1970s >> 1975 >> no-856-december-1975

Is Crime Hereditary?

The nearest thing in contemporary newspapers to Beachcomber’s “Dr. Strabismus (Whom God Preserve) of Utrecht” is Professor Eysenck. Dr. Strabismus produced useless masterpieces such as artificial wigs and dummy glass eyes; Professor Eysenck produces statistics which are supposed to have Profound Implications. The difference is that Dr. Strabismus was a parody created by a well-known humorist. Eysenck, unfortunately, is real and is therefore taken seriously.
 
During October Eysenck made two announcements of statistical discoveries. The first, and farther-reaching, one was the existence of hereditary criminal tendencies. The evidence presented was from a number of adopted children. Those whose natural parents had criminal records showed a higher propensity for getting in trouble themselves, even though they had been brought up in different surroundings by law-abiding foster-parents: heredity triumphing over environment. The second announcement, made in a television discussion, was that Eysenck had found statistics to support the claims of astrology. What was not explained was whether the stars cancel out heredity, and if the impulse from Aquarius make up for an embezzling father.
 
The danger in this kind of thing is that Eysenck is a “popular” investigator, in both senses of the word. He is responsible for superficially instructive books such as Know Your Own IQ and Know Your Own Personality, designed for mass readership; and his conclusions tend to affirm common prejudices and therefore to be readily received and referred to as authoritative. The man in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists who said “Go in any chemists’ shop and ask the bloke” is now likely to say “Professor Eysenck says it’s true”. There are large numbers of people, who through ignorance, believe that some are born good and some are born bad; they are approximately the same people who believe, for the same reason, that black men are inferior to white ones; and Eysenck enables them to say “Told you so”.
 
Circumstances and Cases
In dealing with crime the fundamental question is not the make-up of the individual but the make-up of society. What is crime? When a law is passed, those who offend against it are criminals; when it is annulled, a criminal section becomes a law-abiding one. During the last war a number of laws were enacted and very strictly enforced. A person found with food he had not given rationing coupons for, or who left his job without permission, was liable to a heavy fine or imprisonment. The fact that the war is now thirty years distant makes that seem rather astonishing, but many people were convicted for those breaches of the law. At other times and places the holding of wrong political or religious opinions has been a crime.
 
An up-to-date example, shown in various newspapers on 2nd November, is that of a couple convicted for incest. The case was followed by correspondence and discussion, much of it remarking that the existing law is archaic; one newspaper, the Sunday People, suggested that the couple appeal against the order for them to separate and thereby make a test case In the recent past the offence was regarded as intolerable, and they would without doubt have been given heavy sentences. If, as seems feasible, a change in the law is made in the not-distant future, it will mean that a class of criminals will automatically become respectable citizens. What then becomes of the hereditary propensity to that crime?
 
The question can be taken further. The most widespread of all crimes is stealing, in one form or another: robbery, embezzlement, fraud. All of them are obviously connected with the desire for money or what money is seen as providing in possessions, comfort and display. It is not suggested by Eysenck or anyone else that the desire for these things is a reprehensible inborn tendency. On the contrary, it is usually praised as “ambition”; and so far from being hereditary, it is taught as an essential to personal and social well-being — children are urged to be “first” and “top”, and shown examples of people who have succeeded. The criminal’s motive is learned from society; his error is choosing the wrong way.
 
No doubt it would be said that this is the point, that there is a section who persistently make that choice in the face of prohibitions. One important answer is that a high percentage of crime is due to nothing of the kind, as the court reports in local newspapers show: people steal when they are in need or in debt. But underlying this is the property foundation of the society we live in. The law is a social apparatus for its preservation. Its basic concern is protection of the class ownership of the means of production and distribution, and of necessity the products too; so that in practice it centres on property at all levels. If, as Socialists advocate, private ownership were abolished and there were free access to all the wealth of society, the effect would be the same as the limited one now produced by the dropping of an irrelevant law. That class of crime — the largest one — would immediately disappear. Will Professor Eysenck communicate this to the genes of adopted children?
 
Class and Heredity
Prejudices are ideas, of a sort. The saloon-bar oracles who find Eysenck’s proposition to their taste are voicing the kind of idea the ruling class likes. It means that the capitalist system is not to be blamed for a social problem: how can it be, when the cause of crime is individually organic?
 
The same gift to capitalist thought was made at the beginning of this century by Cesare Lombroso. He held that crime arose from physical and mental anomalies, due to degeneration or heredity or even reversion to a primitive evolutionary stage; criminals could be identified by definite physical characteristics. Lombroso’s concern in fact was reform, to obtain more humane treatment for criminals by destroying the supposition that they were responsible for their acts or could be cured by punishment. His theory was accepted, however, for its usefulness in substituting hereditary and psychological causes for social ones.
 
If the records of forebears govern people’s conduct, few of us would escape the taints Eysenck claims to discern. The genealogical fact is that over only three or four centuries we are descended from a relatively small number of ancestors. Because of the high rate of early death in the past, a single survivor in the seventeenth century can and does stand as the progenitor of several hundreds in this century. It is fairly well known that most people can, if they like, trace some “blue blood’’ in their ancestry; for the same reason, and probably with less difficulty, there are less honorific elements to be found by all. It can also be added that most nations have in their fairly recent history some huge act of barbarism in which large numbers of the population took part. Do genes then pass a moral judgement to avoid the repetition of such behaviour? Such a conclusion being obviously silly, the advocates of the “hereditary evil” idea have no choice but to say it was the need or the standards of the time, i.e. a social phenomenon. Quite right; but they should then explain why this explanation is abandoned over crime.
 
One other aspect which should be mentioned is that material presented in a statistical form is often taken to be undeniable fact. It should be appreciated that Eysenck’s findings are of “statistical relationships”: that is, sets of figures which are pointed out to be similar and therefore possibly linked as cause and effect. These are — as he admitted in the discussion of astrology — anything but conclusive and often thoroughly misleading. A light-hearted example given some years ago concerned the observation that the audiences at strip clubs had a high proportion of bald-headed men; a “statistical relationship” would suggest that watching such performances caused baldness, despite other and likelier explanations.
 
There is no question of anything having been proved; the area for proof is non-existent. The fault, dear Eysenck, is not in our stars or our heredity but in our social system. The point is to change it.
Robert Barltrop

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