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Crime and human nature.


In one of his not-for-network-TV routines, Richard Pryor stops in the midst of a stream of dirty jokes and talks pensively about his film, Stir Crazy. To prepare for their roles as men unjustly thrown behind bars, Pryor says, he and Gene Wilder spent time with convicts from an Arizona penitentiary. The two stars talked with these unfortunates, heard their stories, got to know them and their families, caught glimpses of their souls. The experience of living and working with these men made a deep impression on him, Pryor says, with the sobriety that has come over him since he nearly burned himself to death while free-basing cocaine. It left him with a message to bring to those who'd never had the same cross-cultural exposure. And the message was, thank God for the penitentiary!

The idea that criminals really are different from other people, and not just hapless Jean Valjeans locked up for no graver offense than a desire to feed their young, is the initial proposition of James Q. Wilson's and Richard Herrnstein's new book*. Since that contention rests, in turn, on Wilson's and Herrnstein's theory that certain people are genetically predisposed to a life of crime, it has provoked most of the controversy surrounding the book. Crime and Human Nature is a provocative book, but not because of its hereditarian views. Its most unsettling message does not concern what happens to future criminals before they are born but rather what occurs thereafter.

* Crime and Human Nature. James Q. Wilson, Richard Herrnstein. Simon & Schuster, $22.95.

Crime and Human Nature is a dense, academically oriented, and encyclopedic work, which divides the sources of criminality into three broad categories. The first is the innate characteristics--or, as the authors put it, the "constitutional factors'--that distinguish violent criminals from people at large. This is the section that has dominated discussion of the book, and it is easy to understand why. One simple reason is that this topic comes first in a book that is such arduous going that many readers never reach section two. Of the book's 20 chapters, only three or four--on the influence of parental discipline and the history of attitudes toward crime-- are carefully constructed essays, systematically building an argument and deploying evidence deftly. Both Herrnstein and Wilson have previously shown themselves able to write lucid prose, but in most of Crime and Human Nature they dutifully plow furrows through acres of facts, leaving the reader to trudge behind.

Another reason for the emphasis on heredity in the controversy is that, to the general public, Richard Herrnstein is best known as the author of I.Q. in the Meritocracy. That book, published a dozen years ago, offered an unyielding view of the connection between heredity, intelligence, and occupational success. (The "meritocracy' had begun to work so smoothly, Herrnstein argued, that the smart people were all rising to the top; as they passed their intelligence on to their children, a new hereditary aristocracy was being born.)

Bad boys

In this new book, the discussion of inborn "constitutional' factors is more modest and carefully phrased. Wilson and Herrnstein are not talking about anyone who has ever broken the law, but rather about the handful of repeat offenders who continue to commit crimes until they are caught, killed or injured, or rendered less dangerous by the enfeebling forces of age. Certain physical and mental traits, they say, show up far more often among this group than among the population at large; and while no one is "born' a criminal (as one might be born a hemophiliac or color-blind), some people are born more likely to become criminal than others. "There is no "crime gene,'' the authors write, "but some traits that are to a degree heritable, such as intelligence and temperament, affect to some extent the likelihood that individuals will engage in criminal activities.'

The most important "genetic' factor is gender: not all men are violent criminals, but almost all violent criminals are men, especially young men. The precise proportions vary from country to country, but around the world, "males are five to 50 times as likely to be arrested as females.' For example, in the United States, 90 percent of those arrested for violent crimes between 1960 and 1980 were men. On this point, as in their discussion of other "constitutional' factors, Wilson and Herrnstein grant that social convention may play some part in conditioning boys to behave differently from girls; but "role models' and expectations go only so far. The chronic violent criminal, they say, is more impulsive in his actions then people at large and lacks what can only be called a "conscience,' which would allow him to empathize with how others may feel about being robbed or raped. (Wilson and Herrnstein say that the conscience is so atrophied in some chronic criminals that it's impossible to get a lie-detector reading from them; they don't sweat, breathe quickly, or show any other sign of anxiety about lying.) These traits, to greatly simplify the book's argument, are in turn often associated with aggressive behavior early in life, even in infancy--and many more children who behave this way are boys than girls.*

* Wilson and Herrnstein quote from an exhaustive academic review of studies of sex difference, which concluded: "(1) Males are more aggressive than females in all human societies for which evidence is available. (2) The sex differences are found too early in life, at a time when there is no evidence that differential socialization pressures have been brought to bear by adults to "shape' aggression differentially in the two sexes . . .. (3) Similar sex differences are found in man and subhuman primates. (4) Aggression is related to levels of sex hormones and can be changed by experimental administration of these hormones.'

The other main constitutional trait is low intelligence, whose influence is explained in the same limited way: low IQ scores never create a criminal, but many criminals have low IQs. In contrast to Herrnstein's earlier work, Crime and Human Nature underplays any sweeping claims for the precision or significance of IQ scores. To some extent they may be inherited, to some extent they may be determined by environment, but whatever their genesis, low IQ scores (and the associated difficulty in school and fatalism about the future) seem to be correlated with criminality.

For anyone who has not read his way through the daunting mound of academic studies that buttress the book's argument, it is hard to challenge Crime and Human Nature on detailed points. Taken at face value, the propositions that males are more aggressive than females and that less intelligent people are more likely to resort to violent acts than those who make their living as MDs pass the test of common sense. Wilson and Herrnstein, however, introduce one other "consitutional' factor that, for me at least, simply defies belief. They carefully distance themselves from the phrenologists and physiognomists of yesteryear, who looked for signs of larceny in the topography of the temple or the jut of the jaw-- but then embrace the neo-Lombrosian proposition that criminals have a distinctive "body type.'

The only photographs in the book come early, in the "constitutional' section; five blindfolded male nudes are lined up, and from the contrast of their body types we are supposed to learn that "mesomorphs deficient in ectomorphy'-- that is, well-muscled, non-lanky young men-- are more likely to turn to crime. Most of the studies on which this conclusion is based are 30 to 40 years old, which makes them more dated than most of the other data Wilson and Herrnstein cite. One of the most prominent, which crops up in practically every chapter of the book, is a survey of 500 delinquent and 500 non-delinquent boys conducted in the early 1950s by two researchers named Glueck; ever since, as Wilson and Herrnstein point out, its procedures have been attacked by other scholars. Wilson and Herrnstein blandly assure us that "a skilled body-typer can take some account of such factors as age, nutrition, and health' in distinguishing body types. Come on. What is the diet and exercise industry based on, if not on the belief that body type can be changed? What about Teddy Roosevelt or Charles Atlas? I have had several "body types' in the past 20 years (including a configuration that, according to Wilson and Herrnstein, is typical of the insane), and I bet I'm not the only one. Maybe "body-typing' is a perfectly respectable discipline with important implications for human behavior, but on the basis of the evidence offered here, it simply sounds wacky.

The culture connection

With their consideration of constitutional factors out of the way, Wilson and Herrnstein devote the last two-thirds of their book to "developmental' and "social' factors: the way a personality is formed during its upbringing and the signals and incentives society later provides.

Chapter by chapter, they move through the most familiar influences on crime--drugs, poverty, broken homes, violent shows on TV. Narcotics are an important indirect cause of crime, since addicts always need money, but most addicts were criminals before they turned to drugs, Wilson and Herrnstein say. Alcohol, on the other hand, is a monumentally important direct cause of crime, since people become more aggressive and impulsive under its sway. ("In one study of 588 homicides in Philadelphia, [Marvin] Wolfgang found that alcohol had been used by assailant, victim, or both in nearly two-thirds of the cases.') One-parent families do not necessarily produce criminal children, but children from violent or abusive families are very often disturbed as adults. Long hours in front of the TV do not do visible harm to children who are otherwise nonaggressive, but those who are aggressive to begin with become more so after seeing televised violence--and they are more likely than the others to watch a lot of TV. Attempts to rehabilitate violent criminals have generally failed; efforts to intervene in unhappy families, however, have had better results. Unemployment and poverty are not correlated with crime in any obvious or systematic way. As America has moved through its business cycles, crime rates have followed a logic of their own: they fell gradually both during the Depression and during the postwar boom, and then soared during the 1960s, when the U.S. enjoyed a prosperity it had never known.

That dramatic increase in crime, starting in the 1960s, of course, is what most people think of when they hear about a crime problem, and it leads Wilson and Herrnstein to their most provocative conclusions. Whatever may be the role of gender and temperament and even body type, the gene pool that gives rise to such "constitutional' factors cannot have changed greatly between 1960 and 1980. Yet during those years arrests for serious crime in the U.S. rose by 300 percent. Some factor other than heredity was obviously at work.

Most people are familiar with one explanation for the boom in crime rate and for the recent leveling-off. Since most crime is committed by young males, and since the baby boom dumped a glut of young males onto the market starting in the early 1960s, it is only natural that crime would suddenly rise--and then begin to fall, as the supply of teenage males declines. This explanation is comforting, since the demographic trends are now moving in a law-abiding direction, and Wilson and Herrnstein say that it does account for some of the recent reduction in crime; it also offers the reassuring implication that nothing in the social fabric has fundamentally changed. But they warn that it would be a mistake to draw much solace from this trend:

There is no doubt that the changing age structure of our society accounted for a significant part of the crime increase, but considerable doubt that age effects explained most of it. Less than half--in several estimates, much less than half--of the increase can be attributed to the greater proportion of young persons in the population. The clear implication of these studies is that the average male committed more crimes during the 1960s and 1970s. [For example,] the homicide rate was going up because young persons were becoming more homicidal and not simply because there were more young persons.

That is, something must have changed in American culture, starting in the early 1960s, to make crimes more necessary or palatable. In previous books Wilson has blamed the change on the excesses of our "self-expressive' age. Here, the argument boils down to two main assertions: that parents became less "good' at raising children and that society as a whole abandoned its efforts to convey cultural messages about discipline and self-restraint.

Parental crimebusters

The essence of "good' parenthood, as Wilson and Herrnstein see it, is the slow, steady transmission of signals that teach a child the connection between action and consequence. If he is loving, he will be loved; if he is cruel or destructive, he will be punished; if he tries hard, he will be more likely to receive his reward. They describe studies of the parents of "problem' children and say that these parents:

differed from those of normal children not so much in whether they punished too much or too little, but in that the former did not know how to punish. The parents of antisocial children did not make their use of penalties contingent on the child's behavior. More precisely, these parents were less likely than others to state clear rules, monitor compliance with those rules, and punish violations of those rules. Instead, they "nattered' at the child, occasionally and unpredictably interrupting the nattering with a slap or loss of privileges.

To turn the question around, Wilson and Herrnstein ask what traits distinguish children who have proven extraordinarily resilient--those who have turned out happy and relatively successful despite extreme poverty, birth defects, absent or unemployed fathers, and other early handicaps. Among the consistent findings was that these children, along with being first-born, had received intense, consistent, loving, and demanding attention from a mother determined that her child turn out right. By contrast, children of the "unskilled' parents, who were not consistent in their discipline, learned that their actions did not have predictable consequences: "The child . . . comes to understand that he cannot control by his own actions what happens to him. When one receives penalties unconnected to one's own behavior, one experiences a kind of stress that [one authority] has called "learned helplessness.''

It is to this defect in parental "skill,' and not to the rise of single-parent families, that Wilson and Herrnstein attribute some of the disproportionately high rate of crime among the black lower class. I say "seem' and "some' because the chapter on race and crime is the most cautiously written in the book, and the authors are clearly aware that talk about incompetent parents is explosive. (Although I.Q. in the Meritocracy was only indirectly about race, Herrnstein was lambasted for his alleged racism for years afterwards.) They consequently stick very close to an explication of previous studies and then offer a hypothesis that, again, meets the test of common sense. They say that when teenaged girls have children, the struggle to provide consistent discipline--difficult under the best circumstances--often proves overwhelming.

According to the studies Wilson and Herrnstein cite, these young mothers tend to love and indulge their children as infants, but grow vexed and impatient as their children move into the more complicated stage of toddlerhood and beyond. In a study of child-rearing in a San Francisco ghetto, one researcher found that the "comparatively nurturant childhood pattern . . . tends to give way to a rather severe rejection about the time the infant shows sufficient individuality to try to explore and manipulate his environment by walking and making verbal demands.' When a new baby arrived, the older child "was increasingly told, "Get out of here--you bother me.'' "Some children reacted against this sudden lessening of affection by becoming sullen or rebellious, behavior that often provoked the mother to send the child out of doors to get him "out of her hair.''

Wilson and Herrnstein offer no clear explanation for the supposed fall-off in parental skill-- except that it is part of the other trend they describe, the changing social attitude towards discipline and self-control. Here their most impressive evidence is historic. During the 1820s and 1830s, crime rates shot up in both England and the United States, as the first of many waves of industrialization and urbanization set hordes of uprooted young men loose among the temptations of big-city life. Alcohol consumption soared (from an estimated 2.5 gallons per capita in the U.S. in 1970) to 10 gallons in 1829); brawls and street crime grew common.

"Americans were appalled at the disorder of their growing cities,' Wilson and Herrnstein say.

The responses of these horrified citizens were various--religious revivals, temperance movements, Sunday school instruction, YMCA buildings, the foster-home movement, the creation of public schools--but all had in common a desire to instill "decision of character.' In myriad ways but with extraordinary singleness of purpose, Americans (and Englishmen) in the mid-nineteenth century invested heavily in programs designed to inculcate self-control and thereby enhance character. These efforts were directed at what reformers took to be the causes of crime and disorder--impulsiveness and a lack of conscience.

Wilson and Herrnstein say that the impact of these efforts cannot be scientifically measured. But through the rest of the nineteenth century, even as American society reeled from warfare, industrialization, immigration, the rise of the great autonomous cities, and the emergence of an oppressed industrial class, crime rates continued to decline. The deliberate effort to instill self-control --through churches, schools, homilies in magazines--fell off in the mid-twentieth century, they say, and at about the same time crime rates began their dramatic rise.

Beyond government solutions

In this condensed form, it may sound as if Wilson and Herrnstein are arguing that the only way to deal with crime is for people to start fearing God and living right. Perhaps that really is the point they mean to make, but they also advance a subtler and more practical argument. In political discussions and proposals for political action, people often find it awkward to talk about general cultural trends--in religion or childrearing or the stability of families. Yet those broad trends often turn out to have big effect on the problems with which politics must contend, such as crime.

This awkwardness is of course most acute for liberals, who do not wish to emulate the self-congratulatory religiosity of the TV preachers or the prayer-breakfast devotees, and who resent the endless Reaganesque anecdotes proving that poverty is caused by morally lax welfare queens. But in almost every aspect of politics that now matters to liberals, questions of culture may be as important as government policies. Finding a source of hope for the urban underclass, sustaining American competitiveness, bolstering the public schools and other vehicles of democratic contact and opportunity, offsetting the me-first ethic of special interest politics, controlling violent crime--in these and other areas, the government can do some of the work, but the culture has to do the rest. Part of the reason government efforts did work so well during liberalism's golden era, from the New Deal through the Great Society, may have been that the cultural underpinning laid by the pious nineteenth century strivers was still in place.

Recognizing that culture is politically and economically important does not by itself answer specific "what do we do next?' questions about crime or anything else. The one area where liberals and conservatives both believe that the government should try to influence culture directly is the schools, which is why they are such a chronic battleground. Some cultural questions, such as parents' "skill' at child-rearing, may not have any appropriate governmental solution; in other cases, tax policy or training programs or the presence or absence of a military draft may have enormous cultural consequences. In Crime and Human Nature, Wilson and Herrnstein force our attention to those consequences, and for that they deserve credit.
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Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1985
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