Was Lombroso Only a Product of His Own Time?
Cesare Lombroso or Ezechia Marco Lombroso was born on November, 6th 1836 in Verona, into a family of a wealthy Jewish. His search for knowledge was done in Italy solely where he studied in universities of Padua, Vienna and Paris from 1862 to 1876. In 1876, Lombroso was appointed as the professor of ‘diseases of the mind’ at the University of Pavia. Later on, he became involved in the professorship in psychiatry and in criminal anthropology in 1896 and 1906 respectively, at the University of Turin. Lombroso was also in charge in the direction of a mental asylum in Persaro, Italy. On October, 9th 1909, he passed away in Turin, Italy at the age of 74 years old.
Lombroso’s work basically had a strong emphasis on the importance for direct analysis of an individual in studying crime, whereby he utilized measurements and statistical methods of anthropological, social and economic data. He rejected the idea which was established by the Classical School that crime was a characteristic trait in humans. By using concepts based on physiognomy that criminals have a distinct physical features, he combined early eugenics, psychiatry, social Darwinism, Morel’s degeneration theory and French positivism to explain criminological theories which were based on the idea that criminality was inherited. At the time when genetics were not yet explored, Lombroso did not have the basic grasp on the presence of genes but he worked from the understanding of the external observable physical characteristics of the criminal.
Thus the notion of a born criminal was made popular by Lombroso through his biological theories which claimed criminal as having certain physiognomic properties. This was an attempt of Lombroso to predict personality or character traits from the physical features of the human face or body. In his book, ‘Criminal Man’ Lombroso used Darwinian principles of evolution to back up his ideas on inferiority of criminals to ‘honest’ people, of blacks to whites and also of women to men. This has caused a reinforcement of the politics of sexual and racial hierarchy. Though he was influenced by Social Darwinism that refers to the idea that individuals or groups develop certain physical and psychological characteristics to allow them to function more efficiently, Lombroso did not understand the equality in gender roles. Faced with gender roles reconstruction during his time, Lombroso was deeply troubled as this did not fit in with his belief in sexual hierarchy that males were more criminal prone as they were more masculine that females in general.
In the introduction of the editors of Criminal Man, Lombroso was criticized as being a simplistic biological determinist with reactionary ideas. Most scholars’ post-world war II did not agree with the hereditarianism theories of crime made by Lombroso especially after the rise in eugenics movement due to the contribution of biologically deterministic thinking. In the work of Italian historian Renzo Villa, Lombroso’s quest to identify signs of deviance on the criminal body and in the criminal mind places him within the context of nineteenth-century penal science and medicine. In Born to Crime: Cesare Lombroso and the Origins of Biological Criminology, Mary Gibson, concludes that the complexity of Lombroso’s theory caused changes in liberal and conservative policy within the Italian criminal justice system. These works basically demonstrate that the works of Lombroso were standard for his time and was based on humanitarian impulses. But instead of dismissing criminal anthropology, scholars realize that there is a place for it in the broad scope of scientific knowledge of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the work of Lombroso is still credited for the turning of the focus from the legalistic study of crime to the scientific study of the criminal.
Although Lombroso was Jewish and was appropriately labeled as racist, his ideas were not similar as those of Nazi or Italian fascist. The French opposition toward Lombroso was more of nationalist in nature than of any substantial disagreement. According to historians, Laurent Mucchielli and Marc Renneville, Lombroso used the concept of atavism during his time when there was the acceptance of evolution through the teachings of Charles Darwin. The term atavism which came from the Latin word, atavus, meaning generally an ancestor refers to the tendency to go back to an ancestral type. An atavistic individual thus by his definition physically looks and acts as though he or she was a primitive human or primates. Their illogical and rash behavior causes them to get involved in crime is a direct result of the primal traits.
During Lombroso’s period, the understanding of the roles of genes was limited and thus he had used the external appearance or phenotypic properties to identify the physical characteristics which were present in criminals. He attempted to label those he found as atavistic, as ‘throwback’ traits that were associated with criminal behavior. His arguments that many criminals had been born with certain predisposition to unlawful attitudes marked by physical signs were stated to be a well characterized anthropological variety (Parmlee, 1912). Lombroso’s ideas went to a phyletic point as he pointed out that the physical marks of the born criminal were dissimilar from the marks of hereditary disorder or disease but that they were atavistic features of an evolutionary past. Thus, based on the ideas of Lombroso, the born criminal is destructive because he is born a savage amidst the normal. A savage in Lombroso’s work is actually a reverse back to the apish features that are almost similar to the early primates. And the more apish a person is, the more likely he or she is to indulge in criminal activities.
The physical signs that they display allows us to recognize that they came from a distant past. These signs of physical atavistic that were proposed by Lombroso to mark a born criminal include; large jaws, forward projection of jaw, high cheekbones, low sloping forehead, flattened or upturned nose, handled-shaped ears, hawk-like noses or fleshy lips, hard shifty eyes, scanty beard or baldness, insensitivity to pain and long arms relative to lower limbs. During his time, this theory of atavistic stigmata had become an important landmark that was used in criminal trials. By linking such traits with biological observables, he made famous the notion of a born criminal with distinct physiognomic attributes or deformities. He believed that whereas most people evolve, the violent ones devolved which made for a societal or evolutionary regression.
As noted that Lombroso used measurements of skull to get physical evident of atavistic features, his studies were influenced by Franz Joseph Gall, a German physician in the early nineteenth century in his approach of phrenology. Gall had introduced the concept of cranioscopy that was later called phrenology to as method to understand the personality and development of mental and moral aspects by studying the shape of the skull. Lombroso’s studies of crime was influenced through his study of the characters like craniology and physiognomy was also a closely related to phrenology. Lombroso used the study of the skull of criminals to determine atavistic nature that was related toward sociopath and criminal tendencies and he tried to find a link between mental and physical characteristics. Unfortunately, his associations in terms of stigmata or physical anomalies within the criminals were shown to be highly inconsistent or did not exist at all, and this caused dominance in theories based on environmental influences.
Furthermore, Lombroso had identified two types of criminal; the insane criminal and also the ‘criminaloid.’ According to Lombroso, criminaloids did not have the physical properties of the insane or born criminal but they became involved in crime which occurred later in his or her lives but focusing more on less serious crimes. He further categorized them to habitual criminals who were influenced by contacts with other criminal, alcohol abuse and other circumstances. In other words, criminaloids are not really born as criminals but they are influenced by circumstances that cause them to be a criminal.
It is important to observe that Lombroso’s ideas on degeneration and its relationship with criminality was influenced by Benedict Augustin Morel, a French psychiatrist in 1860s which was in line with Charles Darwin’s theory that pathological degeneration from the normal such as physical and psychological degeneration were controlled but heredity and environment factors. Morel formulated his theory of degeneration of mental problems from early life to adulthood and later saw mental deficiency as the end stage of mental deterioration that included mental illness. Lombroso, on the other hand, combined degeneration theory of Morel with Darwinism that was then successful in the early psychiatry which was expanded by the role of Valentin Magnan, a French psychiatrist. Magnan’s theory of degeneration was based on hereditary precept and was a form of evolutionary biology. Lombroso’s view on a born criminal was a throwback to a primitive state of savagery and was placed in a new etiological paradigm.
In the aspect of female criminality, Lombroso took a sexist point of view as he believed in sexual hierarchy that was backed up with the measurements of female skull to search for atavism. He deduced that female criminals were rare with few signs of degeneration as they had ‘evolved less than men due to the inactive nature of their lives’. He pointed out that females were naturally passive and this character withheld them from breaking the law (Lombroso, 1980). He stated that females also lacked the intelligence and initiative to become criminal. From this aspect, it is important to note that during his time, the gender roles reconstruction was still its early development and Lombroso did not believe in the equality of the roles of both genders. For Lombroso, women who were born criminals were ‘monsters’ who belonged more to the male than to the female sex, with the combination of worst aspect of womanhood such as cunning and deceitfulness with the criminal inclinations and callousness of men (Lombroso & Ferraro, 1895).
Lombroso argued that prostitutes evolved in a way that made them unusually attractive while murderesses or violent women evolved an unusual strength. By studying the craniums to get the measurements of the female offenders and the counting of moles and tattoos of imprisoned women, Lombroso and Ferrero significantly found that there was a presence of degeneration such as misshapen skulls or thick black hair, but the female offenders of this study did not fit in the theory of atavism. In fact, there were only a few number that represented the ‘true’ criminal type or born criminal. The study result in only a tiny minority of female offenders and just a slightly bigger proportion of prostitutes that matched up with the criterion that four or more signs of degeneration must exist in the offender’s physiology. The concept of atavism was not able to be accurately proven in this study and thus biological determinism was used instead.
Lombroso believed that conservatism was stronger in women in all questions of social order, and this was not culturally induced, however. He stated that this tendency to be conservative had maintained women to be law-abiding than men. Furthermore, he used a description of the immobility of the ovule as compared with the zoosperm to strengthen his idea of strong conservatism in women (Lombroso & Ferrero, 1895). He saw women as leading a life which was sedentary and less active then men because of their biologically determined role of child-minders. Unlike women, men were considered to be the sole providers for the family which was such the case during his time, in the late nineteenth century, with active and challenging lives that they led making them evolved more than woman.
Even though his theory concluded that women were less inclined to crimes than men, there were evidently rare cases of female criminals and Lombroso explained that their lack of maternal instinct was abnormal and this deficiency was the landmark that to proof the degeneration of criminal women. He stated that these women were genetically more male than female and they represent an unnatural combination of both sexes.
Lombroso attempted to explain the difference between female and male criminals in the way that physical differences could explain why only men became politicians or powerful leaders without taking into consideration the fact that women were denied access to those kinds of achievements in their cultures. He did not pay attention to the fact that within their own fields, women were extremely creative. This observation that he made was standard for his time, as it reflected the role of male hegemony and paternalism and class bias, as the way of living of working class women was overlooked, with more attention given to the norm of the middle class.
Lombroso’s work was famous during his time as he had provided a kind of scientific interpretation that backs up the common ideas that people had during his time that a criminal did have a certain physical appearance about them. People easily labeled certain features like asymmetrical faces, protruding chins and menacing glares as ‘bad’ and the ideas that was brought by Lombroso became a justification of these fears. Combined with his scientific proof, people during his day did not question his theories.
Thus in many words, based on Lombroso’s ideas on innate criminality, a human who kills another, inflicts pain to another, steals and triggers fights are a genetically transferred inheritance that came from his or her apish ancestors. His claims thus cause us to reason out that these crimes are not really to be blamed on the person. These thinking make humans’ conscience and willpower, and other skills such as reason and judgment, absent and it readily accepts that people behavior is dictated by their instincts, similar to animals. A man’s aggression is thus comparable to a wild tiger that cannot stop killing. With this view, Lombroso gave the notion that there would be lack of peace and constant insecurity and conflict in the society that contained such people.
On the contrary, if such people had innate criminal prone nature, and the only way for this criminality to be stopped or reduced, is through selective breeding of the good non-criminal people, Lombroso strongly did not condone the use of death penalty but he believed in the humane treatment of criminals. His ideas were not really questioned at his time but the very same theory was used by the fascist and Nazi theorists as a tool to wipe out a big number of people whom they believed were born criminal through destruction.
While Lombroso’s theories were praised by the general public, skepticism began to brew within the scientific community. Stephen Jay Gould stated in humor that ‘If some men look like apes, but apes are kind-hearted, then the argument fails.’ It was then Lombroso had to spend a major part of his time to prove the criminality in animals. Influenced by French Positivism, brought on by Auguste Comte, Lombroso took a positivist stand that science was separated from the metaphysics and moral branch and it was important to be looking at what is, not what ought to be. Another law which influenced Lombroso greatly was the biogenetic law which he used to strengthen his idea that some criminals were evolutionary ‘throwbacks’ to earlier apish times. According to this particular law, organisms in their individual development (ontogeny) repeat the evolutionary history of the species development (phylogeny).
Early psychiatry did leave some of its strong influence on Lombroso and he stated that a man of genius was essentially a degenerate whose madness was a form of evolutionary compensation for excessive intellectual development (Lombroso, 1894). Due to disproportionately high incidence of insanity and also criminality in asylums, psychiatrists and prison doctors started to speculate if there was a correlation between crime and insanity. Lombroso proposed a general link to connect abnormality and criminal behavior. Earlier on before Lombroso’s idea of the born criminal relation to physical characteristics, no German prison doctor or psychiatrist measured criminal’s skulls. But with the background work of the connection between insanity and crime laid before him, Lombroso had integrated abnormality with his concept of atavism and biological determinism with criminal behavior.
Earlier in his career, he was a staunch materialist and he had admitted that ‘every force was a property of matter and the soul an emanation of the brain.’ He even strongly opposed spiritualism by virtue of scientific education. Later, he was made to change his views after the extensive research on Eusapia Palladino as he pointed out that the phenomena such as the appearance of apparitions of deceased person and phantasms which were induced occurred at the same time and hence was beyond the power of one person to perform. He stated that it was important that these facts were taken seriously to explain occurrences that were influenced by psychic forces. As a founder of the positive school of penal law, Lombroso’s ideas were drawn from materialistic and were focused more from deterministic positivism. His school of thoughts was that the behavior of criminals was caused by the inevitable tendencies that were determined by the organic constitution of the person.
In a way, Lombroso was very much influenced with all the many fields that began to take root during his time such as phrenology, psychology, Social Darwinism, and degeneration theory, that he had been able to use them all in his study of criminology. He had introduced scientific studies of criminal whereby legalistic aspects of it were previously paid attention to. With the approach in studying the hereditary aspect of crime, he had helped in the introduction of eugenics that could be used to the advantage of the human population, to ensure the survival, but also could be misused as in the case of the Nazi whereby people who were seen of the wrong race were eliminated.
Lombroso’s work represented a beginning in the detailed studies of criminals and the criminological processes. Though his theories of atavism were outdated and viewed as unreliable, the fact that he had studied the criminals on a one on one basis provided the platform for the more elaborate and complex studies to be done to understand the nature of a criminal. It is unfair to say that he provided simple theories to criminality, but using limited science and technology he could be said to have used what was available for him to the full measure. He directed the studies of crime toward many distinct branches of modern criminology. To say that he was merely a criminologist of his own time, would be saying that his theories did not engage the scientists after him to look deeper into criminal studies to introduce more branches of scientific exploration, which is what is actually occurring now.