Criminologists have long had an interest in the association between antisocial behavior and functioning of the brain. Indeed, the origins of criminology as a scientific discipline can be traced to medicine and psychiatry, when scholars in the sixteenth century such as Philip Pinel, Benjamin Morel, and James Crowley attempted to demonstrate how brain impairment may cause criminal behavior – specifically by causing “moral insanity” (Rafter 2005, 2008). Unfortunately, early science was not well informed on the functioning of the brain, leading to simplistic arguments such as the oft-cited claim that criminals have smaller brains than “normals” (Rafter 2008).
In part because of poor science and in part because of prejudices of the day, the association between biology (genetics, brain functioning, etc.) and criminal behavior came to justify gross injustices against particular peoples. Biology was used to legitimize, for example, eugenics against “born criminals” and “inferior” peoples. For example, physician Charles V. Carrington stated, “No single measure for the prevention of crime would be more far reaching in its deterrent effects, first, and prevention effects, second, than a law which provided for the sterilization of certain classes of criminals. Stop the breed is the whole proposition” (1909: 129). Similar sentiments were echoed by crime researchers into the 1940s, whereupon the use of eugenic arguments to justify Nazi atrocities served to turn the tide away from biology and crime prevention (Rafter 2008; Vaske, Galyean, and Cullen 2011). For the most part, with the sociological turn in criminology that occurred during the early twentieth century, the biological basis of crime was ignored by the discipline. Thus, the early interest in the brain as it relates to crime waned.