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The Criminal Brain

Understanding Biological Theories of Crime

Nicole Rafter

Publication Year: 2008

What is the relationship between criminality and biology? Nineteenth-century phrenologists insisted that criminality was innate, a trait inherent in the offender's brain matter. While they were eventually repudiated as pseudo-scientists and self-deluded charlatans, today the pendulum has swung back. Both criminologists and biologists have begun to speak of a tantalizing but disturbing possibility: that criminality may be inherited as a set of genetic deficits that place one at risk for theft, violence, and sexual deviance. If that is so, we may soon confront proposals for genetically modifying "at risk" fetuses or doctoring up criminals so their brains operate like those of law-abiding citizens. In The Criminal Brain, well-known criminologist Nicole Rafter traces the sometimes violent history of these criminological theories and provides an introduction to current biological theories of crime, or biocriminology, with predictions of how these theories are likely to develop in the future.

What do these new theories assert? Are they as dangerous as their forerunners, which the Nazis and other eugenicists used to sterilize, incarcerate, and even execute thousands of supposed "born" criminals? How can we prepare for a future in which leaders may propose crime-control programs based on biology? Enhanced with fascinating illustrations and written in lively prose, The Criminal Brain examines these issues in light of the history of ideas about the criminal brain. By tracing the birth and growth of enduring ideas in criminology, as well as by recognizing historical patterns in the interplay of politics and science, she offers ways to evaluate new theories of the criminal brain that may radically reshape ideas about the causes of criminal behavior.

Published by: NYU Press

Front matter

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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

All early theories of crime were biological. Indeed, until the early 20th century, biological theories and criminology were virtually synonymous. But then biological theories were pushed aside by sociological explanations of criminal behavior. Although a few die-hard eugenicists kept biological theories alive, by the end of World War II, when people realized what the Nazis had done in the name of biology...

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1. Introduction: Crime, History, Science

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pp. 1-16

The Van Nest murder case of 1846, while unique in its tragic details, illustrates many of the issues typically raised by biological explanations of crime. The killings occurred in an isolated farmhouse on the shore of one of New York’s Finger Lakes, on a March evening just as the seven members of the Van Nest family and their hired man retired to bed. Someone slipped into the house and butchered the farmer, his pregnant...

Part I. Biological Theories in the 19th Century

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2. Moral Insanity and the Origins of Criminology

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pp. 19-39

Criminology—the effort to account for crime scientifically—emerged, like other social sciences, out of the 18th-century political, philosophical, and scientific upheavals known as the Enlightenment. In the distant background lay the medieval world, with its authoritarianism, political hierarchies, and preference for theological and metaphysical explanations. In the middle background lay the Renaissance, with its...

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3. Phrenology: The Abnormal Brain

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pp. 40-64

Phrenology—the early 19th-century system of reading character from the contours of the skull—produced one of the most radical reorientations in ideas about crime and punishment ever proposed in the Western world. In the area of jurisprudence, its practitioners worked to reestablish criminal law on a new philosophical basis; to overhaul ideas about criminal responsibility; and—in a retributivist age—to develop a...

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4. Criminal Anthropology: The Atavistic Brain

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pp. 65-88

Cesare Lombroso, the Italian physician, psychiatrist, and selfstyled anthropologist, was undoubtedly the most significant, if also the most puzzling and contradictory, figure in the entire history of criminology. As the founder of the field of criminal anthropology, Lombroso was the...

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5. Evolutionary Theories: The Degenerate Brain

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pp. 89-118

Evolutionism—meaning all natural explanations of organic development, Darwinian or otherwise—fundamentally influenced 19th-century ideas about deviance in general and crime in particular. We would have to look to today’s genetics revolution to find a science comparable in its repercussions on thinking about social problems and human nature itself....

Part II. Biological Theories in the 20th Century

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6. Stupidity Theories: The Backward Brain

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pp. 121-145

In May 1927, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., of the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case of Buck v. Bell, Superintendent based on the feeblemindedness theory of crime.1 The case involved Carrie Buck, a young woman who had been committed, involuntarily, to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble...

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7. Constitutional Theory: Bodytypes and Criminality

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pp. 146-175

Does body shape have anything to do with criminal behavior? In the mid–20th century, there emerged a criminological school with precisely that message. Proponents thought of themselves as “constitutional” theorists, meaning that they sought the causes of crime in the way the body is constituted or formed. The theory had European roots, but by the 1930s...

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8. Criminology’s Darkest Hour: Biocriminology in Nazi Germany

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pp. 176-198

During the twelve years of Hitler’s Third Reich (1933–1945), the Nazis used biological theories of crime to justify the killing of tens of thousands of people—millions, in fact, if we consider that the Nazis justified the extermination of not only lawbreakers but also Jews and...

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9. Contemporary Biocriminology

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pp. 199-236

Coming into their own after World War II, sociological explanations of crime dominated theoretical work in the academy for the rest of the century. Biological theories, tainted by associations with Nazi eugenics, fell into disgrace, and the medical model was rejected as a tool of repression. Mainstream sociologists investigated the roles of...

Part III. Biological Theories in the 21st Century

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10. A Criminology for the 21st Century

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pp. 239-251

No one has ever been able to answer the questions about criminals’ brains raised by William Freeman’s massacre of the Van Nest family. Might Freeman’s head injury have caused him to kill the Van Nests? Or was he a calculating, cold-blooded killer who for some unfathomable reason decided to wipe out a family he hardly knew? How...


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pp. 253-282


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pp. 283-308


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pp. 309-316

About the Author

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pp. 317

E-ISBN-13: 9780814769010
E-ISBN-10: 0814769012
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814776131
Print-ISBN-10: 0814776132

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2008