Criminology: The Heredity and Causation of Crime

BY Selvaganesh C N | February 15, 2023

Criminology: The Heredity and Causation of Crime

It is a myth to think of a crimeless society. In fact, there can be no society without the problem of crime and criminals. The concept of crime is essentially concerned with social order. Crime also developed as well as human civilization. Ever since the dawn of civilization, crime has been a baffling problem. Historically, the concept of crime seems to have always been changing with the variations in social conditions during the evolutionary stages of human society. Many criminologists tell their point of view about crime. We all commonly know that crime is an unlawful act or anything that is against law. But criminologists have certain rules, definitions, and patterns to follow. For example, In England – The expression crime means any felony or the offence of uttering false or counterfeit coin or possessing counterfeit gold or silver coin, or the offence of obtaining goods or money by false pretences, or the offences of conspiracy to defraud, or any misdemeanour under the 58th section of the Larceny Act 1861. In Scotland –A crime means an offence punishable by summary conviction.  And many countries have their own rules and definitions for single-term crime.  Criminology (From Latin ‘Crimen’-accusation and Ancient Greek ‘logous’-word, reason) is the brief branch study of crime and deviant behaviour. Criminology includes the nature of the crime, cause of crime, reason for crime, punishment for crime, and classification of criminals according to their doings. But in this essay, we see the cause of crime.


Criminologists have always differed in their views regarding crime causation. Continental criminologists often support the endogenous theory of criminality which is founded on the bio-physical consideration of criminals. American criminologists, on the other hand, are more inclined to explain criminality in terms of social factors. They believe that criminals differ from non-criminals in certain traits of their personality which develops unusual tendencies in them to commit crime under situations. It is thus clear that the subjective aspect of crime causation includes the biological, anthropological, physiological and psychiatric study of the offender as against the objective approach which insists on analysis of the socio-economic, ecological, topographical and cultural environment under which crimes usually generate.


Lombroso was the first criminologist to correlate crime with the heredity of the criminal. His influence on contemporary criminologists was so great that they also accepted Lombroso's view that heredity was the sole cause of the criminal behaviour of the offender. Lombroso asserted that there are certain criminals who imbibe criminality by birth. He called them atavists and held that such criminals were incorrigibles. He attributes this atavistic tendency to them due to hereditary influences. Modern research has however shown that hereditary influences have little effect on criminality. To dispel this view it may further be pointed out that certain races, clans, or tribes such as gipsies in western Europe are known to have indulged in criminality for generations. In India, the Kanjars and Lohars of Rajasthan and Baluchis the nomadic tribes which habitually pursue criminal traits and take criminality as a mode of life. The tribal offences committed in Adivasi and tribal areas in India deserve special mention here. They are mostly due to superstitious belief in witchcraft, petty quarrels, sexual indulgence and intoxication due to excessive consumption of liquor, especially in festive seasons. Thus it would not be correct to attribute criminality in tribals to hereditary factors.

Studies carried on by Goring, Healy, Sheldon and Glueck on hereditary as factors of crime causation indicate that it is difficult to establish any possible co-relation between heredity and criminal behaviour because it is practically impossible to isolate heredity factors from other environmental factors. It is significant to note that even Lombroso at a later stage modified his earlier views and suggested that only one-third of all criminals by nature are criminals type.  He also classified criminals into four types, namely:

• Idiots IDIOTS

• Imbeciles

• Feeble Minded Criminals

• Morally Insane Criminals


The term “mental disorder” is also referred to as mental abnormality. It denotes that the mind is in a state of confusion or in some disease. Studies have shown that there is no evidence to prove that the crimes committed by criminals were induced by their mental disorders. On the contrary, crime statistics showed that quite a large number of criminals were persistent offenders and more than 66 per cent of them had a past criminal record and 44 per cent of them had previously been in prison undergoing a sentence.

Be that as it may, the law does take mental illness or insanity into account while determining the criminal liability of the offender. It is also taken into account in sentencing offenders where they are subjected to clinical treatment rather than being sentenced. Insanity has been recognised as a defence in most penal laws. In the Indian penal code, section 84 mentions that – Act of a person of unsounded mind – Nothing is an offence which is done by a person who, at the time of doing it, by reason of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or that he is doing what is either wrong or contrary to law.


Biological differences in human personality also account for criminality in human beings. The logic behind the biological explanation of crime is that structure determines function and persons behave differently owing to the fact that they are somehow structurally different. Physical and biological abnormalities are generally responsible for criminal behaviour. In other words, the criminal is viewed as a biological organism characteristically different, abnormal, defective and inferior, both biologically and physiologically.

The genetic or biological theory of crime states that criminal behaviour is inherited and they are different from innocent physically and biologically. Glandular malfunctioning, racial heritage, moral insensitivity, etc. This theory is an improved version of the atavists theory.

An American criminologist Dr Caldwell showed keen interest in phrenology and published his ‘elements of phrenology’ in 1824. The doctrine underlined three basic proportions:

• The exterior of the skull conforms to the inferior, and to the shape of the brain

• The mind consists of faculties; and 

• These faculties are related to the brain and skull.


Religion has also been instrumental in the causation of crime because standards of morality are set by religious institutions and when these standards are violated it results in a crime. The spiritual teaching of religion helps considerably in keeping a person away from crime and delinquency.

Economic conditions also influence criminality to a considerable extent. Present-day industrial progress, economic growth and urbanisation have paralysed Indian domestic life. Family elders need to earn money. Under those circumstances, the younger one may choose a different path to earn money. From this, it all starts. Unemployment among the youths is also a big problem and it is also another cause of the increase in the crime rate.

Nowadays children are influenced by mass media. Children will easily inspire a character from a movie that may be a hero or villain. He takes that character as a role model and he wants to become that character. Sometimes this also led to criminal behaviour.


The recent developments in the field of psychology, sociology and other behavioural sciences have brought in their wake a corresponding change in the criminological trends and opened new vistas in comprehension of human behaviour.

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