Review of Mental Abnormality and Crime, ed. by L. Radzinowicz and J. W. C. Turner. English Studies in Criminal Science, Volume II. London, 1944. Macmillan. Pp. 316

Eugenics Review, July 1945; 37(2): 74–77.


   This book raises two problems of profound interest. One of them is the social and philosophical problem of what should be the attitude of society to the criminal. The other is the scientific problem of what are the causes of criminal behaviour.

   In their able introductory note the Editors give a brief account of the change that has taken place in the course of centuries in the attitude of the judicature to crime and the criminal. Primitive justice is very largely retributive, on the Biblical principle of an eye for an eye. In lay hands its main concern was with the physical event which a crime represented, in legal terminology the actus reus. From the ecclesiastical side came the notion of moral guilt. It came to be recognized that a man could not be punished for the consequences of his acts, if for instance these were such that no reasonable man could have foreseen them. It became necessary to prove not only the act itself, but also a culpable state of mind accompanying it, in legal terminology the mens rea. This was at first measured by an objective standard. It did not matter whether the wrongdoer thought that his conduct was wrong or not, but whether it was right or wrong by the accepted standard, as understood by the judges. Development has not ceased there. The actual state of mind of the accused at the time of the act has come to assume a high degree of relevance, and most cogently so in the case of a capital crime like murder. The courts are now concerned, therefore, with the elucidation of a subjective state. The position is far from satisfactory. For now something has to be taken into account which can never be directly known and about which indirect evidence is all too often nebulous or contradictory. The question that now faces jurists is whether it is desirable to introduce the concept of "partial " or "diminished" responsibility, particularly in order to cope with the problems raised by mental disease or abnormality. In Scottish law this step has been taken, but not yet in English law. From the point of view of the jurist it would have the advantage of favouring justice by allowing a mitigation of punishmnent. From the point of view of the sociologist it would have the advantage of throwing the door open to a different order of treatment of the criminal.

   In his chapter on "Psychoses and Criminal Responsibility" Dr. Angus MacNiven discusses the difficulties which face the psychiatrist when he is called on to give evidence on the criminal responsibility of the psychiatric patient. As is well known, English legal procedure is determined by the McNaghton rules. By these rules a man is held to be responsible for his acts, however diseased his mind, unless the defence can show that he either did not know what he was doing, or did not know that what he was doing was wrong. The irrelevance of these rules to any realistic view of the situation is aptly illustrated by Dr. MacNiven. A patient, suffering from a psychotic depression, who is walking over a bridge with the intention of throwing himself into the river, would almost certainly refrain for the time from doing so if he noticed a policeman in the immediate neighbourhood. By this abstention he shows both that he knows what he is proposing to do and that it is wrong. And yet it would be clear to the psychiatrist that his wrongful intention could be ascribed wholly to the diseased state of his mind, and he would not nowadays be punished for his act if he carried it through.

   In 1924 the Royal Medico-Psychologal Association recommended that the McNaghton rules should be superseded, and that the responsibility of the accused should be left as a question of fact to the jury, The judge should ask the jury to answer the questions: Did the prisoner commit the act alleged? If he did, was he at the time insane? If he was insane, has it nevertheless been proved to the satisfaction of the jury that his crime was unrelated to his mental disorder? Dr. MacNiven considers the last of these questions unnecessary. Most psychiatrists will agree with him, and believe that the insane person should be treated as such and not as a responsible person, without entering on the thorny question whether his mental disorder is or is not related to the crime. Dr. MacNiven believes that the operative criterion should be the insanity, i.e., certifiability, of the accused. The looser concept of mental disorder should not be employed for this purpose. He points out that once such an arbitrary criterion 'as certifiability is abandoned, it is not possible to make any satisfactory distinction between the degree of responsibility to be allowed to the mentally abnormal and to the mentally normal. From the point of view of a deterministic philosophy one may regard the acts of all individuals as fully determined by the totality of factors that enter the situation. He says, " We agree with those who suggest that the only logical solution to the problem of criminal responsibility is to abolish the legal concept of insanity and to regard every one, whether sane or insane, who commits an offence as responsible, but not necessarily as punishable."

   This seems to be the only logical and also now the only reasonable view. The issue is clouded by metaphysical conceptions of guilt and the doctrine of free-will. What is needed for the health of society is that acts which are harmful to others should not be committed, and that he who has a tendency to commit them should be so treated that this tendency is abolished. The means of attaining these aims should be the subject of unbiased research. It is clear that on the one hand there will have to be social measures, which will be based on the conception that crime is a social symptom and not merely a series of isolated and independent incidents. On the other hand there will have to be an approach to the criminal as a man, an attempt at an evaluation of his actual and potential worth to society and to himself, a search for the best method of handling him. This last will very likely prove to be medical or psychotherapeutic; it may involve lifelong segregation from ordinary society, or even death; but it is most unlikely to be punitive.

   The rest of this book takes us some little way towards an understanding of the problems of aetiology. Chapters on the criminal aspects of psychoneurosis, mental deficiency, psychopathy, juvenile delinquency, etc., by such authorities as R. D. Gillespie, E. O. Lewis, D. K. Henderson and Emmanuel Miller, to mention but a few of the distinguished authors, contain discussions which must be of great value to the non-psychiatrist. The reviewer has found of the greatest interest Dr. Norwood East's critical review of the work that has been done on the physical attributes of criminals, which contains matter that was new to him.

   Work on this field is particularly associated with the name of Lombroso. Lombroso based his views on the study of 383 skulls and the anthropometric examination of 5,907 criminals. He considered they showed such a proportion of microcephalies, asymmetries, prognathisms, etc., that one was led to compare them with savages and the insane. He believed that some criminals were bom so, and has said, "Ciminality is therefore an atavistic phenomenon which is provoked by morbid causes of which the fundamental manifestation is epilepsy." Lombroso's views have been much blown upon, but in some respects they have an extremely modern ring. The opinion that criminality is related to epilepsy is particularly supported by modern work with the electro-encephalograph.

   The chief agent in discrediting Lombroso was Charles Goring. Working in Karl Pearson's laboratory, he studied criminal physique, vital statistics, fertility and heredity. He did this work with enormous care and conscientiousness, and his results are regarded as reliable. But he was obstinately determined to disprove Lombroso's theory of a criminal type, and as far as he could he prejudged the issue. The interesting point is that he discovered a number of differences of a statistical kind between criminals and others but discounted his results.

   Goring has been followed in the U.S.A. by Hooton, who has made exhaustive anthropometrical examinations of over 3,000 criminals. He states, "Criminals are inferior to civilians in nearly all of their bodily measurements. These differences attain statistical significance and general criminological validity in body-weight, in stature, in biacromial breadth, chest depth, chest breadth, cranial circumference, nose height, ear length, head height and upper facial height.... These differences appear to be independent of age and state sampling."

   Hooton's work has itself been attacked, but on such grounds as that the incarcerated criminal is not representative of criminals as a whole, as many of them never get to jail. Unbiased review has not, it seems, shaken his results.

   The importance of this work is not, perhaps, immediately apparent. Its significance lies in the fact that it equates criminals with the tail end of a normal distribution; they are to be regarded as a sample of the general population and coming within the normal range of variation, but showing qualities which differ in degree with those of the universe from which they are drawn. From this point of view the criminal becomes a statistical concept. Exactly comparable findings have recently been made in the investigation of neurotic Army and Service personnel in this country. The probability that, for instance, the investigation of Jews or jockeys, cockneys or crossword-fans, geniuses or eugenists, would provide group characteristics of a type comparable (in kind, though not perhaps in direction) with those given by criminals and neurotics, is no criticism of either the validity or the usefulness of this mode of approach. Recent developments of statistical technique have provided us with the means of combining a number of metrical tests (such as those provided by the work of Hooton) into a single instrument for distinguishing one class from another. The accumulation of sufficient data would eventually enable us to distinguish the potential neurotic or criminal from the average member of the population, with a known margin of error. Furthermore, these investigations provide us with indications that the causes of social abnormalities of a psychological kind have factors in common with the causes of physical variation. The attack on these problems on physiological, biochemical, and genetical lines is greatly encouraged.