1. Consider whether the evidence supports the idea that criminals and non-criminals are physically different.
The link between genetics and offending behaviour is not necessarily causative and the most that can be claimed is that in some people their genetic make-up may render them more likely to experience certain types of emotions which may be linked to criminal behaviour (but also to perfectly legal behaviours).
From this, it is clear that there is no strong or direct link between genetics and criminal behaviour. However, the way in which and the rate at which the brain develops affects our ability to process information. An underdeveloped or damaged brain impairs a person’s ability to: concentrate, control themselves, make rational decisions, understand the consequences of their actions, solve problems, feel empathy, sort and access information, and learn from previous experiences. Each of these might be one aspect which makes criminal behaviour more likely. There is also evidence to suggest a link between testosterone (and many other substances) and unacceptable behaviour, though this evidence does not generally prove a causal link. Explanations as to how or why the substances cause the change in behaviour are still often far from clear.
Overall, whilst it is clear that biological factors have some role to play in determining behaviour, including criminal behaviour, the extent of their effects may be fairly minor and exactly how their effects might intervene to cause particular behaviours is far from understood.
2. If science proved that there was a physical, genetic, biochemical, or similar cause to crime, what policy implications would this give rise to? Take time to consider the ethical implications to any policy which might be implemented.
If the claims of biological positivism were fully proved, a distinction would be made readily between non-criminals and ‘born criminals’. A similar judgement could also be made against those people who may be later affected as a result of accidents and diseases found to cause brain injuries, impairments, and chemical imbalances linked to criminality. Due to the fact that we are born with certain biological markers and cannot alter our DNA, such judgements may lead to controversial policies for the purposes of crime prevention and public protection. State authorities might interfere early on in someone’s life, for example during their childhood, placing them in an institution, or subjecting them to a particular drug-treatment so that they can control their behaviour. Or, it’s possible they might take even more drastic measures, such as identifying and eliminating ‘born criminals’ or those who are biologically impaired later in life, or stopping them from procreating. Such ideas and policies, though morally repugnant to many, are not unknown and have resulted in dark moments in human history (see the eugenics movement, and the widespread killing and use of concentration camps in Nazi Germany).
It is also possible that we could see more ‘progressive’ policy responses. For example, it may be decided that we should not fully punish these individuals – they could not help their criminal behaviour as it resulted at least in part from their genetic make-up. They should therefore be helped to correct and/or find more positive outlets for their personality traits.
3. Does the history of biological and genetic links with crime teach us more about the dangers inherent in policy applications in this field than it does about the causes of criminal behaviour?
To answer the question, it is useful to revisit the current evidence on genetics and crime and to reflect upon previous historical periods where policies were implemented based on the assumption that there is a link between genetics and crime.
Based on current evidence, there is not a causative or a definitive link between genetics and crime. However, historically, certain regimes have assumed such a link, and we have seen that this can lead to unethical and inhumane results; for example, the crimes against different groups perpetrated by the Nazis in World War II. Such events stand as stark warnings of the awful consequences that can arise when theories are misused.
4. How, if at all, do extroversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism link to criminal behaviour? If there is any link, what use might be made of that information, either to prevent offending or to deal with offenders?
For Eysenck, our personality is the product of our genetic make-up and the environment in which we live. He claimed that three scales influence learning capacity: the extroversion-introversion spectrum (E scale); the neurotic (unstable)-stable scale (N scale); and the impulse control scale (P scale or psychotic scale). High scores impact negatively on social learning – a neurotic, psychotic, extrovert (high N, high E, high P) is the least likely to learn societal norms and most likely to offend. Eysenck also split the extrovert scale into sociability and impulsiveness and found a link between the latter and criminal behaviour. His personality traits idea remains controversial despite some theorists’ and researchers’ support (see McGurk and McDougall, 1981; and Farrington, 1994). The controversy stems from there not being a definitive link between criminal behaviour and personality traits, and from the question of whether personality traits are genetic or learned as we grow up.
5. If you want to reduce crime in a community, is it useful to teach the members of that community how to process information? Assuming it is useful, how might this be achieved?
To answer this question, it is useful to have an understanding of a branch of theories known as learning theories. Of these, social learning and cognitive learning in particular can be useful for crime prevention purposes because they place the person in the heart of their social environment and aim to teach them how to view and perceive their world and others in a prosocial as opposed to an anti-social way. This is significant because if a person starts perceiving their world and others through a less threatening and a more empathic lens, where working together and solving problems are possible, they are more likely to interact with others civilly and avoid criminal behaviour.
Cognitive learning has an established presence in both adult and youth work, including with offenders in prison and in probation. Community networks and organisations can also work towards creative ways of embedding cognitive learning in their activities. In this way, pro-social learning can take place much earlier and involve whole communities.