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The Criminal and the Community
Part I - Chapter II - Heredity and Crime

IN the effort to assign a general cause for criminality an undue emphasis may easily be placed on any one factor. There are those who seem to think that heredity is the main cause, but they rarely attempt to define the content of the term. In a sense heredity is the cause of everything, but in that case it cannot be held to be the cause of one thing more than of another. Suppose a man becomes insane at the age of thirty and it is shown that a number of his relatives, direct and collateral, have also been insane. If heredity accounts for his insanity what will account for his sanity? Such a man under treatment may recover, but sane or insane his heredity is not altered. The fact is that we none of us know enough regarding the qualities of our ancestors to be justified in imputing our inheritance of any special tendency to any particular one of them, and every successive generation implies a mixing, if not a blending, of very complex and sometimes opposing qualities.

If a man knows anything about anybody in this world surely it is about himself. His knowledge is incomplete, but it is more full and varied than his knowledge of any other body. He may be expected to know something about the qualities and faculties of his wife. Yet all he knows of himself and her, added to all he knows of the laws of heredity, does not enable him to forecast with any degree of accuracy the faculties and tendencies of his infant child, or to trace these back when they have developed.

In the case of criminals born and brought up in hotbeds of vice it is even more hopeless to trace back family history, because there is often in their case a grave uncertainty as to the personality of the male parent. To say that as wolves breed wolves criminals breed criminals is nonsense and mischievous nonsense. As canaries breed canaries do poets breed poets?

Criminals are men and women who have gone wrong ; not necessarily because of the possession of certain powers which they have inherited, but because these powers have been used in a wrong direction. They come from all classes; and there is nothing to show that if their children were taken from them early in life and brought up in favourable surroundings they would take to crime ; but there is an abundance of evidence on the other side.

There is a good deal of discussion nowadays regarding the fit and the unfit among us, and a tendency to forget that a classification of our fellow-citizens under one head or the other can only be made if we regard the terms as relative to the conditions under which they live. That very many prove their fitness to survive the continuous strain of economic pressure, can as little be questioned as that others sink under the ordeal. No one will deny that there is a good deal of unfitness shown by persons in a comfortable position economically; and if some of the Apostles of Fitness had any sense of humour they would hold their tongues and hide themselves, for neither intellectually nor physically do they show much claim to present an ideal standard.

Nobody denies that men are unequally endowed. Some have a powerful physique; others have greater intellectual power. The usefulness of their endowment to themselves and to others will largely depend on the position in which they are placed. Put them to work unsuited for them, or place them in positions where their faculties are not allowed free play, and they may do very badly. The difficulty is to get the right man in the right place. When he is in the wrong place he may be a nuisance to himself and others; but it does not follow that placed in another position he would not be a useful member of society.

An attempt has been made to show that certain faculties are inherited and transmitted in certain families; but it is conveniently assumed that position is of no importance. Everybody knows that, in the professions chosen to illustrate the theory, promotion is not wholly dependent on ability. That a father and son have both been judges offers no presumption of special fitness on the part of the son. That high military rank has been held by several members of the same family need not prove any of them to be great soldiers; that the government of the State is now in the hands of one family and now in the hands of another does not show anything more than that these families have been in a position to secure the offices. It would be a new and startling doctrine to assert that the man who is best fitted for a position always obtained it. Everybody knows that the main consideration in determining an appointment is whether a man has influence enough to get it; and that influence need not depend on his personal ability, but on his position in relation to those in whose gift the appointment lies. Granted equal ability in two men, let one of them start with family or social influence and the other with none, and there can be no doubt as to what will happen. That an able man will obtain influence in time is highly probable, but by the time he has gained recognition he is likely to be too old to benefit much by it. The stupid man who has a clever father has a better chance than the clever man whose father has shown no special ability.

It is a very difficult thing for any man to learn the history of his family. In the case of the eminent you get no two biographies that are alike. An enquiry would show that this is equally true in the case of those who are not eminent. A man may have one reputation inside his family circle and quite a different reputation outside. We are all influenced in our conduct towards others by our opinions regarding them. A man who has pride in his ancestry will show it in his actions. There may be nothing to be proud about, but that will not prevent him playing his part. On the other hand, if he believes he has been disgraced by something that has been done by some member of the family, his conduct is likely to suffer from the belief. I have seen a woman whose brother was executed for murder sink under the disgrace into a condition of recklessness verging on insanity; and it is a matter of common observation that in some degree men have been broken in spirit by the shame brought upon them through the action of their relatives. It is impossible to discriminate between the part played by inherited tendencies and social pressure, in the production of certain acts.

Crime is not the result of inherited faculty, but of the direction in which that faculty is exercised. There are some families where the parents have been criminals and the sons have all done well; while the daughters have followed in the footsteps of their parents. In these cases it is probable that the determining factor has been the influence of the mother. Her criminal acts and methods were more susceptible of imitation on the part of the daughters than on the part of the sons, and the girls, even though they had been willing to leave the house, would have had to face life outside under greater difficulties than the boys.

The practice of singling out heredity as the cause of certain things to the exclusion of others has no sanction in experience. Our forefathers recognised that all men showed imperfections. They saw that one man was given to envy; another to lust; another to covetousness ; another to wrath ; and so on through all the deadly sins. They attributed these defects to our heritage of Original Sin. The theologian has been displaced by the scientific man, and if heredity is a newer name for our ignorance it does not fit the facts any better.

We inherit all the faculties and powers which we possess, but what they are only the event shows. Nothing can be taken out of a man but what is in him, but there may be a good deal in him which is never taken out. We may develop certain faculties, but not unless they are first present; and the stimulus that they obey at one period in our lives may fail at another. We may estimate the capabilities of a man who is dead from observation of what he has done, but we cannot say that he might not have done better or worse had his life been prolonged. In the case of great men this is recognised, and we have laments over their early death and speculations as to what they might have done, or regrets that they lived too long for their fair fame. It is the same in the case of small men as of great.

Heredity is behind everything; not merely behind some things. If it explains a manís disease, in the same sense it must also explain his antecedent health. It cannot account for one part of his life more than another. Even those who attribute disease or misconduct to heredity seek to cure the diseased person and to correct his bad habits. Any success with which they meet is not obtained by altering his heredity, but by changing the conditions under which he has been living in such a way and to such an extent that he reacts favourably to the change. We are not warranted in saying of- anybody that he is doomed by heredity to a life of vice or of crime. The conditions that suit one person may not be suitable to the healthy development of another, and the problem with regard to those who transgress our laws is to ascertain under what conditions they would behave best and place them there. Though their family history may be of the blackest; though their ancestors may have been vicious, it by no means follows that it is impossible for them to be otherwise. When a man has done wrong it does not help him to be informed that he cannot do better. He is often more than willing to transfer the blame to the shoulders of others. It is more profitable to teach and help him to do well than to encourage him to curse his grandfather.

There is only one way of finding out why people commit crimes and that is by making a patient enquiry in each case. The causes in many cases may be similar, but the part they play may be different.

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