Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bad to the Bone: All About Criminal Motivation

Pop Culture Crime

"You are what you eat" an old anecdote of unknown origin

During the 20th century, a more diversified and imaginative set of crime theories appeared. These concepts highlighted the role of DNA, nutrition, body chemistry and even ecological factors in criminal behavior. One of these theories was the extra chromosome theory, which became popular in the 1960s and was made famous by several high-profile criminal cases in which the defendant was said to have an extra Y chromosome.

Richard Speck, killer of eight nurses in Chicago in 1966. He later died in prison in 1999
Richard Speck, killer
of eight nurses in
Chicago in 1966. He
later died in prison
in 1999

When human chromosomes are examined under an electron microscope each gender has a distinctive pattern. Females have a "XX" pattern and a typical male possesses a configuration that appears to be "XY". In the early 1960s, a researcher discovered that men who had a chromosome pattern of "XYY" were much more prevalent in prisons than in the general populations. These individuals were called "supermales" and were characterized as overly aggressive, hostile and more prone to deviant behavior. The most notorious of these supposed "supermales" was the demented killer of eight nurses in Chicago in 1966 named Richard Speck. It was believed, and highly publicized, that Speck possessed the dreaded extra "Y" chromosome. Years later, it was discovered that Speck did not have the pattern and the "XYY" theory eventually fell into disrepute almost as fast as it became popular.

Nutritional factors were also suspected of having unpredictable effects on the human brain. One of the earliest studies that investigated the link between behavior and diet was completed in 1943. This research found a correlation between low blood sugar and murder. It was said that low blood sugar lowered the ability of the mind to make rational decisions. In recent years, allergic reactions to food have also been used to explain criminal behavior. The famous "Twinkie Defense" in San Francisco is an example of that trend.

In 1978, former police officer Dan White burst into San Francisco Mayor Moscone's office and shot him and Councilman Harvey Milk to death. His attorney later explained that White was suffering from some type of mental imbalance that caused him to eat a great deal of junk food, including Twinkies. Though the claim was never actually made at trial, the so-called "Twinkie Defense" came to mean that eating junk food can cause deviant behavior. Although he was convicted, Dan White received a more lenient prison sentence. Several years after his release, White committed suicide. But "junk food" was an imprecise term because not everyone thinks the same of "junk food". What is bad to one person might be nutritious to another, such as pizza or burgers.

Allergic reactions to certain types of food and artificial additives have also been associated with psychological disorders. As can be imagined, it is extremely difficult to prove conclusively that any type of food can generate deviance in any one person. In 1983 in San Ysidro, California, James Oliver Huberty, burst into a McDonald's fast food restaurant and killed 21 people with an automatic weapon. His wife later brought a lawsuit against the hamburger chain because she claimed that the additives inside Chicken McNuggets caused her husband to go on a rampage.

In Italy, a research project in 1969 discovered that children who consumed large amounts of pasta and bread had shortened memory and attention spans. Research has also confirmed that adjusting the diet of convicts in a controlled setting was more effective than other methods in order to reduce aggression (Vito and Holmes). But not everyone is convinced. The American Dietetic Association has taken the official stance that there is no solid scientific evidence in existence that demonstrates a relationship between diet and crime.

Another group of theories that gained in popularity during the 1970s was the ideas expressed in urban ecology research. A central principle in urban ecology is that criminal behavior can be traced to the physical structure of the environment. In other words, the design and organization of the setting promotes crime. Why is the crime rate higher in the inner cities, for example, than it is in rural areas? One answer may be in the "concentric zone" theory. Researchers found that in cities, as business enterprises expand into an area, the zoning laws are changed to accommodate them. Residents in these areas then leave, unable to adjust to the changing landscape. Those who remain behind are too poor to move and become disenfranchised. A sort of disorganization results that fosters cynicism and as a result, crime rates inevitably go up. Studies discovered that the further one moves from the central zone, the more the crime rate goes down.

"Deviant places" theory proposes the idea that it is the location itself that promotes crime. In one study, which examined more than 300,000 telephone calls to the Minneapolis police in 1989, it was discovered that only a few locations accounted for the overwhelming majority of calls. Violent crimes like robbery and rape were almost exclusively confined to those deviant places. As a result, some municipalities have installed crime prevention components into urban planning. Improvements such as easy-access parks with natural surveillance views and increased street lighting were put into operation. In several cities, where measures of this sort were applied, crime rates usually declined.

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