Fifty years ago this month, 25-year-old Charles Whitman, after killing his wife and mother, climbed the University of Texas, Austin, bell tower and began to pick off passers-by one by one with the arsenal of guns he brought along. In all, he shot 46 people, killing 14. He was a great shot, reportedly hitting some targets more than 500 yards away.
What could possibly explain this deadly series of events? Why would someone be so angry as to want to systematically murder and maim loved ones and strangers? Whitman, described by most who knew him years earlier as a great guy, had sensed something changing in him. The day he climbed the bell tower, he wrote, “I wish an autopsy on me to be performed to see if there is any mental disorder.” The results showed a brain tumor that in all likelihood affected Whitman’s amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for control of emotions and aggression.
Is it really this simple? Do criminals suffer from abnormalities, such as bad heredity or bad brains? Are they “ born criminals”? When criminology, the scientific study of crime and deviance, became a scientific discipline, these were the favored explanations. Some of the first theories of crime argued that certain murderers had a psychosis without any organic deficiency — “moral insanity.” The first criminological theory, put forth by Italian physician Cesare Lombroso, suggested that certain criminals were atavistic throwbacks, not as evolved as other humans.
Criminology was a biological discipline into the early 20th century, with strands of work on the genetics of crime, mental deficiencies and even body types said to be criminalistic (muscular bodies, some thought, were conducive to personal crime).
Yet, in the 20th century, criminology came to be “owned” by sociology, which focuses on factors such as family structure, poverty and neighborhood influences on behavior. Biological theories of behavior came to be seen as the enemy and propagator of evil. Some of this antipathy was well-founded. Much of the biological criminology was indeed racist and used to justify eugenics programs that disproportionately affected the disadvantaged. The Nazis also drew upon biological research to justify genocide. Thus, it was that a science dedicated to understanding deviant behavior virtually ignored the role of the body for nearly 70 years.
Recently, however, an effort has been made to bring biology back into the criminological picture. This work, again, focuses on genetics, the brain and even evolution. But it is more nuanced, careful and recognizes that biology does not operate in a vacuum. The environment one lives in matters as well and even changes how certain biological risk factors manifest. This body of work, appropriately called “ biosocial criminology,” still is nascent but has uncovered a variety of interesting findings, such as that children who experience maltreatment are more likely to be antisocial if they have a variant (an allele) of a risky gene, and that psychopathy is characterized by particular deficiencies in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
This history of the pendulum-like swinging of criminology’s relationship with biology is chronicled in a recently published book that I, along with my colleagues Nicole Rafter and Chad Posick, wrote called “ The Criminal Brain,” published by NYU Press. The biosocial work is important because it allows us to better understand why crime happens and therefore how best to prevent it or stop it from recurring. For example, in a 2014 BDN OpEd, I wrote of how the Maine Department of Corrections developed a program for young adult offenders, based largely on the emerging research on brain maturation during an individual’s early 20s.
It’s not responsible for social scientists to pretend biology doesn’t matter. Yet, biosocial criminologists continue to be met with hostility, as Brian Boutwell of St. Louis University has documented. At the same time, however, biosocial criminologists need to be acutely aware of the ugly history of biology being used to repress certain groups and how such work can mislead. Biosocial criminologists also need to be better versed in sociological concepts such as the social construction of gender and race. Perhaps more fundamentally, there should be a realigning of disciplinary boundaries, in which sociologists do not feel threatened by biosocial researchers and vice versa. A recent exchange in criminology’s flagship journal illustrates that the trench lines still are quite deep.
The explanation of behavior, particularly crime, belongs neither to sociologists nor to biosocial scholars. As long as the tug of war persists, progress in this important area of inquiry will continue to be stifled. Behavior, as nearly every unbiased observer would admit, is clearly a result of biological factors and the environment in which those factors exist.
Michael Rocque is an assistant professor of sociology at Bates College. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.