The quote above is from a new study, getting media play over the last few days (“Is that a gun in your genes or are you just opportunistic?” it begins). It is an unselfconscious (i.e., not historically aware) contribution to a long and dangerous literature claiming to show the biological basis of crime.
Ten years ago, the historian of science Garland Allen published an article titled, “The biological basis of crime: an historical and methodological study” (History and Sociology of the Physical and Biological Sciences 31: 183-222). In it, he cited the recent spate of scientific studies purporting to show a strong genetic basis of crime. His focus was the 1992 “Violence initiative,” a federally funded program to help elucidate the genetic basis of crime and other antisocial behavior.
Allen pointed out the long tradition of finding the hereditary basis of crime, stretching back to the eugenic days of the Progressive era. Leading eugenicists such as Charles Davenport and the anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton claimed that criminal behavior was the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors and that elucidating the genes involved in crime could be a significant social and economic benefit. Davenport, Allen wrote, “brought criminal behavior into the biological arena as an inherited defect of the central nervous system.” (Allen 2001: 188) Hooton, in works such as Crime and the Man (Cambridge, 1939) dissociated himself from the cruder and discredited 19th century anthropometric studies of Cesare Lombroso but borrowed the notion that physical “stigmata” could be reliable indicators of specific criminal tendencies.
These research traditions, Allen shows, have clear continuation into the era of modern genetics, with findings such as the (now discredited) notion that an extra Y chromosome predisposed its carrier to a life of crime, and Richard Herrnstein and James Q. Wilson’s 1985 book, Crime and Human Nature.
“That most eugenicists did not envision the ultimate outcome of their program and ideology is not surprising,” Allen wrote. “Scientists are not very accurate social critics.” (2001: 220)
One could mount a critique of the science in the paper: it has no candidate genes and is based simply on association. It has a broad and subjective definition of “crime” that allows in dozens of subjective, uncontrollable variables. I leave that critique to others.
My argument is simply this: science needs social critics, because its findings carry increasingly potent social impact.
(If any readers have difficulty obtaining any of the linked articles cited above, post a comment with your email address and I will send them to you.)