Iconoclasm is the poor man’s intellectualism. Challenge a traditional way of thinking and you can vault yourself instantly into the celebrity spotlight, with lucrative publishing deals, testimonies before congressional committees, and interviews on Good Morning America. Since the 1960’s the iconoclasts have held sway in the study of criminal behavior, ignoring important studies done in the 1940’s and before for no reason except that they didn’t fit their theories for the New Age. Now two Harvard professors have issued a comprehensive compilation of studies on criminology refuting the fantasies of the iconoclasts and confirming what we have always innately believed about criminals and criminal behavior.

Written by political scientist James Q. Wilson and psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein, Crime and Human Nature reads like a commonsense guide to criminology. We are told, for instance, that there is a criminal “type.” He is a young male, with a lower-than-average I.Q., and a mesomorphic (muscular) body type. And yes, there even seems to be a slight correlation between facial characteristics and the type of crime committed. More fundamentally, the criminal has a short time horizon which makes him impulsive and unwilling to postpone gratification. It may be unsettling to hear that many criminal characteristics are constitutional, but they should not be ignored simply because “nothing can be done” about them. As the authors point out, “First of all, a constitutional factor merely makes a person somewhat more likely to display a certain behaviour; it does not make it inevitable. There is no evidence for the existence of a ‘crime gene.'” “Second, helping a person who is constitutionally more at risk is only possible if we look for those predisposing factors early in life.”

How early? Very. Since the 1960’s the schools have emphasized their own centrality in the socialization process. But despite the public service campaigns bombarding teenagers with the slogan “Don’t be a fool; stay in school!” there is evidence that teenagers who want to drop out are probably better off doing so. In fact, Wilson and Herrnstein cite evidence that by the time the child is in school most of the good or harm has already been done. We are told that “there is little chance of an affectional bond between mother and infant forming if the infant is deprived of a mother figure during the first three or three and a half years of life.” The authors note that if a “bond never forms the consequences can be very severe” resulting “in a personality characterized by the lack of guilt, an inability to keep rules and an inability to form lasting relationships,” all of which lead to criminal behavior. It is now believed that “adults other than the biological mother may serve as suitable objects of this attachment.” However, in today’s “superwoman” society where career-oriented mothers often dump their children in day-care centers within a few weeks after birth and where half of all women in the labor force have children under the age of three, this is clearly cause for concern.

There is much more bad news here for the New Agers. It appears there is no substitute for morality—not the relativistic sort of “morality” celebrated today but the old-fashioned public type practiced long before “If it feels good, do it” became a popular motto and before the “Me generation” took “Do your own thing” as its slogan. Groups dedicated to strengthening traditional public morality, especially temperance groups, seem to have had a substantial positive impact on the incidence of crime.

The research here compiled also indicates that there’s no substitute for old-fashioned swift, certain punishment. Not only are criminal penalties these days usually less severe than formerly, and imposed more slowly, but they are also much less certain to be applied at all. For a young man with a short time horizon who acts out of impulse, delayed and light punishments reduce the cost of crime. As crime becomes cheaper, the incidence increases. Few shoppers can resist a bargain.

Far less certain than the link between lax imposition of punishment and high crime rates are the supposed links between crime and unemployment and racial prejudice. As Wilson and Herrnstein note: “During the 1960s [Chinatown] in San Francisco had the lowest income, the highest unemployment rate, and the highest proportion of substandard housing of any area of the city. Yet in 1965 there were only five persons of Chinese ancestry committed to prison in the entire state of California.” Lest one think the Chinese are anomalous, the Japanese are also greatly underrepresented among the criminal population. So far as Blacks are concerned, the one study available shows that West Indian natives—indistinguishable physically from the native American Blacks who share their New York ghettos—were underrepresented in the state’s prison population while native American Blacks were substantially overrepresented.

Wilson and Herrnstein believe that Crime and Human Nature is not “an argument from which many (possibly any) clear policy recommendations can be deduced,” but the authors sell themselves short. The replacement of moral relativism with more traditional teaching in the public schools, swifter and surer punishment in the courts, emphasis on the early rather than the middle years of a child’s development in all discussions of social legislation—all of these are clearly suggested. This volume deserves to have a tremendous impact on the way we perceive crime and combat its causes.


[Crime and Human Nature, by James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein; New York: Simon and Schuster]