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Crime is not Hereditary, it is Learned from others

Executive summary

The reasons behind people committing crimes are very complicated and this issue has been the subject of intense debate throughout history. The main topic of the discussion on criminal behaviour is whether criminal behaviour is hereditary, i.e., are people born with a criminal mind, or is criminal behaviour the product of learning from others and the surroundings? This paper attempts to examine and analyse the numerous studies and theories presented to explain the origins of criminal behaviour among individuals. The various theories of criminology have adopted different approaches to understanding the root of criminal behaviour.

The History of Criminology Theories

The concept of crime and the root of criminal behaviour has bedazzled sociologists and psychologists since ancient times. Some of the main explanations regarding the origin of criminal behaviour in individuals may be attributed to the abnormalities of the genes, the difference of psychological mentalities of different individuals or the differing socialising patterns among various individuals. Throughout the history of humankind, intellectuals have tried their best to explain the cause of crimes.

One of the most ancient theories of criminology in this context is the old Roman theory. It is founded on the observations of crimes in ancient Roman society. The Roman intellectuals observed that a majority of the crimes at that time were committed at night, in the presence of the full moon. Therefore, it led Roman scholars to believe that the appearance of a full moon is responsible for causing a temporary form of insanity in criminals. These intellectuals considered a crime not to be random, but the consequence of the adverse impact of the lunar cycle on humans.

It is imperative to analyse all the social, and institutional forms to determine the real cause of crimes. All the aspects of society and the environment play their role in the enhancement or the reduction of the possibility of a person engaging in criminal acts. A child, at the time of her birth, has a blank mind. Her mind gradually fills up with the information she absorbs from her surroundings and the people around her over time. Therefore, the root of criminal behaviour cannot be fully comprehended without a careful examination of the social and learning settings a person is exposed to after her birth.

However, these initial attempts at understanding the root of crime were not entirely adequate and became obsolete over the passage of time. Therefore, it is imperative to examine the sociological theories of crime that were presented later on in history.

The Sociological Theories of Criminology

The sociological theories of criminology are the most widely used theories in the United States to understand the causes of crimes. The two most significant sociological theories in this regard are the theory presented by Cesare Lombroso and the sociological theories of the Chicago school of thought.

Cesare Lombroso

Cesare Lombroso was a criminologist of Italian origins. He presented the idea that criminal individuals are born that way. He considered criminal behaviour to be genetic and therefore, according to Lombroso, crime cannot be taught. It is not something that a person can be taught or learns over the course of her lifetime. He published the book titled, L’Uomo Delinquent. His work focused on the scientific concepts of criminology and was greatly influenced by the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin.

He stated that some humans are predisposed biologically to criminal behaviour and are like that since their birth. Moreover, he was of the view that criminal individuals were the products of a throwback to the previous genetic forms. It is known as the concept of atavism. According to it, a criminal person is identifiable from the people without criminal behaviours through various physical anomalies. He studied several military personnel and prisoners in Italian prisons to develop his theory. He suggested that some of the leading physical features that made the criminals distinguishable from the military personnel were the flat noses, the large lips and the specific shape of the skulls of the offenders. Also, specific artificial identification measures can also be used to distinguish criminals from noncriminal people, such as tattoos or their participation in orgies.

However, the theory soon fell out of favour among the leading sociologists and criminologists due to its insufficient explanation of the causes of crime. Especially the later emergence of the Chicago School of thought is regarded as the most important one in discrediting the work of Cesare Lombroso and his understanding that criminals are born in that manner.

The Chicago School of Thought

The Chicago School of thought on criminology emerged in the 1920s and the 1930s. It viewed criminal behaviour in the light of sociological perspectives, instead of genetics or heredity. It was highly successful in shifting the focus from the crime being a hereditary aspect to the offence being the product of the interactions of a person with the society she lives in. This modern perspective on crime causation called for the prevention of crime on the basis of environmental designs. A number of such environmental design approaches are being considered to minimise crimes over the passage of time.

According to the Chicago School of thought, all humans are born equal, that is, they are inherently innocent. It is society and the environment that transform innocent individuals into criminals.

Therefore, the Chicago school of thought is very significant in the history of criminology theories, as it played a crucial role in moving past the old concepts of the classical school of thought. The previous theories considered a crime to be individual responsibility and regarded crime as the product of the genetic aspects of a person, her physical features and her rational choice. The Chicago school, on the other hand, explained crime in the light of socialisation.

Some of the most significant theories of the Chicago School of thought are described below.

The Theory of Social Disorganization

It is one of the most significant criminology theories of the Chicago school of thought. The central aspect of this theory is its emphasis on the varying levels of social hardships and economic difficulties different individuals have to go through during their lifetimes. Also vital in this regard is the disproportionate levels of criminal activity people living in the inner regions of the cities have to face in comparison to the people residing in the other areas of the cities.
The continuous influx of persons and various forms of businesses into the inner areas of the cities, accompanied by the rampant poverty and the greatly transient environment of the regions result in families being broken down. Also, several other social institutions that are the source of encouraging conformity, such as schools and colleges breakdown.

In addition to the breakdown of the vital social institutions and influences, the theory of social disorganisation also considers the impact of the negative influences of the environment on the development of delinquent and criminal behaviours. The regions where there is a high degree of social disorganisation, present a more sustainable environment for developing criminal value, as compared to the areas demonstrating a high degree of social cohesion. Therefore, the rise in criminal values influences an even higher number of individuals to engage in deviant behaviours.

The Theory of Social Learning

This theory expands the concepts of the Chicago school of thought. The leading point of this theory is that it deals with crime in the light of social learning and adoption. For instance, if a child sees her parents not paying their taxes and staying in the company of friends who display delinquent and criminal behaviours, accompanied by the fact that they live in an area that can be considered a slum inhabited by criminals; she is continuously exposed to a constant influence of delinquent behaviour. Also, the child is going through the most critical stages of her emotional and psychological development. Therefore, the child would consider such type of behaviour to be the standard norm and would imitate the acts that she witnesses her peers engaging in. Such a child would begin to engage in criminal behaviour by small juvenile crimes and would gradually climb up the ladder towards becoming increasingly criminal.

Moreover, the theory also emphasises the consequential social reinforcements that act as a response to criminal attitudes. This response to criminal activity may result in either its strengthening or the person refraining from such action in the future. In the case that delinquent acts in childhood are rewarded, in the form of the elevation of social status or monetary rewards, such behaviour is very likely to continue in the future. On the other hand, if such act is discouraged via the means of counselling or other punitive measures, the child is very likely to stop engaging in delinquent behaviours.


Understanding the actual reasons behind people engaging in criminal behaviour is a very complicated process. The process is further complicated by the presence of a vast number of criminology theories attempting to explain crime in different perspectives. However, the old concept presented by Lombroso that crime is hereditary has become obsolete in modern times. Although ineffective, he was successful in sparking the interest of later sociologists and criminologists to take an interest in the field. The later Chicago school of thought proved to be highly useful in explaining crime as the result of the learning process and the influences of the social environment. Therefore, it can efficiently be stated that crime is not hereditary. Instead, it is the product of learning from others.



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