The Nurture Versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology: On the Origins of Criminal Behavior and Criminality


Edited by: Kevin M. Beaver, J.C. Barnes & Brian B. Boutwell

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Key Criminological Correlates

    Part II: Theoretical Perspectives

    Part III: Specific Types of Antisocial Behaviors

    Part IV: Trends, Current Issues, and Policy Implications

  • Dedication

    To my beautiful wife, Shonna, and to my four children, Brooke, Jackson, Belle, and Blake.


    To Sara, without whom none of this would be worthwhile.


    To my family—Billy, Wanda, and Brett—your support means everything; thank you so much.



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    One of the most heated academic debates that has cut across virtually every field of study is the nature versus nurture debate. The central focus of this debate focuses on whether human behaviors and traits are the result of environmental factors (nurture) or genetic factors (nature). Throughout much of the 1900s, the two sides were seen as mutually exclusive and incompatible. Advocates of each side to the debate vehemently defended their position and viewed the debate as a winner-takes-all approach where either nature accounted for everything or nurture accounted for everything. At different time periods and in different disciplines, both the nurture perspective and the nature perspective enjoyed dominance. As the 20th century progressed, the debate shifted from mere ideology and subjectivity to one that was grounded in empirical research and rigorous scholarly debate. The end result has been a declaration, in most disciplines, that the nature versus nurture debate is dead and that both environmental factors and genetic influences contribute to virtually every behavior and trait ever studied.

    Most disciplines other than criminology were able to settle the nature versus nurture debate because of feuds that occurred in the literature and at academic conferences. Within criminology, however, there has not been a public nature versus nurture debate carried out by leading scholars. For the most part, the nurture side to the debate has been taken as fact, and virtually all theories, research, and curriculum focus almost entirely on nurture. In essence, the nature side of the debate was stamped out and excised from published criminological scholarship. Of course, nowadays no serious scholar believes in a purely nature explanation to human variability, but there are plenty of criminologists who adhere to a purely nurture explanation to human variability. As a result, the nature versus nurture debate is somewhat dead in criminology and has morphed into a newer debate: the nurture versus biosocial debate. The nurture side to the debate remains the same as always—that is, the environment is responsible for producing behaviors, traits, and other human characteristics. The biosocial side to the debate—which has effectively replaced the nature side—recognizes the importance of both the environmental and genetic factors.

    The goal of the current book is to facilitate an open and honest debate between the more traditional criminologists who focus only on environmental factors and contemporary biosocial criminologists who examine the interplay between biology/genetics and environmental factors. For each topic, there are two chapters: one written by a renowned environmental criminologist and one written by a well-known biosocial criminologist. That way, readers will see both sides of the debate and can make their own informed decision about which one is a better explanation.

    One of the more interesting aspects of the book that we encountered was during our recruitment of contributors. We had anticipated that it would be more difficult to find authors to write on the biosocial explanation and it would be rather easy to find authors willing to write on the sociological explanation. What we found out, however, was that many authors we contacted to write from the sociological perspective revealed to us (some publicly, some privately) that they actually believe more in the biosocial side but prefer to write and work from a sociological perspective. Some contributors have even noted in their chapters that they are writing the chapter from a purely sociological perspective, but that their own views fall more in line with a biosocial perspective. Seen in this way, the field of criminology may actually be going through the beginning stages of a shift away from a purely sociological perspective and more toward a biosocial perspective. Of course, in academia, scholars are judged by what they write, not what they silently believe. Hopefully, this book will help scholars revisit their own views and write more openly about what they believe when it comes to the causes and correlates to criminal involvement.

    This book is divided into four sections, with each section including a number of topics. Briefly, the first section of the book focuses on key criminological correlates, including gender, race, and social class. The second section of the book focuses on theoretical perspectives, including learning theory, self-control theory, strain theory, and social bond theory. The third section of the book examines specific antisocial behaviors, including intimate partner violence, childhood antisocial behavior, and drug use and abuse. The last section of the book covers trends, current issues, and policy implications by examining the crime drop, the age-crime curve, and policies.

    Our intent in developing this book is that it sparks debate, creates new opportunities for scholarship, and pushes the understanding of criminal behavior and criminality to a higher level. By bringing the nature versus biosocial debate to the forefront of criminology, our hope is that we are able to debate intelligently an issue that will likely have profound influence on the future of criminology.

    Kevin M.Beaver
    Brian B.Boutwell
  • About the Editors

    Kevin M. Beaver is a professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University and a visiting distinguished professor in the Center for Social and Humanities Research at King Abdulaziz University. He is the past recipient of the American Society of Criminology's Ruth Shonle Cavan Young Scholar Award and the National Institute of Justice's Graduate Research Fellowship. He has published widely on the development of antisocial behaviors from a biosocial perspective, and his research on the genetic underpinnings to crime has been featured in major media outlets.

    J.C. Barnes is an assistant professor in the Criminology Program at The University of Texas at Dallas. He is a biosocial criminologist whose research seeks to understand how genetic and environmental factors combine to impact criminological phenomena. Recent works have attempted to reconcile behavioral genetic findings with theoretical developments in criminology. He has published more than 70 papers and book chapters in outlets such as Aggressive Behavior, Behavior Genetics, Criminology, Developmental Psychology, Intelligence, Journal of Marriage and Family, Justice Quarterly, Journal of Theoretical Biology, and PLoS ONE.

    Brian B. Boutwell is currently an assistant professor in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. His research interests span a variety of disciplines and include behavior genetics, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, as well as life course and theoretical criminology. His work has appeared in such journals as Developmental Psychology, Behavior Genetics, Theoretical Biology, Criminology, Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, and Aggressive Behavior, among others.

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