The nature versus nurture debate

There has always been a great deal of controversy over whether inherited genes or the environment influence and affect our personalities, development, behaviour, intelligence and ability. This controversy is known as the nature versus nurture debate. Some people believe that the way we live and behave is a result of our genetic makeup while others believe that it is the environment that shapes us. Social scientists, psychologists and biologists have focused on this debate for centuries.

This debate is often over simplified in terms of either/or but over recent years the debate has been tackled in terms of the primary influences on human behaviour of either physiological/biological factors or social/cultural factors (Blackburn, 1993). Deviance consists of those acts, which do not follow the norms and expectations of a particular social group. Deviance may be positively sanctioned and rewarded or negatively sanctioned and punished, or simply accepted and neither punished nor rewarded.

In the field of sociology, the study of deviance is usually limited to deviance that results in negative sanctions (Haralambos and Holborn 1995). It has been suggested that the term deviance should be reserved for situations in which behaviour is in a disapproved direction, and of a sufficient degree to exceed the tolerance limit of the community (Clinard, M, B. 1964). In terms of Clinard's definition, crime and delinquency are the most obvious forms of deviance. Crime refers to those activities, which break the law and are subject to official punishment (Haralambos and Holborn 1995).

One question that is often asked in relation to crime is what makes someone a criminal? While there are a large number of theories which have added to the understanding of this question, there is often disagreement about the most important factors, which contribute to criminality. Again the classic trap in this debate is trying to find one cause for criminal behaviour. As with almost all behaviour it is impossible to identify one simple explanation for criminal behaviour.

Any sort of behaviour is a result of complex interactions between genetic, environmental and social factors. Despite this many theorists have tried to develop one single explanation for criminal behaviour. These explanations attribute criminal behaviour to either genetics or the effects of the environment, the classis nature versus nurture debate (Ainsworth, P, B. 2000). Some of the earliest theories hypothesized that criminal behaviour was biologically determined through genetics the nature side of the debate.

One of the most frequently quoted criminologists was Lombroso who claimed that criminals were a biological throwback to an earlier stage of evolution, a term Lombroso called atavistic and could be distinguished by their body type (Croall, H. 1998). Lombroso believed that one could literally see the difference in the physical characteristics of criminals. He suggested that typical criminals had smaller brains, heavy jaws, abnormal and asymmetrical skulls, projecting ears and a crocked or flat nose. Further more they were often colour blind, left handed and physically weak.

Lombroso even suggested that different types of criminals had different physiologies. He claimed that murderers typically had cold, glassy, bloodshot eyes, curly hair, strong jaws, long ears and thin lips. In comparison to this he stated that sex offenders tended to have glinting eyes, strong jaws, thick lips, lots of hair and projecting ears (Ainsworth, P, B. 2000 pg 64). While Lombroso's theory may appear to be far fetched, the notion that criminals have physical differences from non criminals has persisted.

People often have stereotypical ideas about the appearance of criminals and these stereotypes might even effect judgements of guilt and innocence. In certain cases this could mean that a person whose appearance matches the stereotype of a criminal may be innocently convicted and therefore labelled a criminal (Bull, R. and McAlpine, S. 1998). In the 1960's British criminologists believed that they had made an important breakthrough in the search for a scientific explanation for criminal behaviour. They claimed to have found a precise genetic cause of criminality; chromosome abnormalities.

Chromosomes transmit inherited characterises from parents to children. Women usually have two X chromosomes and men usually have one X and one Y. In some cases men have been found to have an extra Y chromosome. Researchers found that there were an unusually high number of men with this abnormality in high security prisons for the mentally ill (Haralambos and Holborn 1995). This condition appeared to be associated with above average height and below average intelligence and received notoriety when it was claimed by some researchers to be related to violent crime.

The reasoning behind this theory did indeed make sense. Males tend to be more aggressive than females and it could be suggested that men with twice the number of male chromosomes may be more violent and aggressive than the average male. If this theory was true then it could be argued that the affected individuals would be a danger their entire lives. Some researchers advocated screening for the abnormality so that preventative measures could be carried out. Some even argued that these people could not be held responsible for their actions.

In some murder trials, defendants tried to use their genetic abnormality as defence against conviction. In later, more comprehensive research however it was found that although XYY males were more likely to be involved in crime they were no more likely to be involved in violent crime. It was also suggested that their condition was associated with below average intelligence and it may have been this fact rather than their genetic abnormality which contributed to their levels of conviction (Ainsworth, P, B. 2000 pg 66).

Whilst it is too simplistic to suggest that a single gene can cause crime this is not to say that genetics cannot play a part in criminal behaviour. The theorists who support the genetic position point to the fact that criminality does tend to run in families. Research carried out by Osborn and West (1979) found that 40% of sons born to fathers with criminal records went on to have a criminal record themselves. Although these findings were interesting there is no evidence that the cause of the son's criminality was genetic.

It could be that socialization led to a criminal lifestyle and this is to do with the level of criminality in the family. Also the fact that only 40% of criminal fathers had criminal sons leaves 60% who do not. If criminality was genetically transmitted the figure would 100%. It should also be noted that 13% of sons from non criminal fathers also develop criminal careers (Ainsworth, P, B. 2000 pg 67). Some Psychologists argue that certain kinds of personality are linked to criminality.

There are many different theories of personality and these are also part of the nature versus nurture debate. There is disagreement over whether we are born with our personality or it develops through time. Hans Eysenck's theory of personality attempts to explain personality differences in terms of the kinds of nervous system that individuals possess. These nervous system differences are inherited (Gross, 1999). Hans Eysenck's (1977) theory on crime and personality argued that there is a connection between genetically based personality traits and criminal behaviour.

This idea can be illustrated by 3 scales; introversion-extroversion, neuroticism -stability and psychoticism. Extroverts tend to be active, sociable, and lively and crave excitement, whereas introverts tend to be careful, reliable and passive. Extroverts have a much lower level of arousal compared to introverts and are much less susceptible to pain. Neurotic personalities tend to be depressive, moody and have low levels of self esteem, whereas those at the other end of this scale are emotionally stable.

Most people lie in between the two extremes of introversion-extroversion and neuroticism-stability. A person who is high on the psychotic scale would show characteristics such as aggression, cruelty and insensitivity (Blackburn, 1993). Eysenck and Gudjonsson (1989) discovered that 'those with low arousability are less likely to learn pro-social behaviour and more likely to learn criminal and deviant behavioural patterns. ' Therefore they concluded that the criminal is a neurotic extrovert (Akers, 1997 pg 46).