Biological Theories of Crime: Overview & Features

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  • 1:01 Biological Theory
  • 3:04 Shortcomings
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Why do some people commit crimes, while others obey the law their whole lives? In this lesson, we'll examine one theory, the biological theory of criminology, including evidence supporting it and some of the shortcomings of the theory.


Laura is really interested in what makes people different from each other. She has noticed, for example, that some people are really tall and others really short. Some people are really outgoing, and others are more shy. And she's noticed that some people end up committing crimes and others obey the law. Laura wonders what makes people different from each other, and more specifically, she's recently been wondering why some people commit crimes and why others don't.

Criminology is the study of crime and punishment. It tries to answer questions like, 'What makes people commit crimes?' There's no simple answer to that question, just as there isn't an easy way to know why one person is outgoing and another is shy. But one theory of criminology stresses the biological differences between people and how that might affect their predisposition to become criminals. Let's look closer at that theory.

Biological Theory

Laura has noticed that some people end up in the criminal justice system, while others don't. She wonders what makes them different from each other. Is it possible that, like how tall you are, some people are just destined to be criminals?

Cesare Lombroso wondered the same thing in Italy in the 19th century. He was one of the founding fathers of the biological theory of criminology, which says that criminals are biologically different from non-criminals. Today, Lombroso's theory is being explored in two major areas: genetics and neuroscience.

The mapping of human DNA has brought new information and also new questions to scientists, and just as many scientists are looking for the specific gene that can cause certain diseases, some are looking for the one gene that could cause criminal activity.

From twin studies, there does seem to be some sort of genetic influence. For example, some studies have shown that identical twins raised separately are more likely to both be criminals than non-twin siblings raised separately. Since identical twins share all the same DNA but other siblings only share part of their DNA, this indicates that perhaps there is a 'criminal gene' somewhere in the human body, but so far, scientists have not found it.

The second area that the biological theory of criminology is exploring is that of neuroscience, or the study of the brain. As brain imaging techniques become more detailed and less invasive, scientists are getting better and better at mapping the human brain and discovering differences in people's brains. So far, studies have shown that there are some structural and chemical differences in the brains of criminals when compared to the brains of non-criminals.

For example, one study showed that certain types of criminals have less activity in the part of the brain responsible for arousal and fear. The theory is that they feel less fear of consequences, and so, they act out in irresponsible ways.


Wow! Laura thinks that the biological theory of criminology sounds pretty solid. After all, who is she to argue with scientists who are finding brain and genetic differences in people?

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