The idea crime could be in part genetic is extremely controversial because most criminologists argue the root causes of crime are environmental factors such as poverty.
But now a group of researchers claims that the genes we are born with could play an even more significant role in our chances of turning to a criminal lifestyle in later years.
A University of Texas study published in the Criminology journal found that although there is no single gene which causes criminal behaviour, there are probably a wide range which play a small part in raising or lowering our chance of offending.
Dr J.C. Barnes, one of the co-authors, said: "There are likely to be hundreds, if not thousands, of genes that will incrementally increase your likelihood of being involved in a crime even if it only ratchets that probability by 1 per cent,” he said. “It still is a genetic effect. And it’s still important.”
Researchers looked at three broad groups of people: those who persistently offend throughout their lives, those who only commit crimes in their teens, and those who always obey the law.
They focused on so-called life-course persistent offenders, who are typically guilty of anti-social behaviour during adolescence before progressing to violent or more serious crimes in adult life.
Using data on 4,000 people from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the researchers found that while adolescent offenders appeared to be more influenced by the environment, the same was not true of those who became lifelong criminals.
The twin methodology used to determine the relative influence of environmental and lifestyle factors did not identify which particular genes were responsible, but suggested what up to 70 per cent of our chance of lifelong criminality could be genetic.
Dr Barnes said: "The overarching conclusions were that genetic influences in life-course persistent offending were larger than environmental influences.
"For abstainers, it was roughly an equal split: genetic factors played a large role and so too did the environment. For adolescent-limited offenders, the environment appeared to be most important.