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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 169-178 ( 4 May )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/walsh.html

Essay Review

Companions in Crime:
A Biosocial Perspective

By Anthony Walsh*

Review of Companions in Crime: The Social Aspects of Criminal Conduct
By Mark Warr
Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN: 0521009162

Mark Warr's Companions in Crime: The Social Aspects of Criminal Conduct, is a well reasoned and well written account of the social influence of peers on crime and delinquency. It is mercifully free of the deconstructionist mush that infects a significant portion of today's criminology, and can thus be read with profit by the non-criminologist. I venture to say that it is the most comprehensive and sophisticated sociological treatment of peer influence on antisocial behavior available today. Warr covers all the explanatory bases relevant to why peers are so important to adolescent behavior, although I am surprised that he does not address Judith Harris's (1998) much praised contributions to this topic. Warr's explanations for peer influence range from the most general (we are a gregarious social species) to the very specific (fear of ridicule, diffusion of responsibility, the anonymity of the gang, status striving, and so on). I have very little argument with Warr regarding what he has written in this delightful little book. My argument with him is about what he has not written, and about what he could have written in his effort to understand antisocial conduct among adolescents.

Peer Groups and Peer Pressure

Warr’s primary thesis is that association with delinquent peers causes delinquency. Although he acknowledges that the data are only correlational (p. 120), that other theorists explain the peer association/antisocial conduct in terms of birds of a feather flocking together, and that we should not view the causal direction in zero-sum terms (p. 42), he clearly favors the causal role of delinquent peers over the alternative. He believes that the literature he reviews "supports the proposition that peer influence is the principle proximate cause of most criminal conduct" (p. 136, Warr's emphasis). Just one page later he relegates peer influence to a "vital mediating element" (p. 137) without specifying what it is mediating between. Here would have been a good place to talk about individual difference. Warr does afford homophily (like seeking like, which implies individual differences) equal power with propinquity in explaining the formation of peer groups, but he views homophily solely in terms of ascriptive demographic characteristics such as race, sex, and social class. He never even touches on individual cognitive and temperamental differences that may differentially affect susceptibility to delinquency and to the formation of delinquent groups. Individual measures typically absorb the explanatory efficiency of demographic measures and add incremental validity to them. Lubinski and Humphreys (1997) and Walsh (1997) provide several illustrations of this claim with regard to race, gender, class, and age.

Warr spends much time telling us why adolescent peer pressure is so powerful, but never attempts to explain why the pressure is so often in antisocial directions. Antisocial behavior during adolescence is actually statistically normal; it is the youth who is consistently non-delinquent who is abnormal (Moffitt, 1993). Adolescent antisociality has been observed for centuries; Plato commented on the unruliness of youth in his day in the Republic, and Shakespeare does likewise in The Winter's Tale. The problem is worse in the modern United States than in ancient Athens or Elizabethan England because of what Terrie Moffitt (1993) has termed "the maturity gap," as Warr (p. 130) points out. The maturity gap is that block of time, which can be as long as 10-12 years today, between puberty and the acquisition of socially responsible roles. The maturity gap was much shorter in days gone by when puberty arrived later and socially responsible roles came earlier. Regardless of the size of the gap, what is it about the adolescence that appears to be inherently antisocial?

Adolescent-Limited and Life-Course Persistent Offenders

We should begin by noting that there are at least two distinct types of delinquents who follow two distinct developmental pathways: life-course persistent (LCP) and adolescent-limited (AL) delinquents (Moffitt, 1993). Warr recognizes Moffitt's contribution (p. 130), but then ignores it, perhaps because Moffitt posits that LCP offenders are biologically different from AL offenders. All delinquents and criminals are thus treated by Warr as if they were a homogeneous whole, which is a standard tactic of a sociological criminology loathe to admit individual differences into its theorizing (Hirshi & Hindelang, 1977). The distinction between LCP and AL offenders is very important, however, because cohort study after cohort study (e.g., Moffitt, et al., 1996; Wolfgang, Thornberry & Figlio, 1987) show that a very small percentage of offenders ( six to ten percent) commit the great majority of crime, particularly the most serious kinds of crime. These offenders are almost invariably found to by LCP offenders.

LCP offenders are those who begin offending before puberty and continue well into adulthood. They are individuals who are purported to possess heritable neuropsychological and temperamental impairments (hyperactivity, negative emotionality, low impulse control, low IQ, etc.) that set them on a trajectory of negative interactions with others that result in ever hardening antisocial attitudes and behaviors. These impairments suffered are exacerbated by ineffectual parenting because ill tempered children tend to have ill tempered parents who may add social insult to biological injury by abusing and neglecting them. Children with such impairments may even tax the patience of the best of parents, who may resort to coercive parenting or give up trying. It is often forgotten by sociologists that socialization is a two-way street, with the characteristics and traits of children influencing parenting behavior just as surely as parenting style affects the behavior of children. Behavior geneticists refer to this feedback process whereby ego evokes responses from alter on the basis of ego's traits as reactive gene/environment correlation.

AL offenders have no such impairments, are for the most part adequately socialized, and have built up a store of social capital before adolescence (their prior behavior has evoked positive responses for parents, teachers, and peers) upon which they can draw later. AL offenders are basically prosocial youths who are temporarily derailed by the biological and social upheavals of adolescence, at which time they turn their envious eyes on LCP boys who have already declared their independence. AL boys see that the behavior of LCP boys seems to bring them positive results (status, girls, clothes, cars, etc.) that signal the mature status adolescents crave. Novice delinquents (AL boys) are drawn to them because of this and mimic their attitudes and behavior. Unlike LCP offenders whose antisocial characteristics are stable, and whose social capital is minimal, AL offenders develop temporary antisocial attitudes and behaviors during adolescence and are able to revert to their prosocial trajectories in late adolescence by dint of the social capital they have accrued. With the distinction between LCP and AL offenders in mind, we can evaluate what Warr has to say about adolescence and delinquency, keeping in mind that much of what he is saying appears to apply only to AL offenders.

Status Striving in Adolescence

Warr writes at length about the importance of status, prestige, and respect within the adolescent group, and he even informs us that status striving in groups "seems to be a feature of all primate species" (p. 51). This should have alerted him that there is something in the biology of all primates that leads them to seek status in groups, and to explore what this may be so, but it did not. Evolutionary biologists view status striving as an evolutionary adaptation, the ultimate goal of which is reproductive success via access to more females. In common with young males in other primate species, AL delinquents are following what evolutionary biologists call a conditional cheating strategy; i.e., a strategy that is followed contingent on environmental conditions. Cheating is a generic term for any illegitimate behavior designed to gain the individual organism the status and resources he desires but is unable to attain by legitimate means. Unlike LCP offenders, whose behavior can be likened to what biologists call an obligate cheater strategy; i.e., a strategy forged by frequency dependent selection that renders cheating almost obligatory in that it resists environmental interference over a wide range of normal environments, AL offenders will desist from cheating when opportunities to gain status and other valued resources become legitimately available to them.

Males high in the status and dominance hierarchy are attractive to females, and this is the ultimate reason why male adolescence and young adulthood is replete with status competitions, risk taking, and often violence. As Martin Daly (1996:193) has put it, "There are many reasons to think that we've been designed [by natural selection] to be maximally competitive and conflictual in young adulthood." Of course, status and dominance are valuable in their own right to young males, but we cannot ignore the fact that among all facultatively polygynous species, status and dominance is highly adaptive; i.e., it results in greater reproductive success. In gang subcultures, gang members have more sexual partners than non-gang members, and the leaders (alpha males) have more sex partners than their subordinates (Padilla, 1992; Palmer & Tilley, 1995). Status striving is thus part of our evolutionary baggage (an adaptation), and this evolutionary view of such efforts go a long way to helping us understand why young males often risk physical injury, or even death, to confront someone over the most trivial of insults to their claim to respect, especially males in so-called "honor subcultures" (Anderson, 1999; Mazur & Booth, 1998).

Age and Offending

Warr tells us that the age/criminal conduct relationship is "lawlike," and adds that trying to explain the relationship is "daunting" (p. 92). He then cites various others (such as Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990) as asserting that the age effect (the rapid onset of delinquency followed by a steep decline) cannot be explained by any known combination of sociological factors. Professor Warr's does not agree. His effort to explain the age effect centers on an increase in peer associations to explain the onset of delinquency, and the decrease in peer associations to explain the decrease in delinquency. As is the case with most of sociology's attempts to understand its data, Warr's account is a description, not an explanation. What we want to know is why we observe the rapid onset of association with peers who mutually encourage each other to be obnoxious, or why the great majority will desist in late adolescence/early adulthood. Simply observing that that delinquency and peer associations rise and fall roughly in unison doesn't do it.

For the biosocial scientist, the proximate biological mechanisms facilitating conditional cheating and mate competition among adolescent males is the pubertal surge of testosterone and the halving of sex hormone binding globulin (Udry, 1995). Given the wealth of literature on testosterone and behavior, one would have thought that Warr would have at least given it a passing mention. Of course, hormones no more explain the rapid onset and desistence of antisocial behavior by themselves than do fluctuations in peer associations. These hormonal changes correspond with the onset of antisocial conduct, but there is no such hormonal decrease that corresponds with its decline. There are profound changes occurring in the adolescent brain which, when combined with the hormonal and social situational data, offer more plausible explanation for the rapid onset and subsequent decline of delinquency than social variables examined in isolation.

The brain undergoes its second wave of synaptic overproduction just prior to puberty, which is followed by a period of pruning during adolescence and young adulthood (Giedd, et al., 1999; Sowell, et al., 1999). Additionally, the adolescent prefrontal cortex (the brain's "executor," vital in the forming of moral judgment, the mediation of affect, and for social cognition) is still in the process of becoming fully myelinated (Baird, 1998). Nerve conduction velocity increases from about two meters per second when axons are functionally minimally myelinated to about 50 meters per second when they become fully myelinated (Casear, 1993). The adolescent brain is thus physically immature. This, coupled with adult levels of behavior-facilitating hormones, may contribute greatly to teenagers' tendencies to assign faulty attributions to situations, to inaccurately gauge the intentions of others, and to experience a wider range of stimuli as aversive than they did as children, or will do as adults (Walsh, 2000).

There are other neurological explanations for the frenetic period we call adolescence involving arousal levels and the various neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin) and deaminating enzymes (monoamine oxydase) involved with pleasure and pain that space precludes me from addressing here (reviewed in Walsh, 2002). Nevertheless, it is clear that the aging process "twixt twelve and twenty" reflects the maturation of the neurological and endocrine systems that will fine-tune the cognitive and emotional processes that will finally allow the young to participate positively in their society. The biological events that are taking place during the teenage years should be incorporated into theories of adolescent offending. These kinds of data may go a long way to explaining the range of adolescent behaviors that Warr describes solely in social terms.

Desisting from Offending

Many sociological theories of crime and delinquency involving peer influence and learning (e.g., differential association) imply that once a criminal career is initiated it is self-perpetuating and continuous, and thus these theories are not able to accommodate the fact that the vast majority of delinquents desist after very short delinquent careers. The best part of Warr's book is that which addresses desistance.

Warr makes the distinction between compliance and private acceptance (p.6-7). Compliance refers to conformity with group behavior, or "going through the motions" and behaving the way the group apparently wants him or her to behave without privately agreeing with what they are doing. Private acceptance refers to the acceptance of the beliefs, attitudes, and values expressed by the delinquent group. Warr takes differential association theory to task because it "was built squarely on the idea of private acceptance" (p.7). Why a theory that is silent is on the mechanisms that herald the end of the phenomenon it purports to explain, as well as offering a circumscribed account of its onset to boot, has survived so long (over 60 years) is something of a mystery. Differential association theory is still the third most popular theory in criminology (Walsh & Ellis, 1999), which is a sad commentary on the status of the discipline.

Warr distinguishes between ontogenetic (e.g., self-control) and sociogenetic (e.g., social learning) theories of crime, and states that: "The former assert that the propensity for crime is present at an early age, is stable through life, and consequently is unaffected by events that occur in life. The latter maintains that life course events like marriage, full-time employment, college attendance, and entry into the military have pronounced affect on criminal careers" (p. 100). Warr favors the sociogenetic view, and offers a great deal of evidence in support. I support this position as it applies to most delinquents also. To my knowledge, no biosocial criminologist has ever stated that most delinquents have any sort of stable propensity to commit antisocial acts over the life-course. The delinquents who fit the sociogenetic model are AL offenders ("compliers"); the delinquents who fit the ontogenetic model are LCP offenders ("private acceptors"). Behavior genetic studies of delinquency have found weak to non-existent genetic effects, but strong effects for criminals-those few that continued to offend after adulthood (reviewed in Walsh, 2002). Because Warr does not recognize the distinction between AL and LCP offenders, he views ontogenetic and sociogenetic theories as competing in a zero-sum game for criminologists' allegiance.

The acquisition of socially responsible roles such as those mentioned by Warr is certainly more salient for AL than LCP offenders, especially given the data on assortative mating for antisocial behavior and characteristics (Krueger et al., 1998; Quinton et al., 1993). These studies show that the likelihood of LCP offenders securing the support of a non-deviant spouse is minimal. The same can be said of entering college or the military, or obtaining steady full-time employment (Caspi, Bem, & Elder, 1989). Even if these things were obtained, "the offender tends to convert these situations into sources of satisfaction consistent with his previous criminal behavior" (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990:139). LCP offenders only cease offending when/if they are caught and imprisoned or "burned out."

AL offenders do not stop offending when they acquire socially responsible roles because these roles disrupt or dissolve delinquent groups, as Warr (p.101) contends. He cites as evidence that they do a study that reported more than half of the juveniles who desisted from crime did so because they abandoned their peer group, and that those who did not desist showed no decline in level of peer involvement. He quotes one youth as saying: "To keep out of trouble, that's why I don't go round them no more" (p. 102). Surely, this is more excellent evidence for the "birds of a feather" thesis than for the causal affect of peers. Those who leave the delinquent group, as with those who leave any kind of group, do so because they find the group uncongenial; those who remain do so because the group remains intrinsically rewarding to them. We all seek environments that are compatible with our genetic dispositions. Behavior geneticists call this "niche picking" active gene/environment correlation.

AL offenders desist because they have become biologically and socially mature, and this maturity is responsible for both dissolving the delinquent group and taking on institutionalized roles. AL offenders are more intelligent than their LCP counterparts (Moffitt [1993] reports a one-point IQ difference between AL delinquents and non-delinquents, but a 17 point difference between LCP delinquents and non-delinquents) and more conscientious. These characteristics, which enabled them to accumulate social capital prior to adolescence, now enables them to realize that a criminal record will severely limit their future options, and they begin to knuckle down. In other words, AL offenders are responding adaptively to changing environmental contingencies.

Gender and Delinquency

When Warr takes on the issue of the gender/delinquency relationship he seems less comfortable, devoting only three pages to it, and stating that sociological efforts to explain the relationship "have not fared well" (p. 115). He acknowledges that across cultures and historical periods, males commit far more crimes than females, especially serious violent crimes. This ubiquity should have alerted Warr that biology must be intimately involved with the differential propensity of males and females to commit crimes, but again it did not. Warr comments approvingly on two sociological "explanations" for the relationship: females are differentially exposed to the same criminogenic conditions, or that they are differentially affected by exposure to the same criminogenic conditions (p.115, emphasis original).

Warr does not resort to the old and tired argument that females are more highly supervised than males. A meta-analysis of 172 studies addressing this issue found a tendency (albeit, nonsignificant) for boys to be more strictly supervised than girls (Lytton & Romney, 1991). His argument is one of differential socialization, claiming that gender-specific socialization produces females that are more caring and empathetic than males, and thus "will be more reluctant than males to engage in conduct that harms others, including criminal conduct" (p. 117). In other words, the process of socialization is all that we need to explain gender differences in offending (or any other) behavior. Appealing to socialization implies that if males and females were identically socialized their behavior would be identical. The implication leaves unanswered the question of why all cultures throughout history have socialized their males and females differently, or why males and females in non-human primate species exhibit widely disparate cheating tactics also.

The "blank slate" view of human nature implied by anyone offering a socialization explanation of gender differences is a view that modern evolutionary biology and neuroscience inform us is quite impossible (Quartz & Sejnowski, 1997). Unfortunately, the view still has a strangle hold on sociology. In addition to being scientifically untenable, the tabula rasa view is disrespectful of human dignity in that it views us as mere pawns of the environment, waiting to be kicked into any shape our cultures might desire (which is precisely why so many have called the tabula rasa view a dictator's dream). Males and females are not socially interchangeable, and the view that they are is a continued embarrassment to those of us with any connection of sociology.

Combining the differential peer influence and differential moral socialization arguments to explain low levels of female offending, Warr concludes that moral inhibitions acts as a barrier against offending for both sexes, but that it is much stronger for females than for males. I have no quibble with this, but it obviously begs the question of why females behave and think more in accordance with what we view as moral than do males. Any explanation of why the sexes differ in any species and in any respect requires evolutionary explanations, and for this we turn to Anne Campbell's (1999) staying alive hypothesis.

Campbell’s argument has to do with evolved sex differences in basic biology relevant to parental investment and status striving. She posits that a mother’s presence is more critical to offspring survival than is a father's because a female’s obligatory parental investment is greater than a male’s, and because of the greater dependence of the infant on the mother. The low female reproductive variability relative to males' means that the protection of her offspring is more vital to her reproductive success because offspring are not as readily replaceable as are the offspring of males. Thus, a female’s survival (“staying alive”) is more critical to her reproductive success (in terms of maximizing the probability that her offspring will survive) than a male’s survival to his. Accordingly, females have evolved a propensity to avoid engaging in behaviors that pose survival risks. If a mother placed herself in risky situations in ancestral environments, the practice of keeping nursing children in close proximity posed an elevated risk to the mother’s survival and also to that of the child (Beckerman, 1999). In response to this risk, Campbell proposes females have evolved a greater propensity to experience many different situations as fearful. She shows that there are no sex differences in fearfulness across a number of contexts unless a situation contains a significant risk of physical injury. Fear of injury accounts for the greater tendency of females to avoid or remove themselves from potentially violent situations, and to employ indirect and low-risk strategies in competition and dispute resolution relative to males.

We have seen that status seeking often leads to antisocial behavior among the young. In terms of fitness, because males exhibit greater variance in reproductive success than females but less parental certainty, males have more to gain and less to lose than females by engaging in intrasexual competition for mating opportunities. Striving for status and dominance was a risky business in evolutionary environments, and still is in some environments. Dominance and status are less reproductively consequential for females than for males, and thus they have experienced less evolutionary pressure for the selection of mechanisms useful in seeking it (Barash & Lipton, 2001). Although females engage in intrasexual competition for mates, it is rarely in the form of violence and aggression in any primate species, with most of it being low key, low risk, and chronic as opposed to male competition, which is high key, high risk, and acute. The female assets most pertinent to reproductive success are youth and beauty, which one either has or does not. Male assets are the resources females desire for their reproductive success, and unlike youth and beauty, can be achieved in competition with other males. Males are willing to incur high risks to achieve the status and dominance that bring them resources and thus access to more females.

Campbell shows that when females engage in crime they generally do so for instrumental reasons, and the crimes themselves rarely involve risk of physical injury. Both robbery and larceny theft involve expropriating resources from others, but females constitute about 43% of arrests for larceny/theft and only about 7% of arrests for robbery, a crime carrying a relatively high risk for personal injury. There is no mention in the literature that female robbers crave the additional payoffs of dominance that male robbers do, or seek reputations as “hardasses” (Katz, 1988). Aggressive and dominant females are not a particularly desirable as mates, and certainly a woman with a reputation as a “hardass” would be most unattractive. Campbell (1999:210) notes that while women do aggress and do steal, “they rarely do both at the same time because the equation of resources and status reflects a particularly masculine logic.”

This distal explanation of gender behavioral differences must be linked to proximate mechanisms that facilitate the evolved strategy. Numerous theorists have linked the greater empathy, nurturance, and altruism (morality, if you will) of females relative to males to brain systems and hormones that mediate bonding and maternal care (Geary, 2000; Panksepp, 1986; Walsh; 1995). The literature is far too voluminous to review in any detail here. However, not to consult the compass of more advanced disciplines, disciplines that have demonstrated their power and coherence time after time, when exploring topics of sociological relevance amounts to scientific malfeasance.

Sex differences in aggression, dominance seeking, and promiscuity are related to parental investment rather than to sex per se. It is the level of parental investment that exerts pressure for the selection of the neurohormonal mechanisms that underlie these behaviors. In species (some bird and fish species) in which females do not carry the primary burden of parental investment, it is female' who takes the risks, who are promiscuous and the aggressors in courtship, and who engages in intrasexual competition for mates (Barash & Lipton, 2001; Betzig, 1999). Males and females in these species thus assume characteristics that are opposite those of males and females in species in which the females assume all or most of the burden of parenting.


Although this review has been critical, it has been so only with regard to what Warr has not addressed, not what he has. The problem with the book is the same problem that plagues sociology in general-its biophobia. A discipline's integration with its more fundamental science (e.g., chemistry with physics; biology with chemistry) has been the royal road to its progress. Vertical integration in science brings with it the ability to view old issues in a different light, and to discover new issues in places previously unknown. Without such integration, sociological theories of crime and delinquency will be even more pallid and lifeless viewed against the backdrop of theories proposed by scientists outside of the discipline.

I characterize Warr intellectually from my reading of this book as a fair- and scientifically- minded individual who would fully agree in the abstract that all human behavior is the result of complex interactions of the biology of the individual and his or her environment, but who chooses to ignore the first half of the equation. I say this because on the penultimate page in the book he acknowledges that behavior genetics, evolutionary psychology, and the neurosciences are breathing down the neck of sociological criminology, which he says is "disorienting and even threatening" (p.139) to the majority of the current crop of criminologists. To his credit, he does not try to dismiss the challenges to criminological orthodoxy made these sciences, but rather views the challenges as scientifically healthy, which is assuredly is. In other words, and unlike so many other strict environmentalists, Warr does not attack straw men or dismiss what he appears to admit that he does not yet understand. I italicize yet because I see in Warr the kind of open-minded individual who will follow in the footsteps of so many other former strict environmentalists into the apostasy of biosocial thought.


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© Tony Walsh.

* Anthony Walsh, Ph.D., Professor of Criminal Justice, Department of Criminal Justice Administration, Boise State University, 1910 University Drive, Idaho 83725-1955, USA.

Professor Walsh has special interests in the biological bases of human behavior. His primary interests are criminology, statistics, and criminal justice assessment and counseling. He has written over 81 articles and 13 books, the latest of which is Biosocial Criminology: Introduction and Integration, Anderson Publishing, 2001.


Walsh, A. (2002). Companions in Crime: A Biosocial Perspective. Human Nature Review. 2: 169-178.

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