Note: This is one of a series of posts adapted from my new book, Darwin Day in America. You can find other posts in the series here.
By the end of the nineteenth century, American scholars were already talking with excitement about the “new school of criminal anthropology” that sought to use modern science to identify the causes of crime. Leading the way was Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), whose book Criminal Man (1876) remains a landmark work in the field of criminology. Lombroso and his disciples contended that criminal behavior could be explained largely as a throwback to earlier stages of Darwinian evolution.
According to Lombroso, infanticide, parricide, theft, cannibalism, kidnapping, theft and anti-social actions can all be found throughout the animal kingdom, as well as among human savages. In earlier stages of development such behaviors aided survival and were therefore bred into animals by natural selection. As William Noyes, one of Lombroso’s American disciples, explained, “in the process of evolution, crime has been one of the necessary accompaniments of the struggle for existence.” While crime no longer served a necessary survival function in civilized societies, many modern criminals could be considered atavists–reappearances of characteristics from earlier stages of evolutionary development. According to Lombroso, such atavists were “born criminals,” exhibiting from birth the physical as well as behavioral characteristics of savages. Physical markers of such individuals included “abundant hair,” “sparse beard[s],” “enormous frontal sinuses and jaws,” “broad cheekbones,” a “retreating forehead,” and “volumnious ears.”
Lombroso and his followers repudiated the traditional idea that “crime involved… moral guilt.” Italian Jurist Enrico Ferri (1856-1929), one of Lombroso’s most celebrated disciples, argued that it was no longer reasonable to believe that human beings could make choices outside the normal chain of material cause and effect given the advent of modern science, particularly the work of Charles Darwin. Portraying the controversy over Darwin’s ideas as nothing less than a battle between the forces of enlightenment and “the lovers of darkness,” Ferri applauded Darwin for showing “that man is not the king of creation, but merely the last link of the zoological chain, that nature is endowed with eternal energies by which animal and plant life… are transformed from the invisible microbe to the highest form, man.” Ferri looked forward to the day when punishment and vengeance would be abandoned and crime would be treated as a “disease.”
As I discuss in chapter 3 of Darwin Day in America (“Criminal Science”), the application of Darwinism and other forms of scientific materialism to criminal justice in America severely undercut efforts to hold criminals responsible for their actions.
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