Behavior: Are Criminals Born, Not Made?

Cesare Lombroso, a high-minded 19th century Italian physician, is remembered for his series of skull measurements purporting to show that criminals have smaller brains than law-abiding citizens. Few criminology textbooks go to print without elaborate coverage of Lombroso’s folly, a reminder to students that nurture, not nature, is responsible for criminal behavior. Now, however, two prominent Harvard professors, James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein, argue that Lombroso was on the right track: no one is born a criminal, but many are born with “constitutional factors” that predispose them to serious crime. “There is mounting evidence,” the professors write in their new book Crime and Human Nature (Simon & Schuster; $22.95), “that on the average, offenders differ from nonoffenders in physique, intelligence and personality.”

Though fair-minded and often generous to its intellectual opponents, the book is obviously an effort to discredit the reigning view that crime is largely, or entirely, the by-product of poverty, racism, broken families and other social disturbances. By focusing narrowly on environmental conditions that help breed crime, the authors write, criminologists overlook traits that many offenders seem to share. Criminals tend to be young males who are muscular rather than thin, and who have lower-than-average IQs and impulsive, “now”-oriented personalities, which make planning or even thinking about the future difficult. While these factors do not cause crime, they say, “the evidence leaves no doubt” that constitutional traits correlate with criminal behavior.

Wilson is a professor of government and author of Thinking About Crime (1975). Herrnstein, a psychologist, has been a controversial figure since his 1971 article in the Atlantic stressing the role of genetic factors in producing differences in IQ scores. The two professors have jointly taught a course on crime at Harvard since 1977. Says Wilson: “There is overwhelming evidence first that crime runs in families and second that early childhood precursors of crime seem clear.” One study of adoptions in Denmark from 1924 to 1947 found that chronically criminal biological parents were three times as likely to produce a chronically criminal son as were biological parents with no such convictions. Other research indicates that serious offenders are far + more hyperactive and difficult as children than non-offenders. The authors believe these high-risk children should be identified and given early help. They write: “The abnormal need for stimulation that impels a child toward hyperactivity may later express itself in a tendency toward psychopathy and its consequences, such as criminal behavior.”


Many of the book’s assertions are open to debate, but the most likely to draw heavy fire are the freewheeling ruminations on body types and IQs. The authors cite studies showing that criminals tend to be more mesomorphic (muscular) and less ectomorphic (linear) than the general population. The authors think this finding points to a link between body type, temperament and crime. Other studies indicate that muscularity is associated with an extroverted, high-energy, domineering temperament, while an inhibited, restrained person who is likely to internalize the rules of society and steer clear of crime tends to be thin.

Criminologists acted rashly in the 1930s, the authors say, by deciding to ignore low IQ as a significant factor in crime. “For four decades,” they write, “large bodies of evidence have consistently shown about a ten-point gap between the average offender and nonoffender in Great Britain and in the U.S.” Though the authors make much of this difference, it may mean only that low-IQ criminals tend to get caught more often than their smarter colleagues. But for the authors, the important finding is that low IQ is associated with a particular kind of crime: impulsive acts with an immediate payoff, such as rapes and muggings. Though this finding may be interpreted in many ways, Wilson and Herrnstein suggest that the inability to think or plan past “short time horizons” may predispose a person toward crime.

Another constitutional flaw, they believe, may be at work in remorseless people who lack conscience. If conscience is the product of conditioning, they write, “persons deficient in conscience may turn out to be persons who for various reasons resist classic conditioning–they do not internalize rules as easily as do others.”

Leon Kamin, a Princeton psychologist who has long opposed Herrnstein in the IQ debate, thinks the Wilson-Herrnstein material is based on unsound studies. “Fashions change in the social sciences,” he says. “Sometimes the environmentalists are in the saddle, so they will look at fatally flawed data and say, ‘Look, these suggest an environmental interpretation,’ and other times the hereditarians are in the saddle and say, ‘Look, these suggest a genetic interpretation.’ The data are fundamentally ambiguous, and, in fact, scientists have no basis to come to any conclusions with data of this sort.”

Others in the field are more impressed by Wilson and Herrnstein. Dr. Frank Elliott, emeritus professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, though a bit dubious about the conclusions on IQ, says of the authors, “Theirs is the philosophy of this subject which is going to stand. Most of the work done on criminality by sociologists never mentions heredity. For either political or philosophical reasons, they don’t like the feeling that your temperament or your personality is in any way influenced by heredity. That’s nonsense.”

The authors have been careful to discount race as one of the constitutional factors that might affect crime rates. They write that studies show “race is far less important than age, sex, intelligence and the other individual factors that vary within races.” That may not be enough to mollify some liberals in the field, who are already beginning to call Crime and Human Nature a right-wing book for a right-wing age. “This has nothing to do with the conservative times,” Wilson insists. “Do not put the book in that framework.”

The book, in fact, is not overwhelmingly convincing, but it is in tune with the times, and may help restore some balance in its field. Wilson admits that the case for biological factors in crime was jettisoned in the early 1960s partly because of the shifting temper of the country. It may catch on again now because of a different national mood.

by John Leo, Valenice Castronovo / New york

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