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How Criminologists Who Study Biology are Shunned by Their Field

Biosocial criminologists endure reputational attacks often. The field of criminology is not an especially cordial place to work.

· 11 min read
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.

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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.

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Sydney. London. Toronto.

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.


  1. Beaver, K. M., Nedelec, J. L., da Silva Costa, C., & Vidal, M. M. (2015). The future of biosocial criminology. Criminal Justice Studies28(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 genetics47, 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 psychology150(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 Assessment16(4), 301-323.
  5. Miles, D. R., & Carey, G. (1997). Genetic and environmental architecture on human aggression. Journal of personality and social psychology72(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 bulletin128(3), 490.
  7. Burt, C. H., & Simons, R. L. (2014). Pulling back the curtain on heritability studies: Biosocial criminology in the postgenomic era. Criminology52(2), 223-262.
  8. Burt, C. H., & Simons, R. L. (2015). Heritability studies in the postgenomic era: The fatal flaw is conceptual. Criminology53(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. Criminology52(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. Criminology53(1), 113-120.
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