A Critique of Biological Positivism

June 2001

NB: Endnotes are not linked within text. Please request a copy of the fulltext from the author if references are required.

18 January 2008: I refer readers to this excellent summary of the latest scientific findings in relation to sources of human morality (and the lack thereof in certain inviduals) - "The Moral Instinct" by Steven Pinker, writing for The New York Times.

Biological positivism suffers from the same problems inherent in positivist criminology at large. As described in the quote from Gottfredson and Hirschi, the ultimate contribution of biological positivism so far has been to illustrate some mere correlation between biological variables and crime rates. In terms of the objectives set by these theorists, this must be considered a failure of the 'empirical determinism' concept to fit criminal offending overall. However, does this necessarily deprive biological positivism of any utility?

The fact that the theories have not proven to be the perfect solution to criminology does not mean that they are without value. Afterall, "[t]he suggestion that there is any possibility of one single explanation of criminal behaviour has to be totally rejected because not only is behaviour complex, crime is a social construct which changes over time and across cultures." A holistic look at the various social sciences that comprise criminology shows that each area of discipline has its flaws - but that each contributes in a valuable way to the overall discourse. Biological positivism is no exception, and in fact may be limited only by our present scientific knowledge.

To illustrate this point I shall:
i) criticise the general flaws of the positivist method,
ii) provide a history of biological positivism,
iii) illustrate the errors within each theory, and
iv) describe the leftover value of the theory.

The Positivist Revolution, and the flaws of the positivist method.

Enrico Ferri envisaged a systematic removal of the free will metaphysics of classical criminology, which he intended to replace with a "science of society" aimed at the elimination of crime. This would be "an approach geared only to practical ends … and not cluttered with irrelevant, philosophical, retributory and ethicoreligious beliefs."

Guerry provided this similar mission statement:
"The time has gone when we could claim to regulate society by laws established solely on metaphysical theories and [an] ideal type ... [of] absolute justice. Laws are not made for men in the abstract ... but for real men, placed in precisely determined circumstances."

The new approach was thus intended to discover "the determined, law-governed nature of human action" via the scientific method (be it biological, social or statistical). Consequently it would suffer from the assumptions imbedded in the scientific method itself, namely belief in:
i) the quantification of behaviour,
ii) scientific neutrality, and
iii) the determinism of behaviour.

The quantification of behaviour.

This was a faith in the scientific measurement of phenomena - but it became rapidly difficult for positivists to quantify 'criminal behaviour', especially as a contrast to 'normal' behaviour. Positivists turned to criminal statistics, and a search for the 'moral yardstick'.

Both sought to illustrate some community consensus by which 'normal' and 'criminal' behaviour could be defined. Liberal positivists believed that "[i]n democratic countries there [would be] little scope for large differences between the definitions of the majority of the people and the encoded definitions." In other words, positivists needed only to look at the law for a realistic codification of criminality. This, of course, is an error that positivists had already condemned in the classicists…

Meanwhile, radical positivists such as Raffaele Garofalo believed that a community consensus would exist regardless of codification. However this appeal to the "injury to so much of the moral sense" was no more than an invocation of moral sensibilities. Garofalo, condemns Gabriel Tarde, attempted to "cast [his] anchor in what is the most fluid and evasive thing in the world … feeling."

Scientific neutrality.

This was the assumption that science would provide an objective, non-biased vantage point from which to assess society. However, it appears to be no more than an assumption. It should be obvious that even professed 'objectivists' are capable of rendering value judgments; and moreover, it a well-known modern principle of science that there is no longer such thing as the purely objective 'observer' because:
i) every observation is tainted by the observer itself, and
ii) the language used to express it taints the expression of an observation.

As described by Young:
"The [experts] must explain what is perceived as unusual in terms of the values associated by their audience as usual ... they circumscribe and negate the reality of values different from their own. They do not explain, but merely explain away."

Determinism of behaviour.

This was the belief that deviancy must be subject to discoverable causal laws. It has been criticised for defusing deviancy as a lack of choice, and of reifying human endeavour, with no recognition of moral choice or creativity.


In general terms there are problems with the postulates of positivism. For example, the idea of the consensus worldview denies the role of ethics, and the 'neutral' language of science allows political and commercial exploiters to "use the social sciences as a front which helps them control public opinions and … responses."

This misguided belief in the perceived 'purity' of empirical research must be considered in any look at the work of biological positivists.

Biological Positivism, and theories.

Cesare Lombroso and Atavism.

Cesare Lombroso's groundbreaking work was a direct reversal of the statistical method employed by Quetelet and Guerry. His atavistic theory effectively argued that the nature of the criminal determines the character of the institution, and not vice-versa.

His theory of criminal anthropology was also very popular during its inception, since "L'Uomo Delinquente (Criminal Man)" (1876) was published short after Darwin's "Origin of the Species" (1859). Lindesmith explains:
"It may be that the theory of the born criminal offered a convenient
rationalisation of the failure of preventive effort and an escape from the implications of the dangerous doctrine that crime is an essential product of our social organisation."

Darwin, then, first suggested atavism, when he wrote:
"With mankind some of the worst dispositions which occasionally without any assignable cause make their appearance in families, may perhaps be reversions to a savage state, from which we are not removed by many generations."
Lombroso, who was busy studying the physical characteristics of criminals and soldiers, claimed to have discovered proof of this supposition in a "flash of inspiration" while studying the skull of famous brigand, Vihella:
"[T]he problem of the nature of the criminal - an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals."

One could further determine the people in this category of evolutionary 'throwbacks' by their "enormous jaws, high cheek bones … insensibility to pain" and even behavioural traits, such as "tattooing, excessive idleness [and] love of orgies", all of which led to "the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake."

Lombroso was faced with some criticism of this blanket description, and later developed other types of criminal. Alongside the minority born killer / atavist, he added:
i) the epileptic criminal,
ii) the insane criminal, and
iii) the occasional criminal - called 'criminaloids' (those with trace elements of atavism, who could be drawn into crime through criminal association, or poor education etc), and
iv) criminals of passion (compelled to crime by temporarily irresistible urges, eg love, honour, rage).

To the modern eye, however, several flaws present themselves. Lombroso's theories were found to be statistically unsound, with no recognition of environmental factors on the individual's physical development. Charles Gorring wrote criticisms of the lack of an absolute distinction between criminals, and non-criminals. Meanwhile, the evolutionary 'throwback' concept has since proved to be actually impossible; and Lombroso also ignored the stigmatising effect of physical differences, whereby criminal offending is encouraged through exposure to negative social interaction:
"It seems likely that the attitudes offenders hold about themselves, their peers and crime itself will play a large part in the decision-making process before offending behaviour occurs."

Or, from literature:
"I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty … Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time … And therefore since I cannot prove a lover … I am determined to prove a villain."

Most dangerously though, this type of theory has been used to support arguments favouring eugenics - for example, the Nazi Party used to demonstrate that biological devolution was present in the skulls of Jewish people. This of course justified their execution. (One mustn't forget that this was also the ultimate conclusion of Garofalo's work - that criminal eugenics should be employed in the artificial removal of offenders.)

Simply put, and this is a recurring flaw amongst biological positivists, biology alone cannot explain crime rates. Nonetheless, this was a popular field of research, lead by the studies of John Casper Lavater (facial features) and Franz Joseph Gall (head-shapes, or phrenology).

Kretschmer / Sheldon, and Body Typing.

This theory proposes that disposition (including criminality) is relative to body types, of which there are three:
i) endomorphic: a soft and round body type, typified as slow, comfort-loving, and extroverted,
ii) mesomorphic: a hard and round body type, typified as aggressive and active, and
iii) ectomorphic: the fragile and thin body type, typified as self-restrained and introverted.
Consequently, people with mesomorphic body types make up the highest percentage of our prison populations.

Conrad's contribution to this theory was to point out that mesomorphs are on a lower level of "ontogenetic development" than the others. In other words, their makeup is similar to that of children, therefore they must suffer from psychological immaturity.

This theory fails to recognise a couple of major factors. It doesn't discuss the environmental effect on physical development (such as the effect of a lower-class diet), and ignores the fact that delinquent subcultures recruit new members selectively (gangs prefer to recruit physically fit members, thus mesomorphs). Like Lombroso's theory it also ignores the stigmatic effect of body type on social interaction.

XXY Chromosome theory.

The chromosome pairing of an ordinary female is XX, and for a male, XY. However, there are naturally occurring variations on the standard, for example the 'pairing' XXY, known as Klinefelter's Syndrome. There seem to be certain physical characteristics that flow from an unusual chromosome 'pairing'; people with Klinefelter's Syndrome, for example, often display lower intelligence. Inevitably, biological theorists began to look for a chromosome arrangement to explain criminal behaviour - they came up with the XXY arrangement (though some disagreed; most notably Price, who believed an extra Y to be more relevant).

Following surveys of convicted offenders it was decided that criminals with an XXY pair were:
i) severe psychopaths,
ii) convicted at a younger age than other offenders, and
iii) tended to commit property (not personal) crimes, and
iv) came from non-criminal backgrounds and upbringings.

However, the usual criticisms can be made with regard to these findings. For example, an XXY pair also leads to pronounced physical development, and the same stigmatising effects discussed previously. The research also only accounts for a small portion of overall offenders; and is, at any rate, "manifestly a very crude theory."


The dilemma faced by biological positivists is this: no single biological theory seems sufficient to explain all criminal offending. Furthermore, the instruments of science are not always precise - historically, science often corrects itself (for example, the subsequent disproving of the 'throwback' theory as an impossibility). As a consequence, even those who recognise the potential value of this discipline (or are "scholars friendly to the idea of biological causation") must tread carefully, lest they embrace a theory that is incomplete or scientifically inaccurate.

There are also more general aversions to theories of determinism - Taylor claims that "total determinism palpably contradicts the 'feel' of human existence," and that it is inconsistent with our democratic ideology. While there may be substance in determinist theory, it is perhaps dangerous from the social control point of view - in that it removes moral choice, and discourages individuals from striving for 'good'. In other words, it can arm people with an excuse for their actions, just as it arms the policy makers:
"[I]t is used to back up arguments and proposals, it is selected for quotation at the appropriate, strategic time and place."

It seems to me, and this is a point I strived to emphasise in my introduction, that there is indeed value in a "practical inquiry into the criminal manifestations of individual and social life" . It must, however, strive to be more than absurd reduction of the whole question of criminal offending into descriptions of brain activity, or genetic predisposition. Biological positivism must stand alongside psychological, social, and structural theories of crime if it is to be of any realistic use.


J. Harrower Applying Psychology to Crime (1998).
Taylor The New Criminology (1973).
L. Wilkins.
J. Harrower Applying Psychology to Crime (1998).
W. Shakespeare Richard III 1.i.
Supra 3.
Enrico Ferri, Criminal Sociology.