How Criminologists Who Study Biology Are Shunned by Their Field

Brian Boutwell, Quillette, November 13, 2015

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I am a criminologist by training, which means that I make my living trying to better understand the causes of criminal behavior. My research specialty in particular is something my colleagues and I call biosocial criminology. What is that, you ask? The simplest way to answer that question is to clarify what it is not–biosocial criminology is not one thing. It encompasses various flavors of psychology, biology, genetics, and neuroscience all aimed in the direction of understanding why human beings engage in a host of disreputable, dangerous, aggressive, and, of course, illegal behaviors.

The logic for approaching the study of crime in this manner is simple. Human beings perpetrate criminal behavior and humans are biological creatures. Simple reasoning would require that biology should play some role in the production of crime. For decades, however, our traditional criminology colleagues disagreed with us. They sternly rejected the chain of thought that I just described and chided those of us who maintained that biology was important. Even now, doubts persist about the importance of biology for the study of crime.

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In any situation where two sides of an argument are competing for the intellectual high ground, it is natural to ask who was right. A massive study [2] just published in the academic journal Nature Genetics synthesized 50 years worth of behavior genetics research and settled the issue nicely. I’ll distill the findings down: there is virtually no human trait untouched by genes.

{snip} There have also been four separate reviews of the literature examining behavior genetic studies on the topic of criminal and antisocial behavior specifically [3,4,5,6]. The conclusions are precisely the same as those from the Nature study. The reason why some are more prone to crime than others has much to do with their genes. Do not bother lazily invoking explanations like poverty, parenting, neighborhood factors, and the like. Start with genes and then go from there.

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The real intent of this article, though, is to provide a glimpse of what it is like when you approach the study of crime from a biosocial perspective. Let’s assume you begin cultivating your interests in graduate school. The likely consequence is that you will have a hard time finding a mentor. This is important because a doctoral student needs a mentor to advise them, direct them, train them, and (obviously) chair their dissertation [1]. A colleague recently reminded me of the phone calls and emails he has received from students in criminology programs around the country who either had faculty members refuse to mentor them, or try to actively discourage them from cultivating an interest in biosocial research. There are not many biosocial criminologists in the world and not all of us are employed at universities that offer a PhD in criminology. I work at a wonderful university, but we do not offer a PhD in the field. Biosocial criminology students are disadvantaged from day one in graduate school.

Let’s say you procure your training and obtain your degree. The job market waits ahead. It is certainly true that no tenure track job is easily had; they are all highly sought after. As my colleagues have pointed out elsewhere [1], even a cursory peak at the American Society of Criminology’s job postings online will reveal the absence of schools in search of biosocial criminologists. Occasionally a posting might pop up, but generally it seems that no one needs “one of us.” My colleagues and I all have jobs, thankfully, but it was not usually because schools were looking specifically for a biosocial criminologist. To be fair, respected programs in the past have sought out biosocial scholars. But this isn’t common. There are also the hurdles that a biosocial job candidate encounters when he/she manages to obtain an interview [1].

Not long ago a colleague of mine was invited on a job interview only to be confronted with charges of having conducted racist scholarship. The fact that my colleague’s research agenda has nothing in principle to do with race seemed to offer little in the way of protection against the attacks of righteously indignant faculty. Needless to say, my friend was not offered the job and one wonders why the department even bothered to conduct the interview.

Let’s assume you get a job. Now comes the continued need to publish your research. Publishing is difficult. It takes time, and time is a commodity that slips away when you begin a tenure-track job. You are responsible for teaching, serving on committees, as well as a host of other tasks that crop up along the way. Everyone faces the trials of peer review but it is decidedly different for biosocial criminologists. The simple reason is that many in the field are unqualified to review your research [1]. Why? They have a minimal (and I’m being generous) understanding of biological concepts. Criminological curricula do not require biology classes to be taken. Does this stop them from trying to evaluate your work? It most certainly does not.

To get a paper rejected is one thing, that’s quite common. To get a paper rejected because the reviewer is in possession of a “moral objection” to studying genes and crime, yet can offer no substantive critique of your methods, is frustrating (to put it mildly). One end-around for avoiding this is to submit to journals outside the field. Psychology and psychiatry journals are very receptive to biosocial work and my colleagues and I have published in these outlets. One gains advancement in one’s field, however, by publishing within that field. Publishing outside the field is important, but we want to also push forward the study of crime as criminologists. That is becoming increasingly difficult.

To this point nearly everything I have written overlaps with the struggles encountered by scholars in all fields. There is a special twist for biosocial criminologists, though. We are forced to work with the shadow of eugenics hovering above us like a pestering poltergeist. Our colleagues insist that we acknowledge all of the evils that our work could spawn. We are asked to anticipate all the musings of some yet to be identified “anti-Christ” and properly ward off that impending malevolence by prostrating ourselves in atonement for the sins of twisted “scientists” with whom we have no affiliation. But, as Steven Pinker astutely pointed out in his bestseller The Blank Slate, almost never do we bemoan the sins of environmentalism. Only rarely do we eulogize those destroyed in the name of an endlessly malleable human nature at the hand of butchers like Stalin and Mao. Be certain, though, that as a biosocial criminologist you will wear the mark of the beast (not a 666 but instead an h2).

{snip} Realize that well regarded professional scholars of crime–the ones who have held appointments at the National Institute of Justice, served on crime task forces, have held and are holding named professorships at prominent universities, and those who remain well positioned to influence the national discourse on crime–are generally hostile to the enterprise of biosocial criminology. They maintain outmoded understandings about where crime comes from and generally reject the science suggesting that their knowledge base is wrong. Does this actually translate into real attempts to silence our work? It does. Just last year (2014) an article [7] was published in our flagship journal calling for studies examining the heritability of antisocial traits (i.e., the genetic contribution to those traits) to be ended and expelled from the discipline.

{snip} And make no mistake, their arguments were not simply rooted in methodological nuance regarding whether heritability estimates are accurate or not. No, they were careful (in a subsequent article) to artfully link our work with the dangers of eugenicists of the past, conveniently reminding our colleagues (in case they forgot) what mark we bear on our forehead [8,9,10]. They wore the white hat and we wore the black hat.

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Worse still, having it frequently insinuated that you are a racist, a bigot, and hateful towards certain segments of society is tiresome. Much of the field seems to have adopted the assumption that anyone interested in biosocial criminology is simply incapable of mustering the requisite level of humanity and compassion needed to care about the struggles of others. Biosocial criminologists endure reputational attacks often. The field of criminology is not an especially cordial place to work.

Our purpose, though, is important: to understand all we can about why humans harm one another. It would stand to reason that we should try and get the answers right. Assuming that biology does indeed matter, perhaps it is time to give the “devils” of criminology their due, if not your sympathy.

Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter: @fsnole1

References

  1. Beaver, K. M., Nedelec, J. L., da Silva Costa, C., & Vidal, M. M. (2015). The future of biosocial criminology. Criminal Justice Studies, 28(1), 6-17.
  2. Polderman, T. J., Benyamin, B., de Leeuw, C. A., Sullivan, P. F., van Bochoven, A., Visscher, P. M., & Posthuma, D. (2015). Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies. Nature genetics, 47, 702–70.
  3. Ferguson, C. J. (2010). Genetic contributions to antisocial personality and behavior: A meta-analytic review from an evolutionary perspective. The Journal of social psychology, 150(2), 160-180.
  4. Mason, D. A., & Frick, P. J. (1994). The heritability of antisocial behavior: A meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 16(4), 301-323.
  5. Miles, D. R., & Carey, G. (1997). Genetic and environmental architecture on human aggression. Journal of personality and social psychology, 72(1), 207.
  6. Rhee, S. H., & Waldman, I. D. (2002). Genetic and environmental influences on antisocial behavior: a meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies.Psychological bulletin, 128(3), 490.
  7. Burt, C. H., & Simons, R. L. (2014). Pulling back the curtain on heritability studies: Biosocial criminology in the postgenomic era. Criminology, 52(2), 223-262.
  8. Burt, C. H., & Simons, R. L. (2015). Heritability studies in the postgenomic era: The fatal flaw is conceptual. Criminology, 53(1), 103-112.
  9. Barnes, J. C., Wright, J. P., Boutwell, B. B., Schwartz, J. A., Connolly, E. J., Nedelec, L., & Beaver, K. M. (2014). Demonstrating the validity of twin research in criminology. Criminology, 52(4), 588-626.
  10. Wright, J. P., Barnes, J. C., Boutwell, B. B., Schwartz, J. A., Connolly, E. J., Nedelec, L., & Beaver, K. M. (2015). Mathematical proof is not minutiae and irreducible complexity is not a theory: a final response to Burt and Simons and a call to criminologists. Criminology, 53(1), 113-120.

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