Nov 1, 2007

Are criminals born or made?

Nature vs Nurture

Does an “evil gene” exist, a hereditary disorder that causes crime? There are numerous debates about what causes crime. Some people assume that criminal behavior is due to a person’s upbringing and life experiences (“nurture”). Others suggest that criminal behavior is more complex and involves a person’s genetic makeup (“nature”). Are people just born that way? Is criminal behavior pre-determined at some point in people’s lives? This paper will present how crime behaviors can be hereditary but most criminals are shaped by their environment factors instead. As the theories of genetic influences in crimes are undeniable; it should only be seen as an inclination of crime rather then the cause of crime (Raine, A. 1993 pg50). Hence, a criminal can be born but shaped and influenced by the society to cultivate the criminal traits in them.

Social scientists have argued the nature-nurture debate for many years, both in the popular press and professional literature. Nature proponents argue that biological factors and genetic composition explain much of human behavior. Nurture proponents contend that environmental factors, such as family, school, church and community, are paramount in the development of behavior patterns. Besides, some traits, such as human intelligence, depend upon a complex combination of both hereditary and environmental influences. According to Pollak, that there is a new way of looking at these different experiences that turn different genes on or off (Pollak S. 2002). New research reveals that life experiences can alter the biochemistry of many genes- our moral development later in life changes our genes and is this could be hereditary.

Cesare Lombroso, a 19th century Italian physician, reminded students that nurture, not nature, is responsible for criminal behavior. In contrast, Freudian psychoanalysis and the depth psychologies of Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, Otto Rank and Harry Stack Sullivan focused on the dynamic unconscious (the natural instinct of a human), theorizing that the depths of human psyche integrates with the conscious mind to produce a healthy human personality.

Nevertheless, many researchers show that criminal behaviors can be hereditary. Human genes carry many personality traits inherited from their ancestors and even from their parents. Lombroso, regarded by many as the father of criminology, is convinced that people are born criminals as it is in an individual’s nature to commit crime. Criminals have been found to carry a few certain features and personality traits. According to Darwin and him, we evolved from animals. In this theory, genes mutate and get passed on to each descendant, concluding that some people are predisposed to criminality and they are not the same species as humans (, 2005).

According to Sigmund Freud, all humans have criminal tendencies. However, the process of socialization curbs these tendencies by the developing of inner controls that are learned through childhood experience. Freud hypothesized that the most common element that contributed to criminal behavior was faulty identification by children with their parents. Improperly socialized children may develop personality disturbances that causes them to direct antisocial impulses inward or outward. The child who directs them outward becomes a criminal, and the child that directs them inward becomes a neurotic.
In Freud’s theory of the Defense Mechanisms, he finds the cause of individual behavior in the unconscious mind (Freud, S. 1930). Sociobiology attributes “genetics as the only factor of behavior”. The mankind uses each one of them in everyday life. One clear example of man being biological is that at sometimes man can have animal drives and desires. This drive is driven by the idea and of free will that is taken for granted.

Another theory Freud developed included the Id, Ego, and Superego (Freud, S. 1923). Here, personality has a definable structure with three basic components. The most primitive part of the personality, present in the infant is the Id, meaning “it” in Latin. The Id is an unconscious, irrational and immoral part of the personality that exists at birth (by nature), containing all the basic biological drives: hunger, thirst, self-protection, and sex. A component of personality, the id seeks immediate satisfaction of natural urges through primary process, without concern for the morals and norms of society. Ego and Superego deals with how the mind works conscientiously and unconsciously. It describes the behavior of the human body and motives of our actions. Freud was a pessimist when it came to human nature. He identified man’s weaknesses in saying that man is a biological creature with biological drives. He reflected these ideas from Darwin’s original ideas.

In Freud’s views, the three parts of the psychic structure – id, ego, and superego are always in dynamic conflict. We are always unaware of the conflicts between the id, ego, and superego. According to psychodynamic theory, when a threat becomes especially serious, it may lead to intense inhibitions and defenses. These may be expressed as violence and aggression- inhibiting reaction. According to Freud, humans are defensive. This defensive mechanism is part of everyday speech and action. The lack of basic need stimulates the unconscious id and impels a person toward aggression which may later express itself in a tendency toward criminal behavior.

If moral and social values are instilled from day one, an individual is given ‘will power’ as a tool for survival as well as the ability to practise self control. For example, Socrates, a Greek philosopher was analysed as brutal, sensuous and inclined to being a drunkard by a physiognomist. By admitting that the examination revealed his inner self, and learning to control it, he managed to overcome the negative side (Vold, B., Bernard, J. & Snipes, B. 2002, pg32). The ability to control negative desires or mens rea is a natural thing.

If we said that criminals are made by their surroundings and their social factors, we could safely say that criminals are shaped by bad influences or social status. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when the basic need for an individual is not met or self esteem is threatened, the individual will turn on his or her defensive mechanism as reaction to this perceived threat (Maslow, H. 1943). Some resort to robbing and stealing food and necessities as a way of survival. Another basic need of humankind is the need for belonging and acceptance by others. Some might feel forced into criminal activities to enable them to live certain lifestyles that will achieve this aim.

Because defensive mechanisms are unconscious, they are difficult to control. However, the psychologists of the 1950s and 1960s rejected this theory. Nevertheless, in recent years, the cognitive revolution has again made defensive mechanisms the subject of scientific investigation, and cognitive, developmental, and personality psychologists have found some evidence for their existence (Cramer,P. 2000).

Carl Jung and Freud shared the same ideas and even theoretical concepts, including psyche, ego, consciousness, and unconsciousness (Somerfield, R. & McCrae, R. 2000). But Jung greatly expanded the concept of the unconscious. Jung argued that the mind of the newborn infant is not blank slate, but is imprinted with forms from the past experiences that are common to all humans in the universe.

One major challenge of our time is to discover the underlying causes of crime and to develop new techniques for preventing it. Although we should not ignore poverty, racism, joblessness, and other environmental factors which do influence criminals, biological and genetic factors may prove to be powerful predictors of criminal behavior. It is hoped that genetic tendencies toward crime, if they do prove to exist, can be modified by early intervention with such methods as psychotherapy, classes in effective parenting, and improved preschool education. Additional research on both genetic and environmental factors is necessary if we are to prevent the emergence of criminals like the serial killer Ivan Milat – “the backpacker murderer” in future generations.

According to Lombroso and Ferri, there are four basic types of criminals. The first type is those who are born criminals. According to Ferri, this group constitute a third of all criminals. They are morally underdeveloped and epileptic. The second type is the insane criminals. This insanity is caused by a defect in their brains which causes them to be incapable from differentiating right from wrong. Intoxicated people are included in this group, since over consumption of alcohol has a similar effect on the brain. The criminal by passion is the third type, where according to Lombroso, these criminals are more likely to be females then male. They are usually urged by emotions or the need for revenge because of something or someone. For example, a mother who murders her husband who was found out to be the serial rapist of daughter. The strong emotions of betrayal and revenge for the overwhelming hurt done to her daughter would have driven her to the murder of her spouse. The fourth type of criminal is the occasional criminal. They comprise of a few categories. Firstly, the pseudocriminal who kills in self defense. Secondly, the criminaloid who are influenced by situations and circumstances to commit crime. Thirdly, the habitual criminals who are normally offenders of the petty crimes such as white collar criminals and last but not the least harmless, the epileptoid criminal who suffers from epilepsy.

In conclusion, theories of genetic influences in crimes are reliable, but are only factors influencing crime, rather than its cause. Environment and parent care, peer pressure and human needs play a large part unearthing the underlying motives and causes of crime, because humans are intelligent creatures that learn from experience. Hence, crime is a human act that can develop as a reaction to one’s surroundings and nurture.


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Erikson, E (1980) Element of a psychoanalytic theory of psychosocial development. Greespan, S. & Pollock, G. (Eds.), The course of life Vol 1

Erikson, H. (1959). Growth and crises of the healthy personality. Psychological Issues 1, 50-100

Cramer, P, (2000). Defense mechanisms in psychology today. American psychologist, 55(6), 637-646.

Somerfield, R., & McCrae, R. (2000). Stress and coping research: Methodological challenges, theoretical advances, and clinical applications. American Psychologist, 55(6), 620-625.

Vold, B., Bernard, J. & Snipes, B. (2002). Theoretical criminology. (5th ed). New York: Oxford University Press
Pollak S. (2002). Experience alters how we perceive emotion, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Viewed on 16th June 2007, 2007 by AAAS, the science society.
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Raine, A. (1993).  The psychopathology of crime: Criminal behavior as a clinical disorder


Mm said...

The esay was very good it hèlpd me a lot i am doing a sub course calld crime and diviance

imbm said...

you referenced "(Raine, A. 1993 pg50)" in your introduction, i was just wondering where you got this from as i would really like to use it in my essay on nurture vs nurture in regards to criminology


justme said...

yeah.. one of my downfall was in referencing. LOL ... if I'm not mistaken, might be this..

Raine, A. (1993). The psychopathology of crime: Criminal behavior as a clinical disorder

all the best.