Laws against wrongdoing may originate in justice intuitions that are part of universal human nature, according to the adaptationist theory of the origins of criminal law. This theory proposes that laws can be traced to neurocognitive mechanisms and ancestral selection pressures. According to this theory, laypeople can intuitively recreate the laws of familiar and unfamiliar cultures, even when they lack the relevant explicit knowledge. Here, to evaluate this prediction, we conduct experiments with Chinese and Sumerian laws that are millennia old; stimuli that preserve in fossil-like form the legal thinking of ancient lawmakers. We show that laypeople’s justice intuitions closely match the logic and content of those archaic laws. We also show covariation across different types of justice intuitions: interpersonal devaluation of offenders, judgements of moral wrongness, mock-legislated punishments and perpetrator shame—suggesting that multiple justice intuitions may be regulated by a common social-evaluative psychology. Although alternative explanations of these findings are possible, we argue that they are consistent with the assumption that the origin of criminal law is a cognitively sophisticated human nature.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.67 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
The data that support the findings of these experiments have been deposited in a public repository at https://osf.io/uwq2t/. Source data for Fig. 2 are presented with the paper.
Roth, M. T., Hoffner, H. A. & Michalowski, P. Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Scholars Press, 1997).
Plaut, W. G. & Bamberger, B. J. The Torah. A Modern Commentary (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981).
Durkheim, E. The Division of Labor in Society (Free Press, 1984).
Braman, D., Kahan, D. M. & Hoffman, D. A. Some realism about punishment naturalism. Univ. Chic. Law Rev. 77, 1531–1609 (2010).
Bentham, J. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Clarendon Press, 1907).
Posner, R. A. How Judges Think (Harvard Univ. Press, 2010).
Blackstone, W. Commentaries on the Laws of England (Clarendon Press, 1765).
Dworkin, R. Law’s Empire (Harvard University Press, 1986).
Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. in Heuristics and the Law (MIT Press, 2006).
Jones, O. D. & Goldsmith, T. H. Law and behavioral biology. Columbia Law Rev. 105, 405–502 (2005).
Lieberman, D. & Patrick, C. Objection: Disgust, Morality, and the Law (Oxford Univ. Press, 2018).
Patrick, C. J. The long-term promise of evolutionary psychology for the law. Ariz. State Law J. 48, 995–1012 (2016).
Robinson, P. H., Kurzban, R. & Jones, O. D. The origins of shared intuitions of justice. Vanderbilt Law Rev. 60, 1633–1688 (2007).
Robinson, P. H. & Kurzban, R. Concordance and conflict in intuitions of justice. Minn. Law Rev. 91, 1829–1907 (2007).
Jones, O. D. Proprioception, non-law, and biolegal history. Fla. Law Rev. 53, 831–874 (2001).
Boyer, P. Minds Make Societies: How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create (Yale Univ. Press, 2018).
Locke, J. Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988).
Clutton-Brock, T. H. & Parker, G. A. Punishment in animal societies. Nature 373, 209–215 (1995).
Hammerstein, P. & Parker, G. A. The asymmetric war of attrition. J. Theor. Biol. 96, 647–682 (1982).
Huntingford, F. A. & Turner, A. Animal Conflict (Chapman & Hall, 1987).
Bshary, R. & Grutter, A. S. Asymmetric cheating opportunities and partner control in a cleaner fish mutualism. Anim. Behav. 63, 547–555 (2002).
Raihani, N. J., Grutter, A. S. & Bshary, R. Punishers benefit from third-party punishment in fish. Science 327, 171–171 (2010).
Boyd, R., Richerson, P. J. & Henrich, J. The cultural niche: why social learning is essential for human adaptation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 10918–10925 (2011).
De Freitas, J., Thomas, K., DeScioli, P. & Pinker, S. Common knowledge, coordination, and strategic mentalizing in human social life. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 116, 13751–13758 (2019).
DeVore, I. & Tooby, J. in Primate Models of Hominid Behavior (ed. Kinzey, W. G.) 183–237 (SUNY Press, 1987).
Hill, K. & Hurtado, A. M. Ache Life History: The Ecology and Demography of a Foraging People (de Gruyter, 1996).
Tomasello, M. Human culture in evolutionary perspective. Adv. Cult. Psychol. 1, 5–51 (2011).
Hamilton, M. J. et al. Population stability, cooperation, and the invasibility of the human species. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 12255–12260 (2009).
Kaplan, H., Hill, K., Lancaster, J. & Hurtado, A. M. A theory of human life history evolution: diet, intelligence, and longevity. Evolut. Anthropol. 9, 156–185 (2000).
Lieberman, D., Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. The architecture of human kin detection. Nature 445, 727 (2007).
Sell, A. et al. The grammar of anger: mapping the computational architecture of a recalibrational emotion. Cognition 168, 110–128 (2017).
Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. & Glick, P. Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence. Trends Cogn. Sci. 11, 77–83 (2007).
Sznycer, D. et al. Cross-cultural invariances in the architecture of shame. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 9702–9707 (2018).
Curry, O. S. in The Evolution of Morality (eds. Shackelford, T. K. & Hansen, R. D.) 27–51 (Springer, 2016).
Petersen, M. B., Sell, A., Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. To punish or repair? Evolutionary psychology and lay intuitions about modern criminal justice. Evolution Hum. Behav. 33, 682–695 (2012).
Tooby, J., Cosmides, L., Sell, A., Lieberman, D. & Sznycer, D. in Handbook of Approach and Avoidance Motivation vol. 15 (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2008).
Hamilton, W. D. The genetical evolution of social behaviour. J. Theor. Biol. 7, 17–52 (1964).
Nowak, M. A. Five rules for the evolution of cooperation. Science 314, 1560–1563 (2006).
Trivers, R. L. The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Q. Rev. Biol. 46, 35–57 (1971).
Buss, D. M. Sex differences in human mate preferences: evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behav. Brain Sci. 12, 1–14 (1989).
Fareri, D. S., Chang, L. J. & Delgado, M. R. Computational substrates of social value in interpersonal collaboration. J. Neurosci. 35, 8170–8180 (2015).
Hare, T. A., Camerer, C. F., Knoepfle, D. T., O’Doherty, J. P. & Rangel, A. Value computations in ventral medial prefrontal cortex during charitable decision making incorporate input from regions involved in social cognition. J. Neurosci. 30, 583–590 (2010).
Klein, J. T., Deaner, R. O. & Platt, M. L. Neural correlates of social target value in macaque parietal cortex. Curr. Biol. 18, 419–424 (2008).
Leary, M. R. & Baumeister, R. F. The nature and function of self-esteem: sociometer theory. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 32, 1–62 (2000).
Durkee, P. K., Lukaszewski, A. W. & Buss, D. M. Pride and shame: key components of a culturally universal status management system. Evolution Hum. Behav. 40, 470–478 (2019).
Levy, D. J. & Glimcher, P. W. The root of all value: a neural common currency for choice. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. 22, 1027–1038 (2012).
Delton, A. W. & Robertson, T. E. How the mind makes welfare tradeoffs: evolution, computation, and emotion. Curr. Opin. Psychol. 7, 12–16 (2016).
Sznycer, D. & Lukaszewski, A. W. The emotion–valuation constellation: multiple emotions are governed by a common grammar of social valuation. Evolution Hum. Behav. 40, 395–404 (2019).
Sznycer, D. Forms and functions of the self-conscious emotions. Trends Cogn. Sci. 23, 143–157 (2019).
Hamlin, J. K., Wynn, K., Bloom, P. & Mahajan, N. How infants and toddlers react to antisocial others. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. 108, 19931–19936 (2011).
McAuliffe, K., Jordan, J. J. & Warneken, F. Costly third-party punishment in young children. Cognition 134, 1–10 (2015).
Rossano, F., Rakoczy, H. & Tomasello, M. Young children’s understanding of violations of property rights. Cognition 121, 219–227 (2011).
Smetana, J. G. Preschool children’s conceptions of moral and social rules. Child Dev. 52, 1333–1336 (1981).
Cushman, F. Crime and punishment: distinguishing the roles of causal and intentional analyses in moral judgment. Cognition 108, 353–380 (2008).
Barrett, H. C. et al. Small-scale societies exhibit fundamental variation in the role of intentions in moral judgment. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 4688–4693 (2016).
Mikhail, J. Is the prohibition of homicide universal—evidence from comparative criminal law. Brooklyn Law Rev. 75, 497–515 (2009).
Wrangham, R. W. Two types of aggression in human evolution. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. 115, 245–253 (2018).
Patrick, C. J. & Lieberman, D. Not from a wicked heart: testing the assumptions of the provocation doctrine. Nev. Law J. 18, 33–59 (2017).
Stylianou, S. Measuring crime seriousness perceptions: what have we learned and what else do we want to know. J. Crim. Justice 31, 37–56 (2003).
Robinson, P. H., Goodwin, G. P. & Reisig, M. D. The disutility of injustice. N. Y. Univ. Law Rev. 85, 1940–2033 (2010).
Kääriäinen, J. Seven Criminal Cases–Comparing Finnish Punishment Policies and Finns’ Punishment Preferences (Univ. Helsinki Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy, 2018) .
Saguy, A. C. & Stuart, F. Culture and law: beyond a paradigm of cause and effect. Ann. Am. Acad. Political Soc. Sci. 619, 149–164 (2008).
DeScioli, P. & Kurzban, R. Mysteries of morality. Cognition 112, 281–299 (2009).
Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. in Human Morality and Sociality: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (ed. Høgh-Olesen, H.) 191–234 (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).
Keltner, D., Young, R. C. & Buswell, B. N. Appeasement in human emotion, social practice, and personality. Aggressive Behav. 23, 359–374 (1997).
Baumard, N., André, J.-B. & Sperber, D. A mutualistic approach to morality: the evolution of fairness by partner choice. Behav. Brain Sci. 36, 59–78 (2013).
Shaw, A. Beyond “to share or not to share” the impartiality account of fairness. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 22, 413–417 (2013).
Vaughn, B. E. & Waters, E. Attention structure, sociometric status, and dominance: interrelations, behavioral correlates, and relationships to social competence. Dev. Psychol. 17, 275 (1981).
Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. Friendship and the banker’s paradox: other pathways to the evolution of adaptations for altruism. Proc. Brit. Acad. 88, 119–144 (1996).
Von Rueden, C., Gurven, M. & Kaplan, H. Why do men seek status? Fitness payoffs to dominance and prestige. Proc. R. Soc. B 278, 2223–2232 (2010).
Bandura, A. Social Learning Theory (Prentice–Hall, 1977).
Sigmund, K., De Silva, H., Traulsen, A. & Hauert, C. Social learning promotes institutions for governing the commons. Nature 466, 861 (2010).
Boyd, R., Gintis, H., Bowles, S. & Richerson, P. J. The evolution of altruistic punishment. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 3531–3535 (2003).
Henrich, J. et al. Costly punishment across human societies. Science 312, 1767–1770 (2006).
Johnson, W. The T’ang Code, volume II: Specific Articles (Princeton Univ. Press, 2014).
DeScioli, P., Massenkoff, M., Shaw, A., Petersen, M. B. & Kurzban, R. Equity or equality? moral judgments follow the money. Proc. R. Soc. B 281, 20142112 (2014).
Gigerenzer, G. & Hug, K. Domain-specific reasoning: social contracts, cheating, and perspective change. Cognition 43, 127–171 (1992).
Nettle, D. & Saxe, R. Preferences for redistribution are sensitive to perceived luck, social homogeneity, war and scarcity. Preprint at PsyArXiv https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/kupqv (2019).
Sznycer, D. et al. Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across cultures. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 2625–2630 (2016).
Williams, K. E., Votruba, A. M., Neuberg, S. L. & Saks, M. J. Capital and punishment: resource scarcity increases endorsement of the death penalty. Evol. Hum. Behav. 40, 65–73 (2019).
Robinson, P H & Darley, J. M. Justice, Liability, and Blame: Community Views and the Criminal Law (Westview Press, 1995).
Devine, D. J. & Caughlin, D. E. Do they matter? a meta-analytic investigation of individual characteristics and guilt judgments. Psychol. Public Policy Law 20, 109–134 (2014).
Espinoza, R. K., Willis-Esqueda, C., Toscano, S. & Coons, J. The impact of ethnicity, immigration status, and socioeconomic status on juror decision making. J. Ethn. Crim. Justice 13, 197–216 (2015).
Pierce, G. L. & Radelet, M. L. Death sentencing in East Baton Rouge Parish, 1990–2008. La. Law Rev. 71, 647–673 (2011).
Tarantola, A. Four thousand years of concepts relating to rabies in animals and humans, its prevention and its cure. Trop. Med. Infect. Dis. 2, 5 (2017).
The authors received no specific funding for this work. We thank O. Jones and L. Arnhart for helpful comments on a previous version of this manuscript.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information Primary Handling Editor: Charlotte Payne.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Sznycer, D., Patrick, C. The origins of criminal law. Nat Hum Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0827-8