3.
Frisell, T., Lichtenstein, P., & Långström, N. (2010). Violent crime runs in families: A total population study of 12.5 million individuals. Psychological Medicine, 41(1), 97-105.
Mehta, P.H., & Beer, J. (2009). Neural mechanisms of the testosterone–aggression relation: The role of orbitofrontal cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22(10), 2357–2368.
Pustilnik, A.C. (2008). Violence on the brain: A critique of neuroscience in criminal law. Wake Forest Law Review, 44, 184-238.
Williams, F.P., & McShane, M.D. (2013). Criminological theory (6th ed). Boston, MA: Pearson.