Origins of Criminology; Cesare Lombroso and the face of crime.

Are criminals actually a sub-species of humanity?  Do they have physical, observable differences in their facial features that would allow us to identify them?  If so, is crime an act not of free will but is determined by influences that we seemingly have no control over?  Should we then punish someone for something that they have no control over?

Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) often hailed as one of the founding fathers of Criminology was interested in the atavistic view of criminality, he was heavily influenced by Darwinism.  In 1871 he became director of the mental asylum at Pesaro, and in 1876 he became professor of forensic medicine and hygiene at the University of Turin, where he subsequently held appointments as professor of psychiatry (1896) and then of criminal anthropology (1906).  Lombroso’s ideas were outlined in his text of 1876, The Criminal Man‘.

The Criminal Man

Lombroso believed that there was a biological (and therefore deterministic) explanation to criminals that they were an evolutionary throwback, a more primitive creature.  Through his extensive research over the years investigating the physical features, mainly from postmortems on criminals and the ‘insane’, Lombroso theorised various anthropometric differences.  The criminal therefore had a distinct anthroposcopy or physiognomy – facial features correlated with their lack of evolutionary development, a sub species of humanity ‘homo delinquens’.

CaptureCesare Lombroso 1876


These facial and cranial characteristics that Lombroso had studied throughout his medical career culminated in a list of specific features; sloping forehead, ears of unusual size, asymmetry of the face, prognathism, excessive length of arms, asymmetry of the cranium, receding forehead, strongly developed jaw, strongly developed cheeks, left handedness, low brain weight, curly hair, as well as other physiological defects such as a third nipple or six fingers.  Lombroso identified at least five or similar abnormalities needed to be present.


The man with the golden gun (1974)….super Bond villain and ultra criminal Scaramanga famously had a third nipple, what would Lombroso think?

Criticisms of Lombroso 

The theory supports the nature side of the nature/nurture argument and there are many other theories that may not agree with Lombroso but take a biological stance, such as that of Raine’s investigation brain dysfunction or that of Brunner’s view in the notion of the ‘Warrior gene‘ as a genetic predisposition to criminality. Lombroso’s extreme biological view can also be described as reductionist as well as biologically deterministic. However, Lombroso did acknowledge the role of the environment and the casual and occasional criminal who slips into criminality due to opportunity or poverty, the ‘Criminaloids‘ as he referred to them. Lombroso’s theory has been rejected for many years, even if there was significant evidence that there were deviations in facial features these could as easily be through environmental explanations such as the self-fulfilling prophecy where as people are treated on how they are expected to behave due to superficial indicators like looks and therefore those individuals eventually conform to the stereotype created for them.  If you look like a criminal people will treat you like one –does that mean you are more likely to become one?


Thorndike’s Halo effect provides some assistance as those deemed as attractive tend to be attributed with more positive characteristics, trustworthiness and honesty for example.  Unfortunately the same works in reverse – The Horns effect.  Lombroso did identify an asymmetrical face as part of his theory and recent evidence suggest those who are perceived as attractive do tend to have greater symmetry in the face.  Forensic psychological evidence suggest that such an effect can influence a jury to be more lenient in coming to a guilty verdict – as much as 20% in one study by Castellow.  Other more recent research  such as that by Brunner that suggests a biological factor may also suffer with the same self full-filling prophecy.

In the news

More recently on social media there has been controversy over a number of offenders who seem to provide a counter view – too beautiful for prison;


Other resources

  • Can you tell a serial killer just by looking at them?  Take the test.
  • Other examples of biological determinism – the 2D4D ratio
  • Lombroso’s female offender research 
  • BBC documentary programme only available in the UK covers some of Lombroso’s work.  Click the link for a clip that leads on to the documentary – over 16’s only.
  • A useful study of Lombroso is H. G. Kurella, Cesare Lombroso: A Modern Man of Science (trans. 1911). See also Hermann Mannheim, ed., Pioneers in Criminology (1960).

2 thoughts on “Origins of Criminology; Cesare Lombroso and the face of crime.

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