Bumpy-headed natural criminals


The scientific process is one that requires equal doses of hopefulness and skepticism. Scientists have to enthusiastically proffer theories as to how things work and then try to figure out every possible way their theory might be wrong.

While thinkers have weighed in on human behavior since the dawn of humanity, what we now call “social sciences” has always occupied a kind of step-child status among fields of systematic inquiry. Social science has permitted this to happen in part because the realm of its inquiry is clouded with concepts like free will and divine intervention.

The hurdles these concepts put in front of social science are, in a way, a necessary evil. It is disquieting for us to think about a deterministic social world — a world in which we are helplessly swept along by systematic processes that we cannot influence. This flies in the face of the most Western of concepts — dynamic individualism.

This is particularly complicating for those scientists who study crime. The central question of criminology is simple: why? Why do people commit crimes? More importantly, why do some people live lives defined by a ceaseless chain of criminal activity, while others never veer from puritanical rectitude?

We understand the function crime serves in society. It clarifies moral and normative boundaries. It tells us “don’t be that guy.” But what determines the individual compulsion or revulsion?

Scholars have struggled with this throughout history. One of the most enduring explanations centers around physical abnormality or disease. These ideas have manifested in myriad ways across time.

In a 1978 Saturday Night Live skit, comedian Steve Martin played Theodoric of York, medieval barber. Martin’s character was called upon to heal a sick girl. His words to her parents pretty well describe the progression of science, “Well, I’ll do everything humanly possible. Unfortunately, we barbers aren’t gods. You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just 50 years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter’s was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.”

While Martin’s Theodoric was farce, the 19th century Italian scientist Cesare Lombroso was completely serious in his pronouncements. Lombroso is best remembered as the father of criminal anthropology. In particular, he gave us the theory of the atavist or born criminal — the individual whose physical structure possesses the degenerative traits that differentiate him from the normal, socially well-adjusted man.

Lombroso’s emphasis on primitiveness was emblematic of a broader movement in the late 1800s — a movement couched in the belief that biology and inheritance explained human behavior. This fueled a growing concern that European “races” were degenerating — slipping back to an earlier stage of evolution.

A close antecedent of Lombroso was the Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall. Gall gave the world phrenology, a “science” based on the theory that certain features of the human skull reflected brain abnormalities — which in turn were predictive of criminality. Gall found that many pickpockets had bumps on their skull just above their ears. He argued the bumps, indentations and shape of the skull were linked to different aspects of a person’s personality, character and abilities. With the pickpockets, for example, he concluded the bump behind their ears was associated with a tendency to steal, lie or deceive.

The predominant sociobiological theories of today are based — predictably — in genetics and differential brain function. The most tempting of which is a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that reports convicts with low-activity in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex were more likely to reoffend.

All this gets to the point that science reflects society. Popular culture and science feed one another. Much like atomic monster movies in the 1950s, our appetites, both cultural and scientific, reflect the dominant technologies of the times. We optimistically want to believe we’re right this time, but that ol’ skeptic keeps us grounded.

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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via pate.matthew@gmail.com.