In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Genetics, Environment, and Crime

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Behavioral Genetics
  • Molecular Genetics
  • Gene-Environment Interplay
  • Evolutionary Psychology
  • The Neurosciences
  • Biosocial Methodologies
  • Biosocial Theories
  • Applications and Policy Implications

Criminology Genetics, Environment, and Crime
Kevin Beaver
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 November 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 01 November 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0089


The field of criminology has been guided by theories that emphasize the role of social factors such as delinquent peers, subcultures, and parental socialization in the explanation of crime and criminality. These theories, and the empirical research used to test them, have highlighted the importance that certain environments play in the etiology of antisocial behaviors. For the latter half of the 20th century, however, mainstream criminological theories have opposed the possibility that biological and genetic factors could also contribute to criminal involvement. Most theories, for example, sidestep the effects of genes, and those that do discuss genes typically downplay their significance. As a result, biology and genetics have essentially been “cut out” of criminology. Recently, however, there has been a slight shift in this trend, with a small pool of criminological research beginning to reveal the importance of genetic factors in understanding the foundations of different types of antisocial behaviors. This line of inquiry is a far cry from the outdated nature versus nurture debate that pitted environmental explanations against genetic explanations. More contemporary criminological research examining the effects of genes on various aspects of antisocial behavior draws attention to the complex ways in which genes and environments interact to contribute to human behavior in general, and to antisocial behavior in particular. No longer is it tenable to characterize genetic research as being deterministic, because there is now a solid knowledge base revealing the mutual interdependence of genes and the environment. Seen in this way, modern-day genetic criminological research is highly interdisciplinary, as reflected in the label “biosocial criminology.”

General Overviews

Since the late 1990s, a tremendous amount of articles, books, and book chapters have explored the biosocial underpinnings to crime, delinquency, and other forms of antisocial behavior. Still, most criminology undergraduate and graduate students rarely, if ever, are exposed to the biosocial perspective during their coursework. Wright, et al. 2008b examines this issue by analyzing data revealing the degree to which genetic research has penetrated the discipline of criminology. Fortunately, there are a number of published works that provide accessible overviews of the biosocial perspective. Perhaps the most influential book on biosocial criminology is Raine 1993. A wave of additional books and articles have also provided overviews of biosocial criminology, including Beaver 2009, Fishbein, 2001, Rowe, 2002, Walsh 2002, and Wright, et al. 2008a. These books are designed for beginners, and they are thus relatively free of technical jargon. Instead, they explain the basic concepts related to the biological sciences in very clear and concise terms. Written from a biosocial perspective, Rowe 1994 provides an in-depth discussion of how family-based research is methodologically flawed and how the influence that families have on human development is grossly overestimated. These books are accessible to undergraduate and graduate students as well as researchers who are beginning to learn about the biosocial perspective. Walsh and Beaver 2009 contains original essays dealing with different aspects of biosocial criminology.

  • Beaver, Kevin M. 2009. Biosocial criminology: A primer. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

    Provides an overview of the biosocial criminological perspective that is accessible to both undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Fishbein, Diana. 2001. Biobehavioral perspectives in criminology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

    Discusses the major issues and concepts related to biosocial criminology and applies a biosocial framework to the explanation of criminal behavior.

  • Raine, Adrian. 1993. The psychopathology of crime: Criminal behavior as a clinical disorder. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    A classic book that examines a range of biosocial factors, including neurotransmitters, genetics, and hormones, and how they are related to criminal behavior.

  • Rowe, David C. 1994. The limits of family influence: Genes, experience, and behavior. New York: Guilford.

    A very influential and important book that examines the role of the family in the development of behaviors. Uses an interdisciplinary approach to showcase the limits of standard social science research that fails to control for genetic factors.

  • Rowe, David C. 2002. Biology and crime. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

    Appropriate for both undergraduate and graduate students, this book provides an introduction to the study of crime and criminals from a biosocial perspective.

  • Walsh, Anthony. 2002. Biosocial criminology: Introduction and integration. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.

    Explains the basic concepts of biosocial criminology and shows how biosocial concepts can be integrated into existing sociologically oriented criminological theories.

  • Walsh, Anthony, and Kevin M. Beaver, eds. 2009. Biosocial criminology: New directions in theory and research. New York: Routledge.

    Contains a range of original chapters written by leading biosocial criminologists and dealing with issues related to genetics, the neurosciences, and evolutionary psychology.

  • Wright, John Paul, Stephen G. Tibbetts, and Leah E. Daigle. 2008a. Criminals in the making: Criminality across the life course. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Uses an interdisciplinary perspective to examine the biological, genetic, and environmental factors that influence the development of criminality and criminals.

  • Wright, John Paul, Kevin M. Beaver, Matt DeLisi, Michael G. Vaughn, Danielle Boisvert, and Jamie Vaske. 2008b. Lombroso’s legacy: The miseducation of criminologists. Journal of Criminal Justice Education 19.3: 325–338.

    DOI: 10.1080/10511250802476137

    Empirically examines the extent to which biology is integrated into the graduate curriculum and mainstream criminological journals.

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