Essay on the Relationship Between Heredity and Crime

Lombroso was the first criminologist to correlate crime with the heredity of the criminal. His influence on contemporary criminologists was so great that they also accepted Lombroso’s view that heredity was the sole cause of criminal behaviour of the offender. Lombroso asserted that there are certain criminals who imbibe criminality by birth.

He called them atavists and held that such criminals were incorrigibles. He attributed this atavistic tendency in them due to hereditary influences. Modern researches have, however, shown that hereditary influences have little effect on criminality. As a result of persistent studies carried on in respect of identical twins in western countries, it is now well established that when twins are separated early in life and placed in different environments, they behave differently in their tastes and ways of life.

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This in other words speaks of the strong-hold of environment and weakened effect of hereditary on crime causation. To dispel this view it may further be pointed out that certain races, clans or tribes such as gypsies in Western Europe are known to have indulged in criminality for generations.

In India, the Kanjars and Lohars of Rajasthan and Baluchis are some of the nomadic tribes which habitually pursue criminal traits and take criminality as a mode of life. It may, however, be pointed out that it is not the hereditary instinct that motivates them to indulge in criminal behaviour but the real cause lies in the fact that they are brought up in the criminal environment and the influence of family surroundings on them is so great that they can hardly desist from criminal acts.

Another reason for their criminal traits is society’s distrust for them which makes them indifferent to social norms and they indulge in anti-social acts which are called crimes. The members of these tribes erroneously believe that they are not accountable to society and hence have no choice but to continue their criminal activities.

The tribal offences committed in Adivasi and tribal areas in India deserve a special mention here. They are mostly due to superstitious belief in witchcraft, petty quarrels, sexual indulgence and intoxication due to excessive consumption of liquor, especially in festive seasons.

They are therefore, the result of peculiar socio-cultural conditions of the tribal life and many a times the causes are petty and motives insignificant. Thus, it would not be correct to attribute criminality in tribals to hereditary factor.

Studies carried on by Goring, Henly, Scheldon and Glueck on heredity as a factor of crime causation indicate that it is difficult to establish any possible co-relation between heredity and criminal behaviour because it is practically impossible to isolate heredity factor from other environmental factors.

The greatest merit of their researches, however, lay in the fact that they for the first time focused attention of criminologists on personality of offender which eventually paved way to adoption of reformative methods for treatment of offenders in the field of penology.

It is significant to note that even Lombroso at a later stage modified his earlier views and suggested that only one-third of all criminals by nature are ‘criminal type’. He argued that the other two-thirds were insane criminals which included idiots, imbeciles, paranoiacs, who suffer from alcoholism, epilepsy or hysteria etc.

He preferred to call them occasional criminals. Such criminals are incapable of adjusting themselves to normal society. It is on the basis of this hypothesis that the mentally depraved criminals are classified into four categories under the English Mental Deficiency Act, 1913, namely:

(i) Idiots;

(ii) Imbeciles;

(iii) Feeble minded criminals; and

(iv) Morally insane criminals.

The test of mental insanity essentially rests on the knowledge as to the distinction between right and wrong. This view has, however, been criticised on the ground that insanity does not affect merely institutional (immediate insight) factors but affects the personality of individual as a whole, including his desires and emotions.

It must be stated that Lombrosian theory equating propensity to commit crime with physical built-up has long been discarded. Even Lombroso, in his subsequent writings had accepted that his theory was too simplistic.