Criminology, Features, Science, Science / Tech

How criminologists who study biology are shunned by their field


– But what’s puzzling you, is the nature of my game.

“Sympathy for The Devil” The Rolling Stones

I am a criminologist by training, which means that I make my living trying to better understand the causes of criminal behavior.  My research specialty in particular is something my colleagues and I call biosocial criminology. What is that, you ask? The simplest way to answer that question is to clarify what it is not — biosocial criminology is not one thing. It encompasses various flavors of psychology, biology, genetics, and neuroscience all aimed in the direction of understanding why human beings engage in a host of disreputable, dangerous, aggressive, and, of course, illegal behaviors.

The logic for approaching the study of crime in this manner is simple. Human beings perpetrate criminal behavior and humans are biological creatures. Simple reasoning would require that biology should play some role in the production of crime. For decades, however, our traditional criminology colleagues disagreed with us. They sternly rejected the chain of thought that I just described and chided those of us who maintained that biology was important. Even now, doubts persist about the importance of biology for the study of crime.  

While writing this, it struck me as ironic that an important father of modern criminology, Cesare Lombroso (Italian physician from over a century past), was one of the first scientists to proffer biologically tinged theories of crime. Although these theories were incorrect, they were key steps in the evolution of criminological science.  But, as fate would have it, the very science birthed in part by the physician, a “biosocial criminologist”, would eventually grow hostile to biology.  Lombroso and his arguments were caricatured, transformed into the laughing stock of the field [1]. First year theory students (undergraduate and graduate) are now treated to an annual skewering of Lombroso.  Everyone in the class has a nice chuckle at his expense and the discussion moves along to the “true” sociological wisdom that waits ahead in the semester.  

In any situation where two sides of an argument are competing for the intellectual high ground, it is natural to ask who was right. A massive study [2] just published in the academic journal Nature Genetics synthesized 50 years worth of behavior genetics research and settled the issue nicely. I’ll distill the findings down: there is virtually no human trait untouched by genes.

Whether the question concerns why some are taller than others, why some are smarter than others, or why some are more psychiatrically disturbed than others, the answer is that genetic differences play a role. There have also been four separate reviews of the literature examining behavior genetic studies on the topic of criminal and antisocial behavior specifically [3,4,5,6].  The conclusions are precisely the same as those from the Nature study. The reason why some are more prone to crime than others has much to do with their genes. Do not bother lazily invoking explanations like poverty, parenting, neighborhood factors, and the like. Start with genes and then go from there.

At this point, I can already hear the critics chiming in about how I’ve glossed over every bit of important nuance.  Where is the discussion of gene-environment interaction and gene expression? Why have I behaved like such a genetic determinist?  Have I glossed over some nuance? To some degree, yes, but I have a good reason for doing so.  The purpose of our discussion is not to delineate the intricacies of gene-environment interplay.  More importantly, frivolous appeals to near meaningless “it’s both nature and nurture” type arguments serve no purpose.  Behavior genetic models are designed to parse genetic and environmental influences on outcomes at the population level so it is entirely meaningful to talk about both separately. Do genes and environments (as well as multiple genes in the genome) interact to influence behavior? Yes. Does gene expression change across time as a result of environmental exposure and because of the regulatory functions of other genes? Yes. Are these vital components to explaining large swaths of human differences in violent, aggressive, and criminal forms of behavior?  The evidence does not suggest it to this point, but there is more work to be done.

The real intent of this article, though, is to provide a glimpse of what it is like when you approach the study of crime from a biosocial perspective. Let’s assume you begin cultivating your interests in graduate school. The likely consequence is that you will have a hard time finding a mentor. This is important because a doctoral student needs a mentor to advise them, direct them, train them, and (obviously) chair their dissertation [1]. A colleague recently reminded me of the phone calls and emails he has received from students in criminology programs around the country who either had faculty members refuse to mentor them, or try to actively discourage them from cultivating an interest in biosocial research.  There are not many biosocial criminologists in the world and not all of us are employed at universities that offer a PhD in criminology. I work at a wonderful university, but we do not offer a PhD in the field. Biosocial criminology students are disadvantaged from day one in graduate school.

Let’s say you procure your training and obtain your degree. The job market waits ahead. It is certainly true that no tenure track job is easily had; they are all highly sought after.  As my colleagues have pointed out elsewhere [1], even a cursory peak at the American Society of Criminology’s job postings online will reveal the absence of schools in search of biosocial criminologists. Occasionally a posting might pop up, but generally it seems that no one needs “one of us.” My colleagues and I all have jobs, thankfully, but it was not usually because schools were looking specifically for a biosocial criminologist. To be fair, respected programs in the past have sought out biosocial scholars. But this isn’t common. There are also the hurdles that a biosocial job candidate encounters when he/she manages to obtain an interview [1].

Not long ago a colleague of mine was invited on a job interview only to be confronted with charges of having conducted racist scholarship. The fact that my colleague’s research agenda has nothing in principle to do with race seemed to offer little in the way of protection against the attacks of righteously indignant faculty.  Needless to say, my friend was not offered the job and one wonders why the department even bothered to conduct the interview.

Let’s assume you get a job. Now comes the continued need to publish your research.  Publishing is difficult. It takes time, and time is a commodity that slips away when you begin a tenure-track job. You are responsible for teaching, serving on committees, as well as a host of other tasks that crop up along the way. Everyone faces the trials of peer review but it is decidedly different for biosocial criminologists. The simple reason is that many in the field are unqualified to review your research [1]. Why? They have a minimal (and I’m being generous) understanding of biological concepts. Criminological curricula do not require biology classes to be taken. Does this stop them from trying to evaluate your work? It most certainly does not.

To get a paper rejected is one thing, that’s quite common. To get a paper rejected because the reviewer is in possession of a “moral objection” to studying genes and crime, yet can offer no substantive critique of your methods, is frustrating (to put it mildly).  One end-around for avoiding this is to submit to journals outside the field. Psychology and psychiatry journals are very receptive to biosocial work and my colleagues and I have published in these outlets. One gains advancement in one’s field, however, by publishing within that field. Publishing outside the field is important, but we want to also push forward the study of crime as criminologists. That is becoming increasingly difficult.

To this point nearly everything I have written overlaps with the struggles encountered by scholars in all fields.  There is a special twist for biosocial criminologists, though. We are forced to work with the shadow of eugenics hovering above us like a pestering poltergeist. Our colleagues insist that we acknowledge all of the evils that our work could spawn. We are asked to anticipate all the musings of some yet to be identified “anti-Christ” and properly ward off that impending malevolence by prostrating ourselves in atonement for the sins of twisted “scientists” with whom we have no affiliation.  But, as Steven Pinker astutely pointed out in his bestseller The Blank Slate, almost never do we bemoan the sins of environmentalism. Only rarely do we eulogize those destroyed in the name of an endlessly malleable human nature at the hand of butchers like Stalin and Mao. Be certain, though, that as a biosocial criminologist you will wear the mark of the beast (not a 666 but instead an h2).

Should you have sympathy for the devil? Should you care about the struggles of a few academics, people you probably didn’t know existed prior to reading this article? I’ll leave you to decide for yourself about sympathy. Given that we will likely never meet, your sympathy (though appreciated) will do us no good. I do think our struggle has relevance, though, because it illustrates something important about how information from the sciences trickles outside the field. Realize that well regarded professional scholars of crime — the ones who have held appointments at the National Institute of Justice, served on crime task forces, have held and are holding named professorships at prominent universities, and those who remain well positioned to influence the national discourse on crime—are generally hostile to the enterprise of biosocial criminology. They maintain outmoded understandings about where crime comes from and generally reject the science suggesting that their knowledge base is wrong. Does this actually translate into real attempts to silence our work? It does. Just last year (2014) an article [7] was published in our flagship journal calling for studies examining the heritability of antisocial traits (i.e., the genetic contribution to those traits) to be ended and expelled from the discipline.

While the suggestion to effectively censor research was bizarre, the ability of the authors to make such a suggestion must be defended on the grounds of academic freedom. They were well within their rights to mount such an argument. Yet, the fact that their solution was outright suppression of a certain form of research speaks to the deep animosity for biosocial scholarship that still exists in the field. And make no mistake, their arguments were not simply rooted in methodological nuance regarding whether heritability estimates are accurate or not. No, they were careful (in a subsequent article) to artfully link our work with the dangers of eugenicists of the past, conveniently reminding our colleagues (in case they forgot) what mark we bear on our forehead [8,9,10]. They wore the white hat and we wore the black hat.

Some in my field will view this column as hostile. Others, likely outside the field, will view it unkindly because it will seem overly dramatic. As I mentioned earlier, my goal is not to drum up sympathy (nor is it to be needlessly hostile). I don’t view that as a useful enterprise.  The intention was to make you aware of the political currents that flow behind the scenes in the study of crime. We are a field that continues to be deeply resistant to biology. Try to imagine a similar philosophy rooting down into the soil of psychiatry. Envision the field someday dismissing the idea that the brain has anything to do with mental illness. Imagine that prominent scholars begin punishing individuals for even suggesting that a three-pound lump of tissue could ever impact healthy mental functioning.  It’s an absurd thought experiment because it would never happen. The evidence suggesting that the brain is involved in mental illness is so incredibly obvious that to suggest otherwise makes you look foolish. Most criminologists are perfectly happy to never speak of the brain.   

Worse still, having it frequently insinuated that you are a racist, a bigot, and hateful towards certain segments of society is tiresome.  Much of the field seems to have adopted the assumption that anyone interested in biosocial criminology is simply incapable of mustering the requisite level of humanity and compassion needed to care about the struggles of others. Biosocial criminologists endure reputational attacks often. The field of criminology is not an especially cordial place to work.  

Our purpose, though, is important: to understand all we can about why humans harm one another.  It would stand to reason that we should try and get the answers right. Assuming that biology does indeed matter, perhaps it is time to give the “devils” of criminology their due, if not your sympathy.

Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter: @fsnole1



  1. Beaver, K. M., Nedelec, J. L., da Silva Costa, C., & Vidal, M. M. (2015). The future of biosocial criminology. Criminal Justice Studies, 28(1), 6-17.
  2. Polderman, T. J., Benyamin, B., de Leeuw, C. A., Sullivan, P. F., van Bochoven, A., Visscher, P. M., & Posthuma, D. (2015). Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies. Nature genetics, 47, 702–70.
  3. Ferguson, C. J. (2010). Genetic contributions to antisocial personality and behavior: A meta-analytic review from an evolutionary perspective. The Journal of social psychology, 150(2), 160-180.
  4. Mason, D. A., & Frick, P. J. (1994). The heritability of antisocial behavior: A meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 16(4), 301-323.
  5. Miles, D. R., & Carey, G. (1997). Genetic and environmental architecture on human aggression. Journal of personality and social psychology, 72(1), 207.
  6. Rhee, S. H., & Waldman, I. D. (2002). Genetic and environmental influences on antisocial behavior: a meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies. Psychological bulletin, 128(3), 490.
  7. Burt, C. H., & Simons, R. L. (2014). Pulling back the curtain on heritability studies: Biosocial criminology in the postgenomic era. Criminology, 52(2), 223-262.
  8. Burt, C. H., & Simons, R. L. (2015). Heritability studies in the postgenomic era: The fatal flaw is conceptual. Criminology, 53(1), 103-112.
  9. Barnes, J. C., Wright, J. P., Boutwell, B. B., Schwartz, J. A., Connolly, E. J., Nedelec, L., & Beaver, K. M. (2014). Demonstrating the validity of twin research in criminology. Criminology, 52(4), 588-626.
  10. Wright, J. P., Barnes, J. C., Boutwell, B. B., Schwartz, J. A., Connolly, E. J., Nedelec, L., & Beaver, K. M. (2015). Mathematical proof is not minutiae and irreducible complexity is not a theory: a final response to Burt and Simons and a call to criminologists. Criminology, 53(1), 113-120.
Filed under: Criminology, Features, Science, Science / Tech


Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. His research interests include the biological evolution of human traits, genetic and environmental underpinnings of human violence, and general intelligence. His published articles have appeared in PLOS One, Behavior Genetics, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Psychiatric Research, Criminology, and Social Science and Medicine as well as others. He was also a coeditor of The Nurture versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology: On the Origins of Criminal Behavior and Criminality (Sage).


  1. Pingback: Why are biosocial criminologists shunned by their field? « Claire Lehmann

  2. Joel Eissenberg says

    Hi Brian,

    I’m in the Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Department at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. My PhD is in genetics, and I’ve spent my entire career working as a molecular geneticist. Twin studies certainly show significant heritability for behavioral disorders like schizophrenia, autism and alcohol/drug dependency. However, the interesting question really isn’t whether there are genetic contributions to human behavior, it is the magnitude of the genetic contribution, the nature of the contribution and the role of environment in influencing the behavior.

    To take an obvious example, there is a significant underlying genetic basis for the risk of alcohol dependency. But for most observant Muslims, Mormons and Southern Baptists, inheriting an increased risk for alchohol dependency has no effect because they don’t drink alcohol.

    The burden of proof is on the person asserting that there is a genetic contribution to criminal behavior to demonstrate how, in any specific person or cohort, that genetic heritage drives the behavior. An alternative view would be that societal resources are better invested in avoiding “the near occasion of sin” that provides a context in which an underlying genetic risk.

    Happy to discuss this further (


  3. Joel Eissenberg says

    P.S.: Speaking of a biological basis for criminal behavior, Kevin Drum has promoted what I regard as a compelling theory for the role of lead–in particular leaded gasoline–in increased violent crime in the ’70s followed by the decline in violent crime in the past 15 years or so. Not genetics, but biology nonetheless.

  4. Joel Slater says

    Steven Pinker in his book “The better angels or our nature” has a sophisticated and interesting critique of the lead hypothesis.

    • “Steven Pinker in his book “The better angels or our nature” has a sophisticated and interesting critique of the lead hypothesis.”

      That isn’t true. I have Pinker’s book in Kindle format. I can look up any search term and find every instance of it. In that book, Pinker doesn’t discuss heavy metal toxicity from lead or any other source. He only mentions ‘pollution’ in passing in a single paragraph.

      That is odd, considering that pollution has been calculated to be a major factor in 40% of deaths worldwide, which equates to millions of premature deaths per year. That doesn’t include the impact on those who don’t die premature.

      “About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.”

      As for lead toxicity, that has been researched for decades in hundreds of studies done in countries all over the world. Many studies have even proven a direct causal link, using such things as dose-response curve (which is used to prove drug efficacy in medical research). There is simply no denying it at this point.

  5. Jedi Master says

    “The burden of proof is on the person asserting that there is a genetic contribution to criminal behavior to demonstrate how, in any specific person or cohort, that genetic heritage drives the behavior.”

    Someone offering an environmental hypothesis also faces a burden of proof. It cuts both ways (and is therefore not just something that must be met by genetic hypotheses).

  6. Jeremy V says

    Darn, it’s a bummer there wasn’t an example of a contribution of biosocial criminology to the field that couldn’t have been made by their traditional criminology colleagues. That would’ve made the complaint have better grounds.
    As it stands, as a reader just trying to figure out where to stand, I can’t but wonder: “Maybe there’s a *reason* that the body of the field and experts in it don’t regard the biosocial route as fruitful. Perhaps this is why they discourage it.”

    As an outsider, it would help if someone could point me to a distinct contribution of biosocial approach that the more humanistic approach would have missed. Then I will be able to responsibly agree with this article.

  7. Joel Eissenberg says

    “Someone offering an environmental hypothesis also faces a burden of proof. It cuts both ways (and is therefore not just something that must be met by genetic hypotheses).”

    Generically, the burden of proof lies with someone making an assertion. In this case, what is the null hypothesis? If it is that the underlying basis for crime is random, then the burden of proof lies with anyone seeking to falsify the null hypothesis. But I don’t see a null hypothesis stated here, so I find it difficult to find a scientific way forward from this essay.

    • “But I don’t see a null hypothesis stated here, so I find it difficult to find a scientific way forward from this essay.”

      Articles like this are ultimately about ideology, not science. There is little if any desire to find a scientific way forward. That is the problem.

  8. Alan McIntire says

    I know IQ is heritable. Also, there’s an inverse relationship between IQ and heritability down to about an IQ of 70 or so- people with lower IQs than that aren’t smart enough to engage in criminal behavior. Put those together, and there should be a small, but statistically significant, relationship between heritable IQ and criminality.

  9. FredO says

    The irony and hypocrisy are simply spectacular. The dominant worldview of the Left and in academia (OK–pretty much the same thing) is materialist Darwinism, the idea that we are only products of natural selection. So, for example, altruism and compassion cannot have a non-material, transcendent origin and are strictly due to Darwinian causes (despite their absolute failure to identify any genes or mechanisms involved).

    But, of course, criminal behavior is exempt from that worldview because it would violate the canons of political correctness.

    Is it any wonder that academics are held in such contempt ?

    • kn83 says

      Actually, the genetics behind altruism and compassion HAS been identified. Any HBD blog will lay them out for you.

      Also, the overwhelming majority of Leftist are not Darwinist but Marxist. They only claim to believe in Evolution just to appear scientifically literate when in reality most of them deny the implications of Darwinian Biology for humans. They are no different from creationist.

  10. john werneken says

    I do not believe in Rights or in morals, only in what works. some of what does work does happen to use rights and morals to do so; they are useful tools. but i do not give a damn if i am a racist a sexist or an oppressor – go f yourself is my position.

    Only a little of who we are or what we do or believe, is within our conscious control. And what that says about perpetuating stark and gross differences of opportunity power and privilege does not matter, for it just is.

  11. Charles Black says

    I love simple arguments that do a lot of work. This is one of them:

    “Try to imagine a similar philosophy rooting down into the soil of psychiatry. Envision the field someday dismissing the idea that the brain has anything to do with mental illness. Imagine that prominent scholars begin punishing individuals for even suggesting that a three-pound lump of tissue could ever impact healthy mental functioning. It’s an absurd thought experiment because it would never happen. The evidence suggesting that the brain is involved in mental illness is so incredibly obvious that to suggest otherwise makes you look foolish. Most criminologists are perfectly happy to never speak of the brain.”

    You don’t need any technical understanding of the field for this argument to be very persuasive. Its absurd that any social scientist wouldn’t take seriously the possibility that crime has a biological basis, to some extent. We are made of matter, after all.

    What gets me is that, if you believe that our mental processes are largely dependent on the matter of the brain, then it is intuitively obvious that mental illness, mental ability, self-control, aggressive and violent behavior, etc. are to some extent caused by the genes that guided the formation of the brain.

    I agree with J. Eissenberg that the interesting question is “the magnitude of the genetic contribution, the nature of the contribution and the role of environment in influencing the behavior.” Simply rejecting biosocial criminology in its entirety seems preposterous. But I’m curious to learn more about what the critics’ objections are. I suspect the basic argument is that (1) the biological component to crime is negligible and (2) it is socially damaging to publicize the findings of the research. To my mind, the desire to get to the truth should be enough to legitimize the discipline. Social interventions and public policy should be informed by the truth, right?

  12. stronganon says

    There is the idea of a “black box” system that is characterized by applying known inputs and measuring outputs. This way you can know the behavior of a system without knowing the details of its implementation.
    I believe that a theoretical “environment-only” criminology would be essentially be an instance of black box analysis, where the criminal and victim would probably be the uncharacterized systems, their environments being their inputs, the output being a criminal act or pathology. You could theoretically, given enough data, entirely solve all the problems that criminology by using a black box model.
    The problem is that the amount of data and/or number of variables that would be needed to fully characterize the system in an any reasonable way would be basically impossible to deal with. You are going to go a long way by actually looking at the implementation of the actual human systems. And humans are implemented in biology.
    The “code” for biology are genes, which should contain all the information for the implementation of a human. This is assuming that the biological mechanisms for the translation from genes into a human beings (cellular machinery) have few meaningful effects on the phenotype. Of course the implementation details of human beings is also incredibly complex, but at least its fully and clearly measurable, unlike environmental variables.
    The critique of this that seems to be in vogue recently is that the system starting out has had some kind of environmental influence that affects the expression of genes, and that the environment continues to affect the expression of genes throughout one’s lifetime. This is where most people get confused about how to conceptualize the system and start mumbling about “gene-environment interaction” and so forth. But when you describe a system, there is also the concept of system “memory”, which is not actually an implementation detail of the system, because the system itself encompasses the mechanisms that store, access, and process these memories.
    What this critique does correctly point out however is that we can’t treat a newly formed human as if there were no previous environmental “memories” stored in its system.

  13. Pingback: On Criminology | Millenials Embracing Life

  14. ..allot of replies/stances on nature vs nurture posted here when the article writer’s point was ideological attacks on the field,of a broken peer review process in academics-which are supposed to represent the sciences..all which went largely unaddressed,not surprising.

  15. Gerhard Meisenberg says

    What strikes me is that among “civilized” countries, the United States are the one whose academics condemn biological criminology most ardently. Even more astonishing is that they consider the belief in biological causes of criminal behavior in some way immoral. At the same time, the United States are the country with the highest prison population per capita, and almost unique in still practicing the death penalty. The country has a high-punitiveness culture in which popular approval of the death penalty is the norm and a substantial minority even approve of torture (at least of non-citizens, like in ancient Rome) in specific cases. Is there a connection between the academic rejection of biological causes and the popular endorsement of draconic punishments and of practices that are considered unethical in the rest of the world?

    For the scientist, behavior is caused by genes, environments, and the sometimes non-additive interactions between them. In science, you don’t blame people. You blame causes. “Personal responsibility” or “free will” is not a causal force in the latent variable models that behavioral geneticists use in their attempts to explain human behavior.

    This is not the way non-scientists think. To them, criminal behavior, like all other behavior, can have three causes: (1) situational factors that can be acknowledged as mitigating circumstances when they either directly precede a crime or have warped the offender’s mind to make him crime-prone (poverty, bad company etc); (2) internal and biological causes that can in extreme cases (mental illness), exempt the criminal from punishment; and (3) freely chosen course of action, which is assumed to be the cause of common criminal behavior. Unlike behavioral geneticists, non-scientists do not realize that (1) and (2) are the cause of (3).

    Genetic explanations belong under category (2). Crappy genes can explain why some people are lacking in foresight, impulse control, guilt, and other crime-inhibiting personality traits, or feel impelled to hurt or exploit others. Potentially, genes can “excuse” criminal behavior. Now, the reality is that environmental and situational factors explain some of the crime that’s going on in the world, but not an awful lot of it. Normal people know this, in part by personal experience in milieus that are thought to breed crime. Some academics don’t. They are smart enough to convince both themselves and others that environments explain everything. They prefer this explanation to biological and especially genetic ones because (they believe) environments are more easily changed than genes, and they, as the experts, can gain status by telling people what changes are needed (reduce poverty, raise self-esteem…).

    For the common man, the (to them) obvious impotence of the environment leaves two options: blame genes, or blame people. Academics have harped on the unimportance of genes for more than half a century, to a point where most people actually believe them. This creates an explanatory vacuum. How can “real” people explain crime if neither environments nor genes can be blamed? There is only one possibility left: blame people. The denial of causes, no matter whether internal and biological or environmental, predictably supports punitive attitudes among those who are not trained in the sciences. So, who are the “immoral” criminologists?

  16. Thomas West says

    Mr. Boutwell,
    I am currently a graduate student taking one of Dr. Kevin Beaver’s courses (Criminological Theory). Thank you for taking your time to address this issue. I am 20+ year law enforcement officer and will say, was not thrilled with taking another theory course. When Professor Beaver moved us into the biosocial portion of the course my eyes really opened. I have been through a few courses and yet to have exposure to genetics. It has become the most interesting part of the class and really changed the way that I view criminal conduct and delinquency.
    I just wanted to thank you for you work and attempts to broaden the scope of criminology.

Comments are closed.