The theories of Cesare Lombroso's have virtually all been discredited and superceded. There is no question that the man often singled out as 'father of modern criminology' managed to formulate fresh ideas that revolutionized criminological thought. His scientific theories centred around the idea that the criminal was a natural phenomenon, representing a distinct species, homo delinquas, and that the physical form of man was an outward manifestation of his character. Having been educated in medicine Lombroso became a specialist in the field of psychiatry.
He describes how, during the post-mortem of a murderer called Villella, he could suddenly see "lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal – an atavistic being". He then proceeded to devote himself to the explanation and amplification of this theory. In formulating his theory Lombroso drew from many scientific contributors. Undoubtedly, the most significant of these was Charles Darwin, whose works – 'The Origin Of Species' (1859) and 'The Descent Of Man" (1871) had an incalculable impact on evolutionary thought.
In 'The Descent of Man' Darwin asserts that some men are closer to their primitive ancestors than others: a belief, which became a central feature of Lombroso's subsequent theories. It was unsurprising that Darwinism should branch out in this manner given the revolutionary impact his theories had on scientific thought. Early studies on degeneracy by B. A. Morel ('Treatise On Degeneracy' 1857) and Max Nordau ('Degeneration') would also have had some impact on Lombroso.
The concept of 'Moral Insanity', the rise of racism based on 19th Century scientific research and the emerging science of physical anthropology would also have played a significant role in Lombroso's theorizations. Lombroso's working methods set him apart from most of his predecessors. He saw his study as scientific rather than juridicial or philosophical. He is widely seen as the founder of the 'positivist' school of criminological thought. Positivism is the concept that all true knowledge is scientific.
He focused his attention on the 'criminal' himself rather than crime in the abstract. Criminal research had never been performed with such thoroughness and care as he examined the inmates of a prison in Turin. His theories were based primarily around three formulations. The first was a belief that some individuals were born to be criminals, as a result of congenital factors that impelled them to a life of crime. Secondly, the criminal was an atavistic being or a "relic of a vanished race": that is, a throwback to a more ape-like homosapian.
Finally Lombroso contended that there is a criminal type – that a criminal was identifiable by physical dimensions. These theories were brought together in his book 'L'uomo Delinquente' ('The Criminal Man' 1876). Lombroso's observations on the physical attributes of the criminal man were many and varied. His main studies revolved around the skull. He observed that "cranial abnormalities are found occasionally in ordinary persons, very rarely are they found combined in normal persons to the extent that they amongst instinctive criminals".
He observed that most convicts possessed an abundance of hair, heavy jaws, progenism (the lower teeth drooping over the upper) and large drooping ears. For eample 'Habitual Homicides', Lombroso thought "have cold, glassy eyes, immobile and sometimes sanguine and inflamed; the nose, always large, is frequently aquiline or rather, hooked; the jaws are strong, the cheek bones large, the hair curly and abundant; the beard is frequently thin, the canine teeth well developed and the lips delicate, they suffer often from nystagmus and unilateral facial contractions, with a baring of the teeth and contraction of the jaws".
He also observed that arrested development of the sexual organs and a high insensitivity to pain were present in many of the inmates. Lombroso's theories, as revolutionary as they may have seemed at the time, were not, without their shortcomings. A good deal of his assertions were far from watertight as he was not adverse to claiming to be able to identify a criminal based primarily on his sinister appearance. Another drawback of Lombroso's studies was his sampling.
Many of the criminals he studied were mentally ill and didn't constitute an even representation. There was also an over-representation of Sicilians in his study. He failed to give proper consideration to the fact that poverty was rife in Sicily and that the poor living conditions may have had an impact on physical development. He didn't work with an adequate control group and he was far too willing to interpret facts from meagre data.
This can be attributed to his sense of imagination rather than any shortsightedness on his part and the concept of representative sampling was very much in its infancy. Lombroso did not have a god complex and when faced with criticism he took it on board and often altered his methods and deductions accordingly. Testament to this was his willingness in later years to modify his theories and methods to encompass socioeconomic and environmental factors. Subsequent to Lombroso's studies Charles Goring did extensive research to test Lombroso's hypotheses.
He examined more than three thousand English prisoners over an eight-year period, he examined the physical dimensions Lombroso had characterized as criminal traits and compared the results with measurements of law-abiding university graduates. In his book 'The English Convict', Goring came to the conclusion that "both with regard to measurements and the presence of physical anomalies in criminals, our statistics present a startling conformity with similar statistics of the law-abiding class. Our inevitable conclusion must be that there is no such thing as a physical criminal type".
Goring moved the study of the criminal on from the physical traits of an offender to his intellectual capacity. In spite of its shortcomings, Lombroso's line of research left its mark. To this day there are still proposals put forward that criminals have distinct physical characteristics. Joel Norris published a book on serial killers listing 23 characteristics that he thinks are evidence of genetic disorders and by inference indicative of a potential serial murderer. Hereditary and genetic factors are the subject of much criminological research today.
The emergence of these criminological strands can partly be attributed to Lombroso's initial assertion that the criminal was born and not an environmental creation. Although Lombroso's rudimentary assumptions have become to a large extent outmoded he is primarily responsible for a change in focus in the study of criminology. His methodology was unique at the time and his positivist formulations provided scholars with the platform to challenge the purely philosophical approach to criminology that existed prior to the 20th century.
Dr Thornsten Sellin justly asserted that "Whether or not Lombroso was right or wrong, is perhaps in the last analysis not so important as the unquestionable fact that his ideas proved so challenging that they gave an unprecedented impetus to the study of the offender. Any scholar who succeeds in driving hundreds of fellow students to search for the truth, and whose ideas after half a century possess vitality, merits an honorable place in the history of thought".
There can indeed be no doubting Lombroso's legacy, in suggesting that the criminal may not be a good man gone wrong but a man incapable of going right he challenged the established concept of free will. Some commentators have suggested that he led criminology down a blind alley for forty years and the Lombrosian idea of the born criminal may, indeed be a criminological myth but the man who Feree (Lomroso's talented assistant) described as a 'genius who lacked talent' can be identified as the man who started the criminological ball rolling.