Many years ago, when the topic of ‘Law and Order’ was a part of the Scottish Higher Modern Studies syllabus, I always introduced the series of lessons by talking about the 19th century Italian criminologist, Cesare Lombroso.
Born in Verona, Italy, in 1835 to a wealthy Jewish family, he chose a career as a military surgeon in 1859. By 1878, he had become professor of forensic medicine and hygiene at Turin where he produced his most important and influential work, ‘L'uomo Delinquent’.
In this book, Lombroso developed his theory of criminal atavism. With evidence from post mortem examinations and studies of criminals and individuals with psychiatric illnesses, Lombroso postulated that some individuals were "born criminal". He further suggested that such people could be identified from facial features such as a sloping forehead, ears of unusual size, asymmetry of the face and cranium.
While my students had a lot of fun comparing their own and their friends faces to the slide containing eight examples of Lombroso’s ‘criminal faces’, they like most Europeans in the late 19th century did not take the theory of criminal atavism seriously. While Lombroso's theories were unanimously disapproved throughout Europe, there was for a time, some interest in the United States where the study of the sociology of crime was popular.
Scientific interest in crime continues today. I was recently drawn to an article entitled ‘My Brain Structure Made Me Kill!’ by Wesley J. Smith on the ‘Human Exceptionalism’ website.
It focuses on research by the scientist Adrian Raine who has sought to, “demonstrate that violent behaviors may be products of the perpetrators’ brain structures. Raine has taken brain scans of violent criminals and believes that he has found organic commonalities, leading him to propose that the time has come to stop punishing violent behaviour as a crime, but instead, to treat murderers as if they are medical patients.”
According to Smith, “there is growing advocacy among the intelligentsia that denies free will....one of the morally relevant traits in our nature that makes us (human beings) exceptional........claiming instead that our behaviour is predetermined by evolutionary forces........and more particularly, our individual genetic makeup. If we can’t help ourselves, concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ will have to be replaced by forced non-judgmentalism toward all personal behaviours.”
While I find a lot of this stuff interesting, I prefer to take my moral and ethical cues from the Bible. While ‘born in sin’ we humans have also been created with free will. Sin is our failure to live as God intends. Yet when we do fail to make the right choices in life, God has provided a way out for the consequences of our sin. In the Bible the Apostle Paul persecuted Christians to the point of death, yet his life was turned around through faith in Christ. Indeed he was later able to say in one of his letters:
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
God reached out to Paul and he made the right choice. Three cheers for free will !!