Biological explanations: Atavistic form ao1

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Biological explanations: Atavistic form AO1

Atavistic Form – A biological approach to offending that attributes criminal activity to the fact that offender are genetic throwbacks or a primitive sub-species ill-suited to conforming to the rules of modern society. Such individuals are distinguished by particular facial and cranial characteristics.

An historical approach to offending

In 1876. Cesare Lombroso, and Italian physician, wrote a book called L’Huomo Delinquent within which he suggested that criminals were ‘genetic throwbacks’-a primitive sub-species who were biologically different from non-criminals. By today’s standards, Lombroso’s theory of the atavistic form would be best described as speculative and naïve, though he is credited as moving criminology into a more rigorous and scientific realm and his ideas may well have laid the foundation for the modern offender profiling techniques that were to follow.

Offenders were seen by Lombroso as lacking evolutionary development, their savage and untamed nature meant that they would find it impossible to adjust to the demands of civilised society and would inevitably turn to crime. As such, Lombroso saw criminal behaviour as a natural tendency, rooted in the genealogy of those who engage in it.

Atavistic characteristics

Lombroso argued, the criminal sub-type could be identified as being in possession of particular physiological ‘markers’ that were linked to particular types of crime. These are biologically determined ‘atavistic’ characteristics, mainly features of the face and head (though can include other features), that make criminal physically different from the rest of us.

In terms of cranial characteristics, the atavistic form included narrow, sloping brow, a strong prominent jaw, high cheek bones and facial asymmetry. Other physical markers included dark skin and the existence of extra toes, nipples or fingers.

Lombroso went on to categorise particular types of criminals in terms of their physical and facial characteristics. Murderers were described as having bloodshot eyes, curly hair and long ears; sexual deviants – glinting eyes, swollen fleshy lips and projecting ears, whilst the lips of fraudsters were thin and ‘reedy’.

Besides physical traits, Lombroso suggested there were other aspects of the born criminal including insensitivity to pain, use of criminal slang, tattoos and unemployment.

Lombroso’s research

Lombroso meticulously examined the facial and cranial features of hundreds of Italian convicts, both living and dead, and proposed that the atavistic form was associated with a number of physical anomalies which were key indicators of criminality.

In all. Lombroso examined the skulls of 383 dead criminals and 3839 living ones, and concluded that 40% of criminal acts could be accounted for by atavistic characteristics.

Biological explanations: Atavistic form AO3

Contribution to criminology

P: On strength of the atavistic form as a n explanation for offending is that it has been very influential. Lombroso has been hailed as the ‘father of criminology’

E: For example, Lombroso has been credited as shifting the emphasis in crime research away from a moralistic discourse (within which offenders were judged as being wicked weak minded)towards a more scientific and credible realm (that of evolutionary influences and genetics).

E: This is a strength because Lombroso’s theory, in many ways, heralded the beginning of criminal profiling and made a major contribution to the science of criminology.

L: As a result the credibility of the atavistic form as an explanation for offending is increased.

Scientific racism

P: The atavistic form had been criticised as Lombroso’s work has distinct racial undertones.

E: For example, many of the features that Lombroso identified as criminal and atavistic, such as curly hair and dark skin, are most likely to be found among people of African descent.

E: This is a weakness because it is an uncomfortable and controversial aspect and is up to debate whether Lombroso intended this to be the case or not.

L: Consequently, the credibility of the atavistic form as an explanation for offending is decreased.

Contradictory evidence

P: One weakness of the atavistic form as an explanation to offending is that it has contradictory evidence.

E: For example, Goring (1913) conducted a comparison between 3000 criminals and 3000 non-criminals and concluded there was no evidence that offenders are a distinct group with unusual facial and cranial characteristics.

E: This is a weakness as it questions the key element of the atavistic form that criminals are different in terms of their appearance.

L: As a result the explanatory power of Lombroso’s research is questioned which reduces the credibility of the atavistic form as an explanation for offending is increased.


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