Crime and violence has existed throughout human history, and the search for answers as to what causes such behavior has lead to a variety of proposed theories. Criminal behavior is often associated with a variety of social and environmental risk factors that people are exposed to throughout life; lack of education, unstable family life and poverty are some of the most common examples. According to this perspective, crime is a result of a combination of these risk factors that people are exposed to in their lifetime. The purpose of this post is to explore another perspective, which emphasizes the role prenatal exposure to environmental and biological substances plays in the development of criminal behavior later in life. The effects of lead exposure, and maternal and second-hand smoking will be discussed, along with statistics as they relate to the topic. Additionally, the evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory, which suggests a link between prenatal androgen exposure and criminal behavior, will be examined. The goal of this post is to highlight the complexity of crime, and to help illustrate why one particular theory alone is not sufficient in determining the origin of criminal behavior; the best approach should be one that incorporates many ideas.
Although a direct link has not been established between prenatal exposure of certain harmful chemicals and criminal offending later on in life, it is suggested to cause permanent deficits in IQ and other cognitive processes in a developing child, which indirectly leads to a higher rate of offending. The developing brain, both in the womb and after birth, is highly susceptible to damage when exposed to certain environmental substances. Also referred to as teratogens, these toxins interfere with the proper development of the child; a wide range of effects exists from exposure, from severe birth defects such as missing limbs, to the more subtle and often unnoticeable deficits in brain function.
Prenatal Exposure to Lead
Lead is one of the more well-known and widely researched environmental contaminants. Lead exposure has consistently been shown to negatively affect IQ, cognitive function, as well as increase the risk of engaging in criminal activities. Up until the 1960s, pregnant women and young children were exposed to an excessive amount of lead, which was added to gasoline and was one of the main ingredients in household paint. Lead exposure in the womb is associated with an increased rate of criminal offending after puberty. One study analyzed trends in violent crime in the United States and compared it with the amount of lead being added to gasoline; researchers found that the more lead added to gasoline, the higher the rates of violent crime arrests roughly 20 years later. In other words, the more lead that was added to gasoline while pregnant, the higher the chance that individual would be arrested for a violent offense. Every additional 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter in early childhood blood measurement, increases the rate of arrest by 1.5 times.
Maternal Cigarette Smoking
Maternal smoking (MS) and second-hand smoke exposure in the early years of a child’s has also been widely researched regarding its negative effects on the developing brain. It has been estimated that 25% of pregnant women who smoke, continue to smoke throughout their pregnancy. Numerous studies have found MS to be significantly associated with an inadequate development of the cognitive process involved in self-control. Psychological disorders including impulsivity, truancy, conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, attention deficits, and substance use disorders have all been associated with exposure to cigarette smoking in the womb. Maternal smoking not only exposes the developing baby to a variety of toxic substances, but also deprives it of oxygen, leading to damage in the pre-frontal cortex. Damage due to oxygen deprivation increases as the number of cigarettes smoked per day rises. It has been found that in men whose mothers smoked over 20 cigarettes per day during the last trimester were twice as likely to be arrested for a violent offense, and nearly twice as likely to be life-course persistent offenders. Additionally, 25% of those who had birth complications in addition to MS were eventually arrested at some point in their lives for a violent offense.
The Evolutionary Neuroandrogenic Theory
Up until this point, the focus has been on the relationship between external environmental toxins and increased risk for criminal offending. The evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory (ENA) instead emphasizes the role of prenatal exposure to natural androgens. According to the ENA, exposure to high levels of testosterone in the womb determines the likelihood of offending throughout life. Considered both an evolutionary and neurological theory, the ENA assumes criminality is a result of natural selection; testosterone plays a mediating role in the development of certain psychological characteristics that predispose one to competitive behaviors and an increased drive to acquire resources or mating opportunities. According to the ENA, elevated androgen exposure changes the structure of the brain, and sets a blueprint for functionality, which is activated at the onset of puberty. Until recently, these claims were lacking in terms of empirical research because of the difficulty of obtaining data and the risk imposed on the fetus when collecting data from amniotic fluid. With the newfound indirect measure of prenatal testosterone exposure in the late 1990s, the ENA has begun to receive more attention by criminologists. The 2D:4D finger length ratio, specifically from the right hand, has been found to accurately indicate the degree of exposure to androgens before birth. The lengths of the second and the fourth finger are compared; those with the lowest length ratio are assumed to have exposure to the highest amount of testosterone prenatally. Multiple studies have demonstrated relationships between lower 2D:4D ratios and criminal offending, and these findings are generally consistent across races and cultures.
Even in its early stages of research, the ENA looks promising as another stance one could take when determining the roots of criminal behavior. As explained above, prenatal lead exposure has been found to result in numerous negative health outcomes, and is an established risk factor for criminal behavior. The government responded appropriately once this was discovered, and banned lead additive in gasoline and household paints. Also stated above, prenatal exposure to cigarette smoke has been found to increase the likelihood of criminal offending two-fold in many cases; the government should respond just as it did with lead. Isn’t it the government’s responsibility to prevent crime? Knowing that exposure to brain altering teratogens such as these is quite common, shouldn’t criminal behavior be considered a mental illness? Can it not be argued that free will was lost in the womb with a mother’s bad decision?
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