PBS recently broadcast a superlative episode of the series NOVA Science Now. The title of the episode was Can Science Stop Crimes? Host David Pogue, took viewers through the work of leading social scientists, neurobiologists, forensic scientists and computer programmers, each of whom had amazing insights and expertise.

One area that Pogue explored under the auspices of a new frontier in the etiology of crime was really quite old —- is it nature or nurture that makes a criminal? Several of the researchers Pogue interviewed work to understand whether individuals who commit violent crimes are genetically different than the rest of us.

As part of this exploration, the so-called "warrior gene" was discussed. On one level, possession of this genetic variation may predispose individuals to a qualitatively different response to perceived threat or danger. According to some researchers, this gene affects the way the brain’s amygdala (which is likened to the brain’s alarm center) makes us react to danger or stress.

The extent of the reaction is conditioned by messages sent from the learning part of the brain (in the pre-frontal cortex) back to the amygdala, telling us either to continue being alarmed or to relax.

Researchers studying the role this gene plays in aggressive behavior observe that individuals with the variation have less gray matter in the parts of the brain involved in the above mentioned "circuit." Moreover, their amygdalas were more active. Researchers are quick to note, however, that this one factor isn’t enough to make a person more violent.

The really interesting aspect of this research is less that scientists have turned to the haute technology du jour genetics, but that we are yet again at a place where sociobiology rears its head. We’ve been here before. In fact, science has stopped at this theoretical rest area again and again throughout history.

Perhaps the most enduring respite in the lap of sociobiological theories of crime was made by the Italian scientist, Cesare Lombroso.

In November 1872, Lombroso performed an autopsy on the body of Giuseppe Villella, an elderly criminal who Lombroso had previously examined while Villella was in prison. During the autopsy Lombroso discovered an anomaly in the cranial structure of Villella’s skull.

Lombroso reasoned that the anomaly was not present in "normal" individuals, but only in the skulls of "madmen and criminals" and was "proof" that criminals are born. In short, criminals represent a type of evolutionary throwback to a primitive state. Lombroso’s studies were published in his highly influential book, L’uomo delinquente (The Criminal Man).

Even then, the work was highly controversial. Lombroso went on to publish several revised and more detailed editions. In his fifth edition, he differentiates between several types of abnormalities. One of his classifications is of persons who are "partially insane." These are mentally disturbed individuals who pass for geniuses, but in fact are ordinary people affected by a pathological compulsion that drives them to undertakings beyond their capacity.

Among the manifestations, Lombroso cites politicians, preachers, doctors and other "over-industrious" individuals.

Among Lombroso’s most enduring influence was the work of a French ethnologist, Alphonse Bertillon. Working with French police, Bertillon took measurements of bony portions of the body, among them the skull width, foot length, cubit, trunk and left middle finger. These measurements, along with hair color, eye color and front and side view photographs, were recorded on cardboard cards. Using these measures, he developed 1,701 separate physiological groupings. Upon arrest, a criminal was measured, described and photographed. The completed card was indexed and placed in the appropriate category.

In an attempt to deal with their own identification issues, the New York State Prisons sent Charles Baker to Europe to learn Bertillon’s methods. What resulted was the first comprehensive method of prisoner identification in the U. S. Unfortunately, the Bertillon system grew unmanageable and was prone to measurement error.

As an adjunct to the Bertillon system, British police began using a system developed by Sir Francis Galton: Fingerprints. Over time Bertillon’s measures were largely dropped in favor of the two photos, some brief descriptors and fingerprints. In the last few decades, we’ve added retinal patterns and now genetic profiles. The criminal man remains well measured.

Will we ever be able to scientifically assay individuals and proclaim them "inherently criminal?" Maybe, but I’m not sure who we could trust with that much power.


Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com