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3. Atavistic Form 3 4

Biological explanations for offending behaviour:
Atavistic form (historical approach)
In 1876, Lombroso suggested that criminals were “genetic throwbacks”. This meant that they were
primitive sub species who were biologically different from non criminals. Offenders were seen as
lacking evolutionary development. Their nature – cannot fit into civilised society – turn to crime.
By today’s standards, this theory is considered naive.
The Atavistic Form includes:
Narrow, sloping brow
Strong prominent jaw
High cheekbones
Facial asymmetry
Dark skin
Existence of extra toes, nipples or fingers
He suggested that here were different features for different criminals:
Murderers: bloodshot eyes, curly hair, long ears
Sexual deviants: glinting eyes, swollen fleshy lips, projecting ears
Fraudsters: thin lips
Besides physical traits, Lombroso suggested that there were other aspects of the born criminal such
as insensitivity to pain, use of criminal slang, tattoos and unemployment
Lombroso developed this theory through:
Examining the facial and cranial features of 100’s of Italian convicts (dead and alive) and
concluded that these physical anomalies were key indicators of criminality
Evaluation of Atavistic Form:
 Evaluation 1 = Father of modern criminology
Lombroso shifted the emphasis away from a moralistic discourse (e.g. offenders were
wicked and weak-minded) towards a more scientific and credible realm (evolutionary
influences and genetics).
In many ways Lombroso’s theory started criminal profiling
 Evaluation 2 = Scientific racism
Several critics have drawn attention to the distinct racial undertones within Lombroso’s
work. Many of the ‘atavistic’ features (curly hair, dark skin) are most likely to be found
among people of African descent.
 Evaluation 3 = Contradictory evidence
Goring (1913) compared 3000 criminals and 3000 non-criminals and concluded there was no
evidence that offenders are a distinct group with unusual characteristics
Although he did suggest offenders have lower than average intelligence (this is very limited
support for Lombroso’s argument that criminals are a sub-species)
 Evaluation 4 = Poor control
Lombroso did not compare the criminals to a non-criminal control group. Without this it is
difficult to draw conclusions that a feature is distinctive.
Also, his sample may have included people with learning difficulties which may have skewed
the measurements as some learning difficulties have a physical effect on facial features.