Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Had the nature vs. nurture debate in class today.

Do people still believe in the nature argument? How about the criminal man? What I mean by this is someone who is born with a biological propensity towards crime. The answer appeared to be no today in class but there were a few stragglers with the idea that nature really can explain behaviour. Take for a moment a consideration of this age old argument that nature drives the actions of human beings. What exactly does it mean and what are it's implications? For reference, I'm not talking about basic biological drives like the need for water, food, shelter, etc. I am discussing the behaviours of human beings and the development of cognitive processes based on genetics or your birth. Cesare Lombroso wrote "The Criminal Man" in 1876 attempting to explain the causation of criminal behaviour based on physical attributes. To simply put, just by closely looking at human beings you can discern whether or not they are a criminal or will become criminal.

Lombroso studied 54,000 patients, ten thousand of which were military soldiers who Lombroso observed during war time, they were not offenders. Lombroso had little to no background knowledge of the many cadavers used in the study and used psychiatric patients not associated with criminal behaviour. Thus, many of these patients are useless to the study of criminal behaviour and not representative of the offender population. Lombroso found that atavistic or savage like physical features linked criminals together, their physical degenerative abnormalities.

The 1993 study, Effect of Socialization Factors on Decisions to Prosecute by Tuohy, Wrenall, McQueen and Stradling showed that police are more likely to initiate interactions with “different” looking individuals and will prosecute those individuals at a higher rate than “normal” looking individuals. Using this social theory we can understand that there would be a higher representation of these primitive or atavistic looking individuals incarcerated based on the behaviour of police and their decisions to specifically investigate and prosecute individuals with these specific physical attributes.

Thompson's 1990 study also stands in contrast to Lombroso. Thompson discovered that approximately half of the inmate prison population in the state of New York were disfigured. This reinforces the concept that there is simply a higher representation of physical abnormalities in prison, not that atavism is proof of causation. Further to Thompson's findings these savage or primitive looking individuals may have a higher risk towards offending due to the socialization of their body type and appearance within their own community. Consider for a moment a child who looks different, they may have an inability to “fit in” because they do not look “normal”. This is a serious threat to their upbringing. The offender may have been shunned by people in their community for how they look and pushed to the fringe of society, socially isolated by school mates, bullied, etc. Truly, environmental issues must play a role in the propensity for individuals to offend.

Ultimately, I'm trying to make an argument to understand the behaviour of individuals through their environment, upbringing and other "nurture" factors. Not that I have the time to blog about it this morning but given an understanding of these factors may also help the justice process involving offenders and the process of forgiveness. Seeing the factors that led to an individual committing a criminal offence may increase empathy of victims (in situations of irrevocable harm this may not be the case) and help the healing process for victims and lead to a restorative relationship.

Boo to positivism,


  1. I personally think that nurture plays a far bigger role than our biology in most of us. However, twin studies and adoption studies have helped me to understand that biology and genetics play a stronger role than most of us social workers would like to believe.

    Here's an article worth giving a read if you are interested:
    Blonigen D.M., Carlson S.R., Krueger R.F., Patrick C.J.
    A twin study of self-reported psychopathic personality traits
    (2003) Personality and Individual Differences, 35 (1), pp. 179-197.

  2. Thanks! I am very interested as a matter of fact. Interestingly enough, I was adopted and met my biological family (including my sister who is only one year younger than me) and must say that from my own experience yes, I can agree with the article that genetics influence the limits and dictates biological development but I firmly assert that the influence of genetics ends there. For example it has been shown that specific illnesses including mental illness ranging to other medical related issues are transmitted genetically. This include psychopathy as we understand this specific disorder as biologically influenced and potentially genetically transmitted (some individuals are more genetically determined than others).

    Alternatively we can understand that biologically, individuals are born in nature with the potential for a maximum IQ score however, if they're not intellectually nurtured they may not meet that maximum potential.

    Otherwise, to say that one's personality or behaviour can be predicted based on their genetic background is oppressive and leads me toward the slippery slope argument; where do we stop? If we believe that a criminal man or woman's child will be criminal do we turn towards eugenics and force eliminate the potential for them to have children, populating the world with criminals? I believe that concepts like the above are wrong. I am a person who is a product of my parents (whom raised me), my community and culture.

  3. Hi Tim, Many people are starting to consider that the Nature/nurture dicotomy as such is a blind alley and one which we need to start seeing past. Have a read of this
    The two things are so necessarily intimately developed in tandem so it's not an either or scenario or which side of the fence are you on. The suggestion of Levine and others is that the brain grows itself in an interaction with it's environment. Genetics are are fundamental starting point but where it goes from there is part and parcel of life experience and early environmental factors. The brain changes as a result of experience.