Atavism in Criminology: Definition & Meaning

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  • 0:03 What Is an Atavism?
  • 0:52 Biological Theories of Crime
  • 2:38 Challenges to…
  • 3:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson, we'll discuss the meaning of the term atavism, when it emerged in the field of criminology, the theories of crime it relates to, the criminologist it's primarily associated with, and why it's no longer used in criminology.

What Is an Atavism?

If you've ever heard the phrase 'living under a rock,' you're already well on your way to understanding the term 'atavism.' You might recall the film Encino Man from the 1990s which featured a caveman from the Ice Age that was frozen and buried in Encino, California, and was unearthed and defrosted early in the film.

Naturally, when this man was defrosted and interacted with others in the 1990s, he was ignorant to the norms of behavior for people living during that time. In the times of Encino man, humans didn't live in societies but rather were largely individualistic. Thus, an atavism parallels the plight of Encino Man: a person whose biological features and socialization skills are far behind the times of the present day.

Biological Theories of Crime

Linguistically speaking, the term atavism means 'evolutionary throwback.' The term emerged during the 1870s in the Italian school of criminology. During this time, criminology studies were largely an extension of medical studies, based on observable physical and anatomical characteristics that made these individuals different from others.

These physical traits were correlated to earlier humans, long before humans learned that living together in societies was beneficial to their survival. The physical characteristics, such as flat noses, large lips, strong jawlines, and thick, coarse hair, were all attributed to a person's propensity to commit crime because these characteristics were noted of persons who had already been convicted of crimes - specifically prisoners.

The term atavism is most commonly attributed to Cesare Lombroso's work. Lombroso was an Italian physician and criminologist who proposed the notion that criminal behavior was innate and only partly caused by psychological and environmental conditions. In short, he believed that some people were simply 'born criminal.'

As indicated earlier, scholars at this point in time largely conducted their research on prisoners and vagrants, for which little regard was given. Ethical considerations and standards weren't thoroughly established at this point in history. As a result, conducting experiments on people was largely unregulated. As time passed and researchers learned more about criminology, this lack of ethical consideration for the research subjects was part of the reason these studies were so harshly criticized in later years.

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