In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nature Versus Nurture

  • Introduction

Criminology Nature Versus Nurture
Michelle Coyne, John Paul Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0163


The nature/nurture debate has raged for decades, both within and outside of criminology. Early biological theories of crime were strongly influenced by Darwinian views of inheritance and natural selection and tended to ignore or downplay environmental influences. Beginning with the early work of Lombroso’s Criminal Man, biological influences were dominant for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The advent of sociology, however, challenged these dominant explanations. Durkheim, Weber, and Marx, for example, each located the causes of crime not in individual pathologies but in the way societies were organized. Various sociological views of crime became widely accepted among scholars as biological theories fell out of favor. This happened in criminology as well. Sutherland, for example, argued that crime was the result of differential socialization and was not caused by individual, heritable factors. Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, however, argued that the causes of crime were varied and multifaceted—and included biological factors. Sutherland’s view became broadly accepted, which led to the virtual elimination of biological theorizing in criminology from the 1940s until today. Nonetheless, recent advances in the biological sciences have again challenged dominant social views of crime. Unlike early biological theories of crime, the new “biosocial” criminology seeks to understand the various ways biological and environmental variables work together to cause problem behavior. Moreover, much contemporary biological theorizing examines the development of individuals across the life-course as well as issues within the life-course, such as the stability of behavior. Because many scholars now view criminal behavior as the product of nature and nurture, many studies now exist that attempt to account for both processes. Nonetheless, tension between those who view crime as the product of “nature” and those who favor “nurture” remains.

Nature and Development Theories

Nature theories assert that the etiology of criminal behavior is biologically based in genetic inheritance and the structure and functions of people’s brains and other psychological responses. Wilson and Herrnstein 1985 presents the early beginnings and approaches of biosocial theory. Moffitt 1993 presents the author’s classic developmental theory, which is based on a biosocial approach. Modern biosocial approaches of life-course theory and the development of deviant behavior can be found in Wright, et al. 2008 and DeLisi and Beaver 2011. Fishbein 2004 provides a summation of not only the science but also treatment and prevention practices grounded in nature theories. Anderson 2007 and Walsh and Ellis 2007 present overviews and integrated biosocial approaches in criminology. Pinker 2011 is a controversial text that outlines nature theories and uses them as evidence for declining rates of violence in modern times. See also Lombroso-Ferrero 1972.

  • Anderson, Gail. 2007. Biological influences on criminal behavior. Boca Raton, FL: Simon Fraser Univ.

    A useful overview of the biosocial perspective of the etiology of criminal behavior focusing on genetic factors as well as the structure and functioning of the brain.

  • DeLisi, M., and Kevin M. Beaver, eds. 2011. Criminological theory: A life-course approach. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

    An integrated presentation of several perspectives of criminological theories focusing on the development of antisocial behavior from a biosocial life-course perspective.

  • Fishbein, Diana, ed. 2004. The science, treatment, and prevention of antisocial behavior: Evidence-based practice. 2 vols. Kingston, NJ: Civic Research Institute.

    This text presents the origins of antisocial behavior as well as effective theory-based interventions for prevention and treatment of individuals who display them. First published in 2000 (The science, treatment, and prevention of antisocial behaviors: Application to the criminal justice system).

  • Lombroso-Ferrero, Gina. 1972. Criminal man, according to the classification of Cesare Lombroso. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith.

    A reprinted version of Cesare Lombroso’s original work, Criminal Man, written by his daughter Gina. This work chronicles Lombroso’s positivistic approach and study of criminality that laid the groundwork for subsequent biological theories of crime.

  • Moffitt, Terrie E. 1993. Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review 100.4: 674–701.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.100.4.674

    A classic theoretical piece classifying offenders into adolescence-limited offenders and life-course-persistent offenders. This suggests that most offenders are delinquent during adolescence and then desist upon entering adulthood, while only a small percentage become lifelong criminals.

  • Pinker, Steven. 2011. The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking.

    A controversial work that argues violence is declining in society due to advanced genes and evolutionary inheritance. The author capitalizes on human nature and its development over time.

  • Walsh, Anthony, and Lee Ellis. 2007. Criminology: An interdisciplinary approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    This text presents a compilation of modern criminological theories integrated with biological and psychological explanations of the development of criminality.

  • Wilson, James Q., and Richard Herrnstein. 1985. Crime & human nature: The definitive study of the causes of crime. New York: Free Press.

    An early text on the beginnings of the biosocial theory and approach to causes of criminal behavior. The authors explore patterns of offending, namely who commits crimes and why, focusing on characteristics such as age, gender, race, intelligence, impulsivity, and other constitutional factors.

  • Wright, John P., Stephen G. Tibbetts, and Leah E. Daigle. 2008. Criminals in the making: Criminality across the life course. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    A biosocial approach detailing the structure and genetic makeup of the criminal mind and causes of criminal behavior throughout the life-course.

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