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Lombroso and the criminal face

I recently watched a BBC documentary called Eugenics: Science’s greatest scandal. It documents the history of eugenics and its lasting legacy on society. It got me thinking about a criminologist called Cesare Lombroso who developed anthropological criminology. Lombroso was a criminologist who believed that certain people were born as criminals. I wanted to explore these topics a little further and thought that I would do a little blog on them. I will give a quick rundown of eugenics and criminology before looking at Lombroso and his ideas, and finally what links them. These are fascinating topics that are impossible to cover properly in a blog, so I do recommend further reading and watching the documentary.


Eugenics is the highly-controversial idea that through selective breeding we can remove from the human race certain undesirable traits such as illness, disabilities and - most controversially- ethnicities, thus creating an ideal race of 'perfect' humans. The idea developed from Darwin’s work on the evolution of species; that a species could evolve to better suit its environment through survival of the fittest. Those individuals that could survive long enough to breed would pass on positive traits. Those with negative traits would die before reproducing, and thus those traits would no longer be part of the gene pool. Eugenicists wanted to apply these ideas to humans, through selective breeding of those they felt were superior specimens compared to those that they deemed 'lesser'. The idea came to be used to justify atrocities such as genocides and mass forced sterilisation.


Criminology is the study of crime and criminal behaviour. The earliest school of criminology was the classical school, which was based on the prevailing philological ideas of 18th century utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the idea that humans have free will to decide their actions and that they will weigh up their choices and pick the option that brings them the most benefits and the least harm. For the classic school, this meant that criminal behaviour was a choice, a part of free will. Thus the only way to prevent crime was with the threat of punishment that was quick and proportionate to the crime committed.

Cesare Lombroso and anthropological criminology

Cesare Lombroso was a prison physician and Professor of Psychiatry and Criminal Anthropology in 19th century Italy. Lombroso is seen as the founder of modern criminology and the Italian school of criminology. Lombroso’s most well-known work is the L’uomo delinquent (The Criminal Man). In this book Lombroso explains his theory of the 'born criminal'. He believed that people were criminals, not through free will, but because they were 'atavistic' and born that way. (Atavistic means a member of a species that has reverted to an earlier form of that species.) As the born criminal was a throwback to an earlier form of human, in Lombroso's opinion, they were easy to spot from their physical appearance. Some of the main differences were head shape and size, asymmetry of the face and brain, large jaws, cheekbones and foreheads.

The link

So why did this BBC programme make me think of Lombroso? There are a few areas that are similar in both ideas. When Lombroso was doing his research, he was using phrenology and physiognomy, which stem from the idea that by measuring physical features we can determine personality. Lombroso used similar techniques but for finding atavistic features. He measured thousands of people over the course of his research. Eugenicists were also fond of measuring people's physical characteristics. They were also looking for particular features that they believed proved someone's ethnicity. The plan for both ideas was to use this data to determine whether a person was a criminal or someone that should not be allowed to reproduce. Eugenicists even used Lombroso’s work in their own arguments.

These ideas sought to stigmatise or shame people because of things that were totally out of their control, from eye shape and colour, to nose shape and size. The idea that being different means being a lesser human is a dangerous and cruel one; one that underpinned historic atrocities like the holocaust, and the Armenian and Rwandan Genocides. It is also simplistic and doesn’t take account of the greatness of diversity, both culturally and genetically.

Both the works of eugenics and Lombroso have long since been debunked and criticised over time. Most people would think that these ideas belong in the past. Sadly, there is still racial and religious profiling and discrimination in all forms. Society and its ideas are always changing but we still have a way to go before such ideas are consigned once and for all to history.

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