Cesare Lombroso’s anthropological theory of crime assumes that crime is genetic in nature. Lombroso in particular assumes that this is an atavistic type of criminal.
Genetic theories and research projects dealing with criminality can be found mainly in the 19th century in Italy, in German history up to 1945, but from time to time also today.
The founder and main figure of this approach is without question the Italian scholar Cesare Lombroso with his anthropological theory of crime. Lombroso theory originates in the idea of a criminal determinism: There are criminals whose deviant behaviour is inevitable. In Lombroso’s case, this positivism was initially understood exclusively, but later still superficially, as biological positivism. Thus anthropological theory is inevitably connected with the concept of the born criminal: Some people are therefore born to deviate and sooner or later will necessarily commit criminal acts. In the opinion of early Lombroso, these factors are exclusively genetic. The criminal is an anthropological type of his own, the “homo delinquens”. This is atavistic, i.e. an earlier and more primitive type of human being who has regressed in evolution, who comes along immorally and instinctively. He is lazy, insensitive to pain, vain, has squinting eyes, preference for tattoos, a fleeing forehead, a small brain, uses a “rogue language”, and the like.
Under the influence of French criminology, but also by his own students Garofalo and Ferri, Lombroso later relativized his initial thesis. Only about a third of all criminals are now born criminals. For the remainder, illness, environment and opportunity are decisive.
Implication for criminal policy
Lombroso’s theory had a big political and also scientific impact. First, Lombroso’s demand on criminal policy was to orient and align criminal law decisions on empirical and medical research, and then, according to Lombroso, to make it clear that the notion of free choice is not tenable and therefore cannot be transferred to criminal law, since the offender’s actions are biologically and genetically determined, the criminal law deterrence of the classical period no longer plays a role. Even the greatest possible threat of punishment could no longer prevent the inevitable act. The perpetrator did not decide freely for the deviating offence, but was involuntarily determined by his biological constitution or – to remain concretely with Lombroso – by his genetic predisposition. Crime would therefore be fate, inevitable, and thus not the perpetrator’s own responsibility. Anthropological theory thus raises the question of guilt: Can someone whose genes predestine and determine him to criminal action be held responsible for his actions? Lombroso and other supporters of anthropological approaches would certainly have denied this question.
This political approach was perverted and abused in fascist regimes, especially in National Socialist Germany. The incorrigibility of the delinquents was used to stamp them once and for all as criminals and to kill or lock them away without hope of social rehabilitation. Because of their danger to society, these “genetic non-humans” were incapacitated or at least treated as pests of society without any leniency or humanity. Specifically, with regard to the genetic “impurity” of the criminally predisposed, this led to the passing of laws that provided for sterilization, separation from society, and mass exterminations.
Critical appreciation & relevance
Lombroso’s anthropogenetic theory (and its extensions in the German Empire and in the Weimar Republic) must first of all be viewed critically because of its role as a scientific justification for the Nazis and their fascist ideology. Lombrosos and related theories allow the conclusion that the criminal can be “abandoned”, that he can be separated from society once and for all and treated differently (inhumanly). This form of the absolute distinction between criminals and non-criminals is politically extremely problematic, since it denies the perpetrator any chance of improvement, resocialization, reparation or forgiveness.anthropological theory is also not tenable above all because it has been proven that the scientific claim held so high was not adhered to: Lombroso drew false scientific conclusions from the empirical knowledge, which was not very pronounced at the time. In addition, he frequently used materials from third parties without thoroughly examining them. Charles Goring, an English contemporary of Lombroso, was actually able to refute a number of Lombroso’s findings by conducting his own research with integrated control groups. More recent genetic research can certainly evade this accusation of scientific and methodological inadequacy. However, even the results of modern twin and adoption studies are fundamentally flawed: Apparent connections between hereditary predispositions and criminal behaviour can never be completely isolated from possible social factors.
However, Lombroso can be appreciated as the first true causal researcher and thus as the founder of the etiological paradigm in criminology that still exists today. Moreover, it must be acknowledged that Lombroso – in contrast to the National Socialists – was always prepared to expand his biological attempts at explanation by environmentally specific and social aspects. It is therefore wrong to interpret him – as often happens – as a radical representative of a deterministic, biological school with its born and incorrigible criminals.
- Cesare Lombroso (1887): „Der Verbrecher in anthropologischer, ärztlicher und juristischer Beziehung“. Hamburg.
- Mary Gibson (2002): „Born to crime: Cesare Lombroso and the origins of biological criminology”. Westport.
A Review of the work of Cesare Lombrosso (the father of criminology)