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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Born Bad?

Born Bad?

C.A. Asbrey

Cesare Lombroso
Cesare Lombroso has been described as the father of modern criminology, but one of his major theories has been long abandoned and discredited. That theory, however, did dominate thinking about criminal behavior right up into the 20th century. What was that theory? Not only were some people born bad, but that they could be easily identified by their physical characteristics.

It's important to remember that the pioneers using scientific methods to research theories which sound outlandish to us today, did contribute to the sum of knowledge by what was eventually disproven, as much as by what stood the test of time.     

Lombroso was not the first to postulate this theory. It had actually been around for a very long time and before anyone investigated it scientifically, it was just referred to as 'bad blood'. Lombroso wasn't even the first to investigate it using an organized systematic method of observation. That accolade goes to the English social theorist and philosopher, Herbert Spencer. Two years before Darwin came up with his theory of evolution, Spencer published a theory of evolution in Progress: Its Law and Cause (1857). Spencer actually coined the phrase 'survival of the fittest', in 1864, after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Where Spencer differed from Darwin in that he applied the idea of natural selection to societies.    

Darwin's work was not as revolutionary as some propose. There were a number of people working on similar versions of the theory around the same time as Darwin. It was taking hold in scientific circles, and Lombroso ran with the work of people like Spencer and Darwin and tried to apply it to the world of criminality.

Giuseppe Villella
Lombroso published Criminal Man in 1876, and he proposed that criminal were less evolved than honest and non-violent people, and that their propensity to commit crime was as a result of biological differences between criminals and non-criminals. As he began his career working in insane asylums he was also interested in the differences between the insane and sane. 

Giuseppe Villella was an arsonist and thief from Calabria. He was a notoriously  flamboyant criminal; agile, boastful, cynical and amoral. After his execution, Lombroso examined the skull and found an indentation which was similar to that found in apes. Lombroso noted a similar characteristic in other criminals, and concluded that it was evidence of 'arrested development'. He argued that criminality was found in individuals who were less developed than others, and that it was a throwback to early man. Lombroso wrote: “At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal – an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals.
Villella's skull

“Thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high cheek bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle shaped or sessile ears found in criminals, savages and apes, insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh, and drink its blood.” 

Lombroso believed that criminality was not only inherited, he postualted that criminals could be identified by physical defects that confirmed them as being atavistic or savage.  Murderers had cold, glassy stares, bloodshot eyes and big hawk-like noses. Rapists, bizarrely to modern thinking, had ‘jug ears’. A thief could be identified by his expressive face, manual dexterity, and small, wandering eyes. 

Lombroso co-wrote his first book to examine the causes of female crime too, and concluded, among other things, that female criminals were far more ruthless than male; tended to be lustful and immodest; were shorter and more wrinkled; and had darker hair and smaller skulls than ‘normal’ women. They did, however, suffer from less baldness, said Lombroso. Women who committed crimes of passion had prominent lower jaws and were more wicked than their male counterparts, he concluded.

Lombroso not only drew on the work of other criminal anthropologists throughout Europe, but also conducted many of his own experiments. He invented bizarre contraptions to measure various body parts, and also more abstract things like sensitivity to pain and a a tendency to tell lies. He actually did invent an early lie detector. 

Lombroso used various pieces of equipment for different purposes. A hydrosphygmograph studied changes in blood pressure and he compared these results to criminals and ‘normal’ subjects. Using an induction coil called a Ruhmkorff, subjects would be exposed to various stimuli – both unpleasant and unpleasant, such as electric shocks and the sound of the firing of a pistol, music, food, money, or a picture of a nude woman. The responses would then be compared to those of people who were deemed non-criminal. 
Ruhmkorff Induction Coil

The problem was that the recording of the results was chaotic and unreliable. To make matters worse, Lombroso tended to draw on unscientific evidence to add weight to his theories, such as old proverbs, and anecdotes which appealed to him. This left his work vulnerable to attack by critics across Europe, and ensured it was not scientifically robust. All of this reflects the sort of man Lombroso was: unpredictable, effervescent, and fascinating. He gave sell-out lectures in Italy, was famous, and was known for commenting on all kinds of things in the popular press. Lombardo had an opinion on almost everything, and the energy, and contacts, to make them heard. He was a celebrity, and he enjoyed it.   

He was interested in all aspects of human behavior. He was not only an early sexologist, but he was deeply fascinated by ghosts and spiritualism. He did many investigations into hauntings, his most famous being the 'haunted cellar' where he watched bottles mysteriously falling from the shelves for no discernible reason. He investigated mediums like Eusapia Palladino, participated in seances and concluded that ghosts were real. Such work earned him the title of, The Founding Father of Parapsychology. It also served to undermine his credibility.  

After his death his work was further discredited by the growing disquiet with the eugenics movement. The subversion of his work by the Nazis, who sought to prove that whole races were sub-human, and therefore could be murdered, finished that line of thinking completely for a very long time. 

Lombroso's flaws do not wipe out his legacy. He contributed a great deal to the world of criminal investigation, not least that crimes could be investigated using a scientific method, but that the criminal themselves could be worthy of research. He gave us the notion that crime may be examined in the same way that a medical problem in order to find a solution to criminality.  

Today we have come full circle. After years of looking for social causes of crime, the impact of upbringing, economic factors, and even brain injuries, we are now looking again at the genetic component in certain types of criminals. Recent studies have found personality trains which can be passed down the generations, and this is backed up by twin studies. Monozygotic twins are more likely to share a tendency to either delinquency or honesty, than normal siblings. These same studies also show that those genetic traits impact the way a person actually looks.   

For example, although males secrete testosterone at higher levels than females. Researchers have found that higher levels are associated with increased levels of violence and aggression in both genders. However, testosterone levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day and in response to various environmental stimuli. This makes correlating levels to behavior and controlling for environmental stimuli extremely difficult, but research is being done on whether someone people secrete more in response to stimuli than others. Having more testosterone does impact appearance. It will be seen in finger length, muscle mass, balding, and how you process sugar - and we all know about how 'hangry' makes people more irritable. 

Children who live with stress in childhood are more likely to manifest criminal behavior due to changes made to brain structure as their systems are flooded with cortisol during development. Diana Fishbein in 2003 concluded that behavioral problems may originate in the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, and that excess cortisol shrinks that part of the brain. Cortisol impacts on looks by impacting on the pattern of fat storage in the body, can change face shape (the well-known moon face), cause hair loss, acne, make scars worse as it impacts on healing, and premature aging. Studies have also shown it also impacts on sex hormones and makes people less attractive to the opposite sex. This can lead to sexual frustration.  

Other aspects being investigated are Premenstrual Syndrome and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, Post Partum Depression, Neurotransmitters, chemicals that transmit messages between brain cells, called neurons, and have a direct impact on the many functions of the brain. Diet, Food Allergies, Sensitivities, Vitamins, and Minerals. Empathy is largely inherited, and lack of empathy is another factor in certain kinds of criminality.  

All in all, we have continued to build on  the work of the early pioneers. At the moment we conclude that we are all a complex mixture of both nature and nurture, and the genes we inherit can mean that some of us can rise above social and environmental factors more easily than others.

And even though he didn't get the details right, he did stumble across a link between criminality and the way some of us look - even if that's not necessarily the cause.        

Innocent Bystander EXCERPT
A vacant-looking man with prominent yellow teeth walked into her field of vision, striding beyond the blinding sun and dragged her roughly from the horse. She had expected to be searched and had ruthlessly bound her body with bandages to try to flatten and conceal her breasts, but the man merely patted down her sides before turning his attentions to her jacket. He pulled out the pistol which had been loosely placed in her pocket and slapped his way down her legs. She was instantly glad she had foregone the Derringer she usually wore at her ankle. A concealed weapon was too risky.
“He’s clean.”
“Well, boy. It seems like you’re gonna get your wish, but if you’ve been messin’ with us and you ain’t Quinn’s kin, you’re gonna regret it. He don’t like to be messed with.”
Abigail felt her arms grabbed as she was roughly turned around and her carefully dirtied hands were bound behind her back, the rope biting deeply into her skin as it was pulled tight. They must have seen her wince as it provoked a chorus of laughter which rang in her ears.
“Looks like this life’s a bit too rough for you, sonny.”
 A thick, smelly bag was thrust over her head, obliterating the world, before she was lifted back onto her little colt and she felt herself led off to face the rest of the gang.



  1. WOW, Christine, what an incredible blog. So much to absorb, it boggles the mind. I'm hooked on forensic science and the FBI's accounts of doing profiles on criminals they're seeking. I guess my interest in crime stories and solving them dates back to reading my first juvenile mysteries. Great blog and I love the brief excerpt.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. It's such a huge subject, and I've only just scratched the surface. I could write about this stuff for hours.

  2. Lombroso is so problematic and fascinating in a way that's so typical of the period. I wonder if some of the physical characteristics he associated with the criminal classes were, in fact, related to the conditions in which the urban poor lived? Great topic to share -- thanks!

    1. Oh, great question! Without a doubt he was picking up on traits more prevalent amongst the poor. The Moorish invasion got as far as Tour in France, and left a genetic legacy, seen mostly in the poor, all over Europe. Those same traits are those picked up on, especially in the women - thicker hair, less likely to lose hair, darker. It seems common sense to us that the poorer people will be more desperate, and more susceptible to temptation. We know unequal societies are more violent and more criminal. The 19th century mind thought they should know their place, and looked for another reason. I love looking through the Victorian lens.

  3. Hi C.A. -- great article. Seems similar to phrenology, but that was more of a psuedo science.

    1. Oh, I already have a post banked on that! It'll be coming up soon.

  4. This article was certainly exciting and ignites the debate that's been around for years: heredity vs environment, nature vs nurture, fake science vs real science--okay, maybe not that one. Anyway, it is a complex social dilemma we face. I remember the horror of Jeffrey Dommer and we all wondered if his ghastly actions might have been caused by childhood abuse only to find there was nothing in his childhood to indicate that he had ever been abused. Remember the movie, "The Bad Seed" in which a child kills people for trinkets and tiny oppositions to her wants and desires. Maybe there is a bad seed after all.
    A very tantalizing article, C.A.. I wish you every success with "Innocent Bystander."

    1. Thank you, Sarah. It really is an eternal debate. There does seem to be a genetic component, as siblings in the same environment can have markedly different reactions to the same stimuli, and identical twins are more likely to respond in the same way than not. The more we learn, the more we know there's more to learn.