To be fair about it, a relatively small portion of their new book, "Crime and Human Nature," is devoted to the notion of "criminal types."
Still Harvard professors James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein clearly entertain the idea that there is a predisposition to criminality that is independent of upbringing, neighborhood, reward systems and other socializing influences.
For instance, they report that men with relatively low intelligence (IQ between 91 and 93) and bodies along "mesomorphic" lines (shorter, well- muscled, broad-shouldered, slim- waisted types) are significantly more likely than others to become involved in crime. In addition, criminals tend to beget criminals -- even if the children are adopted into other homes.
Herrnstein and Wilson will get plenty of argument over the validity of their conclusions about predisposition to criminality. But that is as of nothing compared with the controversy that would follow absolute proof that they are correct.
Suppose that it turns out that we can clearly identify (while lacking the ability to change the identifying characteristics) "criminal types." Should we do it? What should we do with the information?
It seems pointless to wait until the high-risk prospects actually commit crimes before trying to do something to control them. Yet it seems both unconstitutional and unconscionable to "convict" them of the predisposition absent any evidence of actual criminality.
But even after they, true to our scientific prediction, commit crimes, it seems unreasonable to punish them for doing what they had only limited ability to avoid doing. After all, you wouldn't punish a weak-bladdered 5-year-old for bedwetting.
So what do we do? Should we tell young "precriminals" (or alert their parents) that they are prospective outlaws? Should we give them extra attention? Be more (or less) forgiving of their childhood offenses? What?
There being no good answer to what to do with the information, it's worth wondering why anybody would think it a good idea to go searching for it in the first place. Well, for one thing, the search might discover correctable causes of antisocial behavior, and surely that would be a good thing.
Still, it strikes me that we keep looking for things we don't really wish to find, since finding them only leads to new bundles of complications and dilemmas. There is, for instance, the Florida researcher who (until the authorities recently halted her supply) performed studies of the brain tissue of executed prisoners, looking for clues to their rottenness. Suppose she had found what she was looking for?
Or take the Michigan study of some years back. I cannot recall the details, but the conclusion was that juvenile offenders who are caught by the authorities (even if they are merely turned over to their parents and sent home) are significantly more likely to become serious delinquents and adult offenders than those who don't get caught at all.
It's fairly easy to see why this might be so. For instance, the very fact of becoming an official offender, by getting caught, might serve to confirm a youngster's badness in his own mind, thereby lowering his resistance to the next temptation.
But it's impossible to figure out what to do about it. What reasonable public policy flows from the evidence that it is, in terms of future criminality, better that young delinquents not be caught?
The question has no good answer, and I confess to hoping that the evidence on which it is based is invalid. As with intimations of scientifically discoverable "criminal types," there are some things we are better off not knowing.