Science history: the misguided criminologist

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Cesare Lombroso, a psychiatrist beguiled – and, frankly, confused – by Darwin.

Credit: clu/Getty Images

“No one in the history of criminology has a reputation like Cesare Lombroso,” says Matthew DeLisi, a sociology professor and criminology expert from Iowa State University, in the US, writing for Oxford Bibliographies.

DeLisi is reviewing Lombroso’s “essential work”, the book Criminal Man, first published in 1876, and which went through five revised editions in his lifetime.

Lombroso, born on 6 November 1835, in Verona, then part of the Austrian Empire, now Italy, studied at universities in Vienna and Paris. From 1862 to 1876 he was a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pavia, in Lombardy, Italy.

In 1871 he became director of the mental asylum in the Italian city of Pesaro, and in 1876 took up the post of professor of forensic medicine and hygiene at the University of Turin, where he later served as professor of psychiatry and then of criminal anthropology.

DeLisi says Lombroso was a “multifaceted scholar who looked at virtually every aspect of the lives, minds, bodies, attitudes, words, lifestyles, and behaviours of criminal offenders, in hopes of finding the definitive cause of crime”.

In a 2011 paper, Cesare Lombroso: an anthropologist between evolution and degeneration, published in the journal Functional Neurology, University of Pavia academic Paolo Mazzarello says Lombroso discovered Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species in 1862 and “was impressed by the very idea of evolution, even though he did not really understand the mechanisms (variation and natural selection) proposed by Darwin to explain the tree of life”.

“However,” Mazzarello adds, “the British scientist captured the mind of Lombroso, who immediately tried to apply the variation of species idea to anthropology.”

He says Lombroso “became world famous” for his theory that criminality, madness and genius were part of “the same psychobiological condition: an expression of degeneration, a sort of regression along the phylogenetic scale, and an arrest at an early stage of evolution.

“Degeneration affected criminals especially, in particular the ‘born delinquent’ whose development had stopped at an early stage, making them the most ‘atavistic’ types of human being.”

DeLisi believes Lombroso’s main thesis is his idea of atavism, and he supports this assertion with a quote from Criminal Man:

“Born criminals, programmed to do harm, are atavistic reproductions of not only savage men but also the most ferocious carnivores and rodents. This discovery should not make us more compassionate toward born criminals (as some claim), but rather should shield us from pity, for these beasts are members of not our species but the species of bloodthirsty beasts.”

Ultimately, Mazzarello says, Lombroso’s theories were “completely undermined by methodological weaknesses (poor sampling technique, bias in gathering data, poor statistics) and by his idea that physical stigmata of criminality were intrinsically biological rather than, often, the consequence of malnutrition and poverty”.

Lombroso died in Turin on 9 October 1909. He was an “authentic worldwide cultural phenomenon” of his time, Mazzarello says, and as a strong advocate of biological determinism in behaviour, “he had a direct influence on the evolution of anthropological thought.

“He saw, in the structure and function of the brain and in the characteristics of the body, the basis for understanding psychopathology.”

For this reason, he says, Lombroso is often considered “one of the fathers” of criminology and criminal anthropology”. “While this is perhaps going too far,” he caustions, “he was nevertheless a great cultural phenomenon and one of the most influential figures of biological and medical positivism.”

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