‘Born Criminals’ May Be Just That: Study Cites Inherited Traits

Associated Press

Criminals are overwhelmingly young and male. They also tend to be short, not overly bright city-dwellers whose muscles are better developed than their consciences, two Harvard professors say.

In an exhaustive examination of many studies, James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein have found that criminals are born, not made--a notion that they recognize as highly controversial.

“There is no ‘crime gene,’ and so there is no such thing as a ‘born criminal,’ but some traits that are to a degree heritable, such as intelligence and temperament, affect to some extent the likelihood that individuals will engage in criminal activities,” they write in a recently published book, “Crime & Human Nature.”

The criminal conscience, they believe, may be one of the best targets for trying to make streets safer. Unlike other deterrent factors such as police, family disapproval and the courts, the conscience is always at the scene of the crime. That is, if the criminal has one--and most do, their studies find.


“There is no question that conscience is probably the chief restraint” in keeping most people honest, said Wilson, a professor of government at Harvard.

“I am convinced that conscience is important, but it is formed in the early years of childhood. If we could somehow improve parenting, we might improve conscience up to some limit set by the nature of the person.”

Herrnstein added: “The family is certainly part of the story, but one encounters that moral tone at every turn, in the media, in popular culture, in schools and so on.”

The authors, after examining studies on all of those factors, say that no one can predict whether a particular person will grow up to be a career criminal. However, budding criminals can be recognized early.


“I think there are relatively few chronic offenders who would not have been identified in childhood as a child-aggressor,” Herrnstein said. “There are very few chronic offenders who spring full-blown at the age of 18, 19 or 20.”

Wilson said that political debates between advocates of stern law enforcement and those who would promote jobs and education to lessen crime deal with only partial solutions.

The authors say politicians propose such solutions “for political or ideological reasons (that) the defenders of the theories want to believe are true.”

So who tends to become a criminal? Among the reams of studies the authors cite, these patterns emerge:


- Sex: Men commit far more crimes than do women. The International Police Organization found that men represented anywhere from 97% of arrests in Fiji and Brunei to about 80% in New Zealand and the West Indies. In the United States in 1977, men accounted for more than 90% of the arrests for burglary, auto theft and robbery, 85% of the murders and 66% of the thefts.

- Age: According to the Uniform Crime Reports for 1980, suspects under 20 accounted for almost 60% of property crime arrests and 37% of violent crime arrests. Those 40 or younger accounted for 93% of property crime arrests and 90% of violent crime arrests.

- Intelligence: Wilson and Herrnstein see “a clear and consistent link” between criminality and low intelligence.

Overall, tests have put offender IQs at 91-93, while non-offenders would grade out a bit above the average 100, they say. However, a California study found that people in the bottom fifth in intelligence were less likely to commit crime than those who were a bit brighter but still below average.


IQ tests are hotly debated, but Wilson and Herrnstein assert that a number of studies consistently show the connection between delinquency and low intelligence.

- Body type: Criminals tend to be shorter and heavier in build, with narrow waists, broad shoulders and good muscles--a “mesomorphic” body type. William H. Sheldon, who devised the body-typing system, said this build has been associated with expressive, extroverted, domineering temperaments.

- Twins: If one of a pair of twins is a criminal, studies have found, the tendency of the other twin to be criminal is greater in cases of identical twins than in cases of non-identical twins of the same sex. The inference is that there is a genetic basis to the criminal behavior because the conditions of income, race, social status and education would be the same within families of twins.

- Adoption: A study of children adopted in Denmark from 1924 to 1947 suggested that criminal parents tend to beget criminal children, even if the children are adopted into another home.


In cases where neither adoptive nor biological parents had a criminal record, 13.5% of the boys had at least one criminal conviction. That rose to 14.7% in cases where the adoptive, but not the biological parents, were criminal. If the biological but not the adoptive parents were criminal, 20% of the boys had a least one conviction. If both sets of parents were “criminal,” the proportion of boys with a conviction jumped to 24.5%.

What to make of all this evidence? Herrnstein and Wilson say that, obviously, not everyone with a biological predisposition toward crime--such as being short--will commit a crime. But all the data indicates that some people will commit crimes, no matter what--no matter how their education or social status is improved, no matter how many police are on the street.

“Perhaps the simplest thing to say at this point is that crime cannot be understood without taking into account individual predispositions and their biological roots,” they conclude.

The book does not attempt to recommend crime-fighting strategies. However, Wilson intends to work on that.


“I plan to spend, and have been spending some time, seeing if I can formulate strategies that government might adopt on an experimental basis to see if you can improve the circumstances of child-rearing during the years 3 to 6, involving parent training and preschool education,” he said.