The Criminal Brain

Understanding Biological Theories of Crime

352 pages

39 illustrations

October, 2008

ISBN: 9780814776131


Nicole Rafter was Professor Emeritus of Criminology at Northeastern University. Her publications include The Crime of All Crimes: Toward a Criminology of Genocide, The Criminal Brain: Understanding Biological Theories of Crime, and, with Michelle Brown, Criminology Goes to the Movies. In 2009, Rafter was awarded the Sutherland Award by the American Society of Criminology for outstanding contributions to the discipline.

All books by Nicole Rafter

What is the relationship between criminality and biology? Nineteenth-century phrenologists insisted that criminality was innate, a trait inherent in the offender’s brain matter. While they were eventually repudiated as pseudo-scientists and self-deluded charlatans, today the pendulum has swung back. Both criminologists and biologists have begun to speak of a tantalizing but disturbing possibility: that criminality may be inherited as a set of genetic deficits that place one at risk for theft, violence, and sexual deviance. If that is so, we may soon confront proposals for genetically modifying “at risk” fetuses or doctoring up criminals so their brains operate like those of law-abiding citizens. In The Criminal Brain, well-known criminologist Nicole Rafter traces the sometimes violent history of these criminological theories and provides an introduction to current biological theories of crime, or biocriminology, with predictions of how these theories are likely to develop in the future.

What do these new theories assert? Are they as dangerous as their forerunners, which the Nazis and other eugenicists used to sterilize, incarcerate, and even execute thousands of supposed “born” criminals? How can we prepare for a future in which leaders may propose crime-control programs based on biology? Enhanced with fascinating illustrations and written in lively prose, The Criminal Brain examines these issues in light of the history of ideas about the criminal brain. By tracing the birth and growth of enduring ideas in criminology, as well as by recognizing historical patterns in the interplay of politics and science, she offers ways to evaluate new theories of the criminal brain that may radically reshape ideas about the causes of criminal behavior.


  • “Rafter impressively documents the genealogy of biological ideas in criminology. She shows that criminology must take new biological ideas seriously and contextualize sociologically both the ideas and the phenomena in which biologists engage. The Criminal Brain warrants thorough and broad discussion.”

    —Joachim J. Savelsberg, co-author of Constructing White-Collar Crime: Rationalities, Communication, Power

  • “Rafter is well known for her provocative and thoughtful work on the history of crime and criminal justice. In The Criminal Brain she tackles one of the most significant yet complex topics in the field today. As we witness new discoveries regarding the brain, genetics, consciousness, and human behavior, Rafter makes a persuasive case that we need to understand our past in order to chart our future course. I highly recommended Rafter’s book for criminological theorists and researchers alike.”

    —John H. Laub, co-author of Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70

  • The Criminal Brain will have an important impact on social, political, and moral debates as biological criminology becomes increasingly prominent in coming years.”

    —Simon A. Cole, author of Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification

  • “The book takes readers on a fascinating journey through the history of criminology and details where the field stands today.“

    Scientific American

  • “Recommended.”