An adherent of Lombroso’s theory would make quite offensive to some groups of people policy recommendations with regards to crime. It is apparent that supporter of Lombroso’s ideas would initiate crime policies like the ones suggested by Canadian professor Rushton: they would try to link crime with race. (Rushton, 1987) Racial explanations of differences in crime rates are of course hardly new; many criminologists will read Professor Rushton’s statements with a sense of déjà vu.
The attempt to relate crime and race clearly echoes the writings of Cesare Lombroso, both in method and conclusion. Ironically, given Rushton’s research focusing on the head-sizes of different races, Lombroso was also preoccupied with the study of offenders’ skulls. His primary research tool was a craniometer. In his instructions regarding the physical examination of criminals, Lombroso notes: “careful examination of this part (the skull) is of the utmost importance” (Lombroso, 1968).
Failure to distinguish a causal from an associative relationship permeates Lombroso’s writings. For example, in the chapter devoted to racial influences on crime in his major work, he makes statements such as the following: “I have found that in the departments where dark hair predominates the figures for murder reach 12.6%, while the light haired departments give only 6.3%” (Lombroso, 1968).
The reader should not interpret this as an example of mere muddleheaded empiricism on Lombroso’s part, the product of unscientific but benign inquisitiveness. Lombroso’s biological theory has a danger common to all such theories — it led him to misinterpret data and to write statements that are shocking even to today’s reader, inured to racialism by the events of the 20th century. For example, Lombroso notes that gypsies are: “the living example of a whole race of criminals and have all the passions and all the vices of criminals.” (Lombroso, 1968) He then accuses them of all manner of vice, including cannibalism.
The tendency of craniometricians and criminal anthropologists to fit any finding into their explanatory models of crime is shown by their reactions to “anomalies” in brain size: “The large size of many criminal brains was a constant source of bother to craniometricians and criminal anthropologists. Broca (the famous French craniometrician) tended to dismiss it with his claim that sudden death by execution precluded the diminution that long bouts of disease produced in many honest men. (Haskell, 1993).
Broca also argued that brain size increased with the advancement of European civilization. When he found that the brain size of people buried in common graves in the 18th century was, on the average, larger than those buried in the 19th century, he argued that the earlier sample included higher status individuals (Haskell, 1993).
There are some important lessons to be learned from research on race and crime. First, it is clear that the news media are particularly sensitized to controversial research. Most empirical work in criminology is at once more substantive and less controversial. Accordingly, it escapes the attention of the news media and thereafter the public. Second, the importance of addressing the methodological shortcomings of a genetic explanation of crime cannot be over-stated. Although Professor Rushton has steered clear of speculating about the policy implications of a theory linking race and crime, Lombroso was not so reticent.
In his work we find the following: “When we realize that there exist beings, born criminals, who reproduce the instincts common to the wildest savages and . . . are destined by nature to injure others . . . we feel justified in demanding their extermination (Lombroso, 1968).
People who accept the view that variations in crime rates reflect genetic factors may also embrace an underlying message about crime prevention. There is an unmistakable message conveyed by a view asserting a race-crime relationship predicated on genetic differences. Social programs aim to eradicate educational, social, and economic inequities. These efforts can only be undermined by statements stressing the importance of genetic factors in determining criminality.
The real issue is whether we regard the evidence on the persistence of family problems and the continuity of troubling behavior from childhood to adult life as indicative of predispositions that are largely unrelated to their social context and that we are virtually powerless to alter. For many conservative writers, the dark conclusion to be dawn from this evidence is that there are sharp limits to what we can do for either troubled children or the troubled adults they often become. That conclusion lends support to the ever more intensive search for new methods of screening and incapacitation and to the simultaneous neglect of policies to reduce economic and racial disadvantage.