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Published onJan 04, 2023

Lesson Objectives

Learning Activities

Learning Assessment

  1. Know the tenets of Biology theories

  2. Identify the development of Biology theories

  3. Distinguish between Biology theories and theorists

  4. Apply Biology theories to real-world criminal cases

  5. Discuss Biology theories’ ability to explain crime

  6. Evaluate Biology theories’ ability to explain crime

Read Ferrero; Gould; Glenn & Raine

Complete Study Guide Biology

Read Review Biology

Watch Theorist Video Raine

Watch “Why the Menendez Brothers Say They Killed Their Parents: Part 1”

Annotate “Why the Menendez Brothers Say They Killed Their Parents: Part 1”

Explain how Biology theory applies to the crime in the video

Come up with your own example of Biology theory operating in another case, such as a recent news event or your own life

Overview and Reading Quiz. Biology

Theorist Video Quiz. Raine

Video Discussion. Biology


Given that this is a criminological theory class, I can’t reiterate the following enough. So, you’ll keep seeing the following:

Theory is a statement about how something affects something else.

Scientific theory states how something empirical (an independent variable) affects something else empirical (the dependent variable).

Something is empirical if you can hear, see, touch, smell, or taste it.

The reason it is good for theories to be empirical is they can be tested and falsified.

Indeed, whether a theory is good isn’t only about being valid. Also, a theory is better if it is simpler, more general, more original, and more useful.

Criminological theory states how something (an independent variable) affects crime (the dependent variable).

The vast majority of criminological theories make statements about why communities, individuals, and situations are more likely to have or commit crime.

Note that criminological theories rarely, if ever, only focus on empirical somethings, but let’s ignore that.

There are a lot of criminological theories that differ in a lot of ways. Mostly though, you should think of criminological theories as being based in one or more disciplines, such as economics, biology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and so on.

Criminology, to be clear, is not a discipline. It’s a field of study; that is, the study of crime.

Current Course Section

After the introductory material, this course has seven sections reflecting major disciplinary approaches to the study of crime. However, because criminology is interdisciplinary, sometimes the lines between disciplines have become murky, so some of the sections have elements of multiple disciplines.

The current section focuses on biological theories of crime.

As with “theory,” “criminology,” and many other words, biology has different meanings. In this class, simply think of it as the study of organisms’ physiology (which actually is a branch of biology) or, in other words, the study of their body parts and how they function.

For this section, you will read three works that are examples of that disciplinary approach to theorizing crime.

Before briefly going over those works, I’m obliged to remind you that we won’t examine every criminological theory of this sort. But if you want to see further examples, you should either do a Wikipedia search or, maybe better yet, browse the Oxford Bibliography entries on Criminology.

Readings and Theories Therein

Some criminologists considered Lombroso to be the father of criminology. I’m not sure if I agree with that (because it depends what you mean by “criminology”), but he certainly is the father of the biological approach to criminological theory.

The reason you’ll be reading Gina’s summary instead of Cesare’s own words is that he wrote in Italian, mostly. There is at least one relatively recent translation of his work (, which is quite good. However, Gina’s summary is also very good and, unlike the recent translation, available online for free.

For me, some of the takeaway points are the following:

Whereas Bentham’s work focuses on community- and situational-factors that are best for controlling (i.e., reducing) misbehavior, including crime, Lombroso focuses on individual-factors that lead people to commit crime.

In other words, Lombroso theorizes why certain individuals are more likely to offend. Lombroso argues that various factors, such as rage (an aspect of psychology), lead to offending.

However, Lombroso is most interested in the biological factors that lead to lawbreaking. He theorizes that some people are “genetic throwbacks” – or “atavists” – and, therefore, are predisposed to commit criminal acts.

Second, you should read an excerpt from Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. This work describes the intellectual context of Lombroso’s theory, and also criticizes the logic and research behind that theory. It also discusses how that theory affected the past and present of the criminal justice system.

Third, you should read Glenn and Raine’s article on “Neurocriminology.” When reading this work, I would like you to focus on the following three things.

One, the biological approach to criminology has changed a lot since Lombroso. The Glenn and Raine article review the major ways, nowadays, that criminal involvement is explained with biological factors. In other words, it reviews the biological factors theorized to explain criminal involvement.

Two, the article specifies which biological factors are most closely associated to crime according to the research. This is important, in part, because it sets the stage for the next bit:

Three, this article discusses how those biological factors could be used to better prevent and respond to crime. You should decide for yourself whether you think those factors are “ethical.”

Ferrero, Gina Lombroso, with an Introduction by Cesare Lombroso. 1911. Criminal Man: According the Classification of Cesare Lombroso. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. (Open access here; read pp. xi-51.)

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man, revised and expanded edition. W. W. Norton and Company (Fair use of pp. 142-175; read first paragraph on p. 142 and then skip to p. 151 and restart with section, “Criminal Anthropology”, ending at p. 175.)

Glenn, Andrea L., and Adrian Raine. 2014. Neurocriminology: Implications for the Punishment, Prediction and Prevention of Criminal Behavior. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 15:54-63.(Paywalled here but open access here.)

Theorist Video Annotation

For this section, you’ll watch an interview with Adrian Raine. He is one of the world’s top researchers on biology and crime. During the interview, he describes how he got into criminology and the research he does. Also, I hope you will find the interview interesting because he spends a lot of time discussing the stigmas associated with that type of research (which stems from Lombroso’s research) and the ethics of reducing crime through biological interventions. If you’re interested in reading some of his work, you can find it by clicking on this link:

Adrian Raine - Oral History of Criminology

Crime Video Discussion & Gist of This Section

Recall that you’re doing video discussions to see whether you can apply the theories to the real world. Some theories can be complicated, but their fundamental points don’t need to be. People, including you, may disagree with me (this is what makes academia fun), but I think the gist – or essence – of the theories examined in this section is as follows:

  • The dependent variable is crime, meaning acts prohibited by law.

  • Crime is theorized to be affected by the biological traits of individuals.

  • As you’ll read in the Glenn and Raine article, there are numerous biological factors that could affect crime. Thus, let’s simply think of all biological factors as potentially being “pro-crime,” “anti-crime,” or “crime-irrelevant." In other words, these theoretical factors may increase crime, decrease crime, or have no effect on it.

In theory, individuals commit more crime if they have more pro-crime biological factors or fewer anti-crime biological factors. Also, that theory could be thought of as operating at the community- and situational-level of analysis.

  • A community is more likely to have crime if the individuals therein have more pro-crime biological factors or fewer anti-crime biological factors.

  • An interaction is more likely to result in crime if the involved-individuals have more pro-crime biological factors or fewer anti-crime biological factors.

  • A small place, like a bar, has more crime therein if the individuals therein have more pro-crime biological factors or fewer anti-crime biological factors.

If you truly understand the above, you’ll be able to do very well on the discussion post. If you don’t get it right now, don’t worry about it. The readings, video, study guide, and quizzes will get you where your knowledge where it needs to be – if you truly do your best on them.

Why the Menendez Brothers Say They Killed Their Parents: Part 1

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