Nature theories assert that the etiology of criminal behavior is biologically based in genetic inheritance and the structure and functions of people’s brains and other psychological responses. Wilson and Herrnstein 1985 presents the early beginnings and approaches of biosocial theory. Moffitt 1993 presents the author’s classic developmental theory, which is based on a biosocial approach. Modern biosocial approaches of life-course theory and the development of deviant behavior can be found in Wright, et al. 2008 and DeLisi and Beaver 2011. Fishbein 2004 provides a summation of not only the science but also treatment and prevention practices grounded in nature theories. Anderson 2007 and Walsh and Ellis 2007 present overviews and integrated biosocial approaches in criminology. Pinker 2011 is a controversial text that outlines nature theories and uses them as evidence for declining rates of violence in modern times. See also Lombroso-Ferrero 1972.
Anderson, Gail. 2007. Biological influences on criminal behavior. Boca Raton, FL: Simon Fraser Univ.
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A useful overview of the biosocial perspective of the etiology of criminal behavior focusing on genetic factors as well as the structure and functioning of the brain.
DeLisi, M., and Kevin M. Beaver, eds. 2011. Criminological theory: A life-course approach. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.
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An integrated presentation of several perspectives of criminological theories focusing on the development of antisocial behavior from a biosocial life-course perspective.
Fishbein, Diana, ed. 2004. The science, treatment, and prevention of antisocial behavior: Evidence-based practice. 2 vols. Kingston, NJ: Civic Research Institute.
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This text presents the origins of antisocial behavior as well as effective theory-based interventions for prevention and treatment of individuals who display them. First published in 2000 (The science, treatment, and prevention of antisocial behaviors: Application to the criminal justice system).
Lombroso-Ferrero, Gina. 1972. Criminal man, according to the classification of Cesare Lombroso. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith.
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A reprinted version of Cesare Lombroso’s original work, Criminal Man, written by his daughter Gina. This work chronicles Lombroso’s positivistic approach and study of criminality that laid the groundwork for subsequent biological theories of crime.
Moffitt, Terrie E. 1993. Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review 100.4: 674–701.
DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.100.4.674E-mail Citation »
A classic theoretical piece classifying offenders into adolescence-limited offenders and life-course-persistent offenders. This suggests that most offenders are delinquent during adolescence and then desist upon entering adulthood, while only a small percentage become lifelong criminals.
Pinker, Steven. 2011. The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking.
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A controversial work that argues violence is declining in society due to advanced genes and evolutionary inheritance. The author capitalizes on human nature and its development over time.
Walsh, Anthony, and Lee Ellis. 2007. Criminology: An interdisciplinary approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
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This text presents a compilation of modern criminological theories integrated with biological and psychological explanations of the development of criminality.
Wilson, James Q., and Richard Herrnstein. 1985. Crime & human nature: The definitive study of the causes of crime. New York: Free Press.
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An early text on the beginnings of the biosocial theory and approach to causes of criminal behavior. The authors explore patterns of offending, namely who commits crimes and why, focusing on characteristics such as age, gender, race, intelligence, impulsivity, and other constitutional factors.
Wright, John P., Stephen G. Tibbetts, and Leah E. Daigle. 2008. Criminals in the making: Criminality across the life course. Los Angeles: SAGE.
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A biosocial approach detailing the structure and genetic makeup of the criminal mind and causes of criminal behavior throughout the life-course.
The age old question of why crime exists is one that will never cease. While there are many theories that attempt to address and explain this phenomenon, two specific concepts stand out above the rest. They involve the belief that the social environment is the main reason why individuals commit crime, and, secondly, crime occurs and is fostered by biological traits that eventually lead to criminal behavior.
While both theories make outstanding arguments on why their concept is the best, the fact remains that a combination of both biological and social factors combined mold people into who they are and determines the mindset of one that chooses to engage in criminal behavior.
In order to truly understand how an environment can shape a mindset that has the potential to lead to deviant behavior, we must first identify what a social environment is. “Human social environments encompass the immediate physical surroundings, social relationships, and cultural milicus within which defined groups of people function and interact” (Barnett & Casper, 2001). An easierOne definition is molding behavior based on a set of morals, values and beliefs that are instilled in individuals during early childhood. These morals, values and beliefs form a system that facilitates decision making throughout the course of an individuals’ life.
Several criminal theorists have attempted to research and define the commonality between one’s social environment and how it ties into the commission of crime. “Recent studies show that during the last 5 years, 60 percent of the entire world’s city residents have, directly or indirectly, been a victim to violence, crime and felony. Thus, the increasing crime rate, violent or non-violent, is a serious threat for all the urban societies of the world” (Salehi, 2012). This proves that society has contributed to fostering a social environment that breeds criminal behavior. But there are other variables that need to be considered when attempting to identify what leads a person towards a lifestyle of deviant behavior.
One’s upbringing and social learning environment directly contribute to an individual’s specific criminogenic needs. Such needs are traits that lead to criminal behavior. In other words, our experiences growing up as a child have the capability to shape our view of the world, and have a direct impact on one’s ability to make rational decisions. What may appear to be a rational decision to one individual could be considered completely irrational by another.
One of the best examples of a criminogenic need that ties into the social learning environment would be criminal peers. Such peers are those individuals that tend to coerce or indirectly effect the decision making of another. “It is reasonable to suppose that adolescents can be influenced by peers who are not actually present during a delinquent event (including occasions when an offender acts alone) ( (Warr, 2002). Oftentimes, a young adult will elect to participate in delinquent behavior simply to “fit in” with their peers. If that involves engaging in criminal activity, then so be it.
However, there is a possibility that if such an individual had been raised in a positive environment, there is a chance that the individual may elect to refrain from deviant behavior due to said environment. Unfortunately, there is also research that indicates the opposite as well. Those that have been raised under not so fortunate circumstances often exhibit criminal behavior later in life; however, statistically they have a lower probability to do so.
Other factors that can be directly linked to the social environment would include child abuse, domestic violence and exposure to emotional harm. “Research into the impact of childhood abuse and neglect on violent behavior of adults who became serial killers concluded that adults who had been physically, sexually, and emotionally abused as children were three times more likely than were non-abused adults to act violently as adults” (Silva, Leong, & Ferrari, 2004).
A lack of positive developmental traits is directly connected with behavior as children drift from adolescence on to adulthood. "When individuals with conduct disorder reach adulthood, symptoms of aggression, property destruction, deceitfulness, and rule violation, including violence against co-workers, partners, and children, may be exhibited in the workplace and the home, such that antisocial personality disorder may be considered" (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Criminogenic traits can and do contribute to a life of poor decisions, however, they don’t necessarily all exist based on one’s individual social environment. Biological factors are often the starting point for understanding criminal behavior.
“Many genes may affect brain functioning in ways that either increase or reduce the chances of individuals learning various complex behavior patterns” (Cullen, Agnew, & Wilcox, 2014). Many often question whether it is possible to determine a link between genetics and criminal behavior. There have been multiple research studies that have all come to the same conclusion. The simple answer is yes, genetics does play a role. Adrian Rane, a well-known bio-psychologist, once stated that “despite strong resistance in many quarters, there is now little scientific doubt that genes play a significant role in antisocial behavior.” At the moment of conception, genetics begin to play a factor in the development of traits that have the potential to lead an individual down the path of illegal behavior.
“Some genes are expressed or turned on (or not) because of physical, social, and cultural factors in the environment; and some genes—for example, those that influence difficult temperament, impulsivity, novelty seeking, and lack of empathy—predispose people to be exposed to environmental risks.” (Kaiser & Rasminsky, 2010) Once born, children learn from their parents and their environment. An example of this would include a child that has been raised in a home where aggression and violence is common. That child has a much higher probability to be impulsive, and may have difficulty expressing emotions in what would be considered a positive manner.
Addiction is also an excellent example of a genetic or biological trait that is passed on through generations and has been identified as hereditary. While it is possible for a child to be born with an addiction to illegal substances, many times, an individual is exposed to such a substance later in life and finds them self easily addicted. It is possible that they carried a gene that would predispose them to an addictive personality, and once exposed to a situation, they were easily led to criminal thinking and potentially deviant behavior. Genetic traits can also have a direct effect on their relationships as they enter adulthood.
Biological factors also play a role in early childhood development and can result in mental health related problems. If someone is predisposed to enjoying solidarity, and is raised in an environment that lacks positive reinforcement of social skills, the end result can be devastating. Silva, Leong, and Ferrari (2004) identified a link between serial homicidal behavior and ASD, also known as Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
This disorder can be identified as “Any person, talented or handicapped, whose social skills have been severely deficient since very early childhood, who started to talk late or whose communicative use of language is inadequate, and who perseverates and lacks cognitive and behavioral flexibility meets the diagnostic criteria for an autistic-spectrum disorder” (Rapin, 2002). This is just one explanation for why serial killings and mass murders occur.
While crime occurs for many reasons, researchers over the past several hundred years have made attempts to gain answers to identify the root cause of the criminal mindset. Some research leads us to believe social learning theory and environmental factors are the only contributing reasons for why an individual elects to exhibit criminal behavior.
On the other hand, just as many research projects have taken an even deeper look and claim that while social skills and the environment do play a major role, the fact remains that the environment is a doorway to unlocking genetic traits that are instilled in people from conception. While the social landscape is vital in raising a child with proper morals, values and a positive belief system, it is not the only contributing factor in the causation of criminal activity within an individual.
It is a combination of both biological factors in addition to our social environment that molds each of us into who are today.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Barnett, E., & Casper, M. (2001). A Definition of "Social Environment". Morgantown, WV: American Journal of Public Health.
Bartol, C., & Bartol, A. (2014). Criminal Behavior A Psychological Approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Cullen, F., Agnew, R., & Wilcox, P. (2014). Criminological Theory: Past to Present. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Kaiser, B., & Rasminsky, J. (2010, October 25). Biological Risk Factors for Challenging Behavior. Retrieved November 3, 2013, from Education.com: http://www.education.com/reference/article/biolgical-risk-factors-challenging/
Rapin, I. (2002). The Autistic-Spectrum Disorders. The New England Journal of Medicine, 302-303.
Salehi, E. (2012, April 6). Environmental factors and urban crime. Retrieved July 27, 2014, from Wordpress.com: http://numerons.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/6environmental-factors-and-urban-crime.pdf
Silva, J., Leong, G., & Ferrari, M. (2004). A Neuropsychiatric development model of serial homicidal behavior. Behavioral Sciences & The Law, 787-799.
Warr, M. (2002). Companions in Crime. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.