Biological Determinism: Definition & Theory

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Swan

Robert has taught college-level criminal justice courses and has a Masters degree in Criminology and a Doctorate in Public Policy.

In this lesson, you will gain an introductory understanding of 'biological determinism' as a theoretical perspective and learn the key assumptions it makes about the causes of criminal behavior. A brief quiz follows the lesson.

Definition of Biological Determinism

Imagine that there have been a series of crimes in your area. When law enforcement finally catches the people responsible, it turns out that all of the perpetrators are from a single family who just moved to the neighborhood. In fact, this 'family of criminals,' as the news is calling them, includes juveniles, parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins, and other blood relatives. Of course, the news media are quick to hypothesize that the family is prone to commit criminal acts and that, in fact, the criminal impulse 'runs deep in the family.' Some media pundits have gone so far as to argue that the suspects even 'look like criminals.'

The assumptions made here are that: 1) crime is biologically determined and, 2) that we can identify a criminal simply by looking at them. Do you believe this argument? Why or why not? If you think these are reasonable assumptions, then you might be a biological determinist.

Are criminals 'born?' Can families pass down criminal traits? Are the children of families with criminal histories, mental illness, or other health maladies doomed to lives of crime and deviancy? Criminologists who embraced biological determinism in the 19th century certainly thought so.

Biological determinism can be understood as a broad, science-based, anthropological approach to understanding criminality. Strict biological determinism in the 19th century hypothesized that serious criminal behavior was mostly found to occur among people who were born with an innate impulse to commit crime. Simply put, biological determinists argued that criminals are 'born,' rather than 'made' through their interaction with other social processes and contexts. From this perspective, biological determinists argued that your family history, including criminal histories and problematic medical and mental health histories, determined whether or not you would be a criminal. This early perspective was an absolute perspective in that, unlike modern biosocial theories, a person's interaction with their social context was deemed to have no influence, one way or the other, on criminal behavior.

In this lesson, you'll explore the basic theoretical assumptions of biological determinism and its assumptions about criminal behavior. You will also be given an example of biological determinism by exploring the work of the 19th century physician Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909). Lombroso was an early and famous proponent of the idea that criminal offenders are 'born criminals.' He also believed that by conducting research on criminals in accordance with the scientific method, one could determine who is most likely to commit crimes in the future.

Origins of Biological Determinism

Biological determinism emerged from 19th century positivism. Positivism represented a significant intellectual shift in criminological thought in that it embraced the scientific method as a more effective way of conducting research in the social sciences. Biological positivists sought to understand human behavior by emphasizing a systematic, observation-based research approach rather than relying on pure reason and belief, as classical thinkers did. Biological determinism as a theoretical perspective within the biological positivist movement, moved away from pure reason and belief by relying on observation, logic, the development of theory and testable hypotheses, and the systematic collection and analysis of data. While strict versions of biological determinism have been abandoned today, much of what we learned in the 19th century still informs criminology to some degree.

Figures in Biological Determinism

Early biological positivists became interested in the potential link between physical appearance and criminality. Researchers such as physiognomist J.K. Lavater (1741-1801) and phrenologists Franze Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), for example, wanted to know if the shape of a person's facial features or the shape and texture of their head influenced criminal behavior. More than that, they wanted to know if a person's physical attributes were determinants of criminality.

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