The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

What Biology Can Teach Us About Crime and Justice

The last half-century has brought about a number of pressing social and criminal justice issues around the world. These social changes have been particularly tumultuous in the United States. From the civil rights movement to rising incarceration rates, the U.S. has undergone a number of social movements and interconnected paradigm shifts that have raised concerns about the issue of justice, and that have moved a growing number of citizens in and out of social exclusion.

Any effort to advance towards a more just society requires us to ponder the extent to which the quest for justice and the ability to empathize with the “other” are biological instincts or socially learned behavior. Recent studies of animal behavior provide new insight into the biological and social roots of empathy and justice. In this piece, we explore the application of these findings to the human experience with punishment, forgiveness, and justice.

Animal Behavior and Social Justice

The study of animal behavior is currently experiencing a renaissance based on a flurry of groundbreaking work and a rebirth in our thinking. In the late 19th century, naturalists including Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley spoke more expressively about the minds of animals, but this was soon followed by an austere scientific stoicism, at least in the West, that labeled as anthropomorphism any attempt to discuss an inner experience for animals. This trend lasted well into the second half of the 20th century and is only stubbornly retreating in the face of undeniable evidence that animals have complicated mental and social lives.1

The field of ethology, formally the study of animal behavior in their natural setting, has been rebranded by some scholars as the study of animal minds. Among the most important pioneers in this field are the “trimates:” Jane Goodall, the late Dian Fossey, and Birutë Galdikas, the scientists who made the most significant contributions to our knowledge of the natural behaviors of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, respectively.2 Their work has inspired scientists from around the globe to conduct more thorough investigations, revealing that social animals express a rich and complicated cultural fabric that often bears a striking resemblance to our own.

Penguins trade resources for sex. Dolphins and elephants pass the mirror test for self-awareness. Mice will skip food in order to rescue a trapped companion. Crows engage in a death ritual for fallen comrades. Many animal species display the clinical symptoms of grief when a close affiliate dies. Prairie dogs have developed an entire language for warning each other about threats (including humans) that includes descriptors for color, size, and shape. The closer we look, the more complexity we find, and the more we realize that the animal and human experiences are not so different.3

If we accept that human society and behavior flow at least in part from biological drives and instincts shaped by our evolutionary past, there is a great deal to learn about our own behaviors by understanding their correlates in the animal world. This is the foundational principle of the field of sociobiology and its even more controversial offspring, evolutionary psychology.

One problem is that instincts alone do not result in behaviors. The rich cultural milieu that shapes our behavior may cloud our understanding of the role of biological instincts. The same is true for animals. If we remove an infant animal from her natural social environment, she will develop very different behaviors than she otherwise would in her natural setting.

Although human behaviors and societies are unquestionably more complex than those of animals, parallels with regard to justice seeking behaviors are striking. In 1984, Gerald Wilkinson discovered that vampire bats that are successful in finding food will share with those that are starving, but only if the “beggars” have been generous and willing to share in the past.4 In 2003, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal discovered that when offered a lesser reward than others for the same task, capuchin monkeys will refuse the reward.5 This phenomenon is referred to as intolerance to inequity, and has since been observed in chimpanzees, dogs, and many other species. Many animals, especially our fellow apes, have a highly developed sense of fairness and act to enforce equity, even when they are the beneficiaries of the better but unequal treatment.

The Purpose of Punishment

While fairness is important, human justice systems seek out more than just equitable treatment. At least in principle, these systems exist to establish and enforce codes of conduct that facilitate social harmony and ensure the common good.

Reactions to the social problem of crime have varied greatly across different historical periods. Nonetheless, criminal justice systems have traditionally invoked four main goals of punishment: retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation. These four paradigms have taken on different relative importance from one era to another.

The goal of retribution stems from the moral principle of “just deserts,” and dictates that punishment must be proportional to the harm caused by the offender. This model of punishment was popularized by the Classical School during the Enlightenment era, and is believed to have inspired early American legislation, including the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.6

Rehabilitation, on the other hand, follows a medical model. It presumes that offenders require some form of treatment or intervention to heal and prevent further offending. This model was influential in criminal justice from the early 20th century until the 1970s. The rehabilitative approach lost popularity after publication of Robert Martinson’s seminal 1974 article, “What Works?,” which concluded that intervention programs were not effective in reducing reoffending.7 Because of the social upheaval of the 1970s, there was considerable public fear of crime and the “what works” perspective morphed into the “nothing works” doctrine.

This shift led to an emphasis on the deterrence and incapacitation paradigms in the 1980s, a period when the crime control objective of punishment grew dominant. Deterrence aims to use punishment to dissuade an offender from engaging in further crime, and the population at large from choosing crime in the first place. Incapacitation, on the other hand, uses the risk factor approach to remove from society, possibly permanently, individuals deemed to pose too great a threat to the community.

The shift toward deterrence and incapacitation has resulted in rising incarceration rates in the United States, and increasingly limited investment in rehabilitation initiatives. Although incarceration rates have generally been on the rise in most developed countries during the past few decades, the United States is the world leader in incarceration, with approximately 2.2 million people locked up in the nation’s state and federal prisons and jails. This figure was driven by a nearly 500% increase in the incarceration rate during the past three decades.8

The growth in incarceration has disproportionately affected members of minority demographic groups, particularly black males without a high school diploma. As a result of tough-on-crime policies, such as three-strikes legislation, truth-in-sentencing policies, mandatory minimum sentences, Rockefeller drug laws, and a reduced or delayed recourse to parole, the length of imposed sentences and the average time served by prisoners in the United States have ballooned since the mid- 1970s. The U.S. is also peculiar in its extensive use of life sentences and particularly life without the possibility of parole, a punishment that has been deemed unconstitutional in many countries, including France, Germany, and Italy.

This rise in incarceration rates has created unique challenges for individuals who return to the community after increasingly long absences.9 These obstacles have led to the increased marginalization of adjudicated individuals, mostly young black or Latino males. In turn, mass incarceration has devastated minority communities. The removal of a large number of able-bodied males has negatively impacted various dimensions of community life, from family structure to economic activity.

How Other Animals Handle Justice

Because the study of animal behavior has illuminated other aspects of human psychology and social structures, it is logical to consider how animals approach matters of justice. Animals are known to have elaborate social behaviors and rituals, but do these qualify as a code of conduct?

Marc Bekoff has spent decades studying the social behaviors of gray wolves. He found that young wolves were taught a series of rules that enabled them to integrate into the social fabric of the pack. In addition to establishing the privileges associated with the dominance hierarchy, the wolf code of conduct includes rules about food sharing and fair conditions for rough play, an important social behavior for young wolves.10

When a young wolf breaks a rule, such as making a sneak attack, refusing to appropriately handicap, or biting too hard, he is punished through a process that is best described as shunning. The other wolves turn their backs to the offender, refuse to play with him, and he is denied access to food sharing and other social interchanges. He is effectively placed in a “time-out.” The shunning, however, is temporary. The wolf is authorized to rejoin the group after offering an apology and making amends. Wolves express apology through the act of bowing, a social cue for submission. If there is a wounded party, the offender licks the victim or otherwise expresses affection. A lesson is learned, a relationship is repaired, and social harmony is restored.

Similar rituals are found among chimpanzees and bonobos, which are the closest relatives to humans. While these two ape species have many stark differences in their social structure, both involve a dominance hierarchy with established etiquette. Similarly to wolves, rule breaking behavior is punished by temporary social shunning. Offenders must display submission in order to be readmitted into the group. The emerging themes of crime, punishment, and reconciliation are increasingly prevalent in the body of research on animal behavior.

The fact that these rituals are observed across diverse species of social mammals compels us to conclude that the complex responses to rule breaking and punishment behaviors stem, at least in part, from inherited genetic programs that have been passed down and shaped over evolutionary time. Humans also share this legacy. Our approach to justice and social harmony is influenced by the same genetic predisposition that enables us to recognize inequality, establish social rules, punish, apologize, and forgive.

However, like other animals, we also have instincts toward revenge and righteous outrage. Our instincts and drives are relatively diverse, but these instincts are expressed differently in varying social contexts. For instance, our perception of how to best protect young children takes on various shapes in different cultures, even though they all spring from the same underlying desires. Our social milieu is the result of a complex culture that has developed cumulatively over thousands of years. Our various biological instincts can be activated or suppressed in different situations. Genes x environment equals behavior, a simple equation that captures an overwhelming complexity.

This gene-environment interaction is not always conducive to the greater good. There is no guarantee that our societal context, let alone our public policy, will be optimal in shaping our behaviors and producing desirable outcomes. The criminal justice system in the United States is just such an example. There is a disconnect between the way that animals react to rule breaking and the human approach to crime and punishment. The contemporary American criminal justice system emphasizes the punishment component, but assigns little importance to reconciliation and reintegration. As such, many individuals who experience contacts with the criminal justice system are subject to persisting consequences long after they have served their time.

The Effects of Criminal Justice Punishment Among Humans

Two dominant frameworks help to better understand the potentially deleterious effects of criminal justice interventions: labeling theory and the reintegrative framework.

Individuals form their self-identity on the basis of how they perceive others to view them. As a society, we adopt rules and label as “deviant” individuals who break these rules. Once individuals are marked by a deviant label, such as felon or offender, this label reinforces their feeling of being an “outsider,” alienating them from mainstream society. The resulting loss of status weakens the desire to conform to social norms, and thus leads to further deviance. This process is referred to as “secondary deviance.”11 Criminal behavior persists as the stigmatized sense of self becomes consistent with the new deviant role. As the label reinforces identity, the negative identity, in turn, reinforces deviance.

While some form of punishment is warranted when responding to a behavior that is harmful to others, the degree and nature of stigmatization that follows the wrongdoing can greatly impact subsequent offending. John Braithwaite has described two types of reactions: reintegrative shaming and stigmatizing shaming.12 The reintegrative model shames the act and attempts to understand it, but does not shame the actor. While the offender is expected to express remorse for his/her actions, the individual is not ostracized and is eventually reintegrated into the community. Conversely, the stigmatizing approach shames both the act and the actor. By ostracizing the offender, the stigmatizing paradigm fails to adequately reintegrate the individual because he or she now experiences a hostile community.

Perpetual Punishment: Lasting Stigmas From the Criminal Justice System

In the United States, our practices and policies successfully implement the first element of justice (punishment), but grant relatively limited importance to the component of justice that should ideally follow punishment: reconciliation and reintegration.

In the words of a 2014 report from the National Research Council, “Respect for citizenship demands that punishment by incarceration not be so severe, or have such lasting negative consequences, that the person punished is forever excluded from full participation in mainstream society.”8 This is not merely a moral issue, but also a practical one. Perpetual punishment may undermine the very goals of punishment itself. In our current criminal justice system, punishment persists far beyond the incarceration period. The purpose underlying this enduring punishment is unclear. While we know that finding and maintaining a job is key to successful reintegration into the community, former prisoners face a number of obstacles in obtaining gainful employment. In most states, the law authorizes potential employers to inquire about an applicant’s criminal record. Employers are less likely to hire individuals with a criminal record than individuals from other stigmatized groups with lower levels of skill, such as welfare recipients or individuals with unexplained gaps on the resumé. Many states have enacted laws that bar felons from certain professions entirely.

Returning prisoners also face other forms of so-called “invisible punishment.”13 Many jurisdictions exclude individuals with felony convictions from access to public housing, welfare benefits, participation in public pension programs, and even food stamps. Some states permanently revoke driver’s licenses for certain drug convictions. Others bar ex-convicts from state-based financial aid to pursue college or adult education. Most U.S. states permanently exclude convicted felons from jury service.8

Perhaps the clearest reminder that a criminal conviction permanently alters the status of one’s membership in the community is the fact that most U.S. states revoke the right to vote in federal elections upon conviction of a felony. Of all Western nations, the United States stands alone in the scope of disenfranchisement to which it subjects its prisoners and ex-prisoners. These policies have resulted in a growing marginalization of minority males.14

The loss of all these rights, privileges, and means to build a successful life has occurred along with what the National Research Council has referred to as a “civil death.”8 In many cases, ex-prisoners are never made to feel like full citizens again, even long after they have completed their sentence.

Us Versus Them

Social and moral distance between individuals and groups creates a barrier for the development of empathy. The more an individual feels cast out, the less likely he or she is to develop empathy for his fellow citizens, and the reverse is true as well. In contrast, reconciliation facilitates the extension of empathy between those who have offended and those that they have harmed. Through personal contact, airing of grievances, admission of guilt, and offerings of apology and reparation, humans in conflict can close the empathy gap that separated them in the first place.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that crime and punishment play important roles in our social fabric. Crime serves to remind citizens of the values of society, but it only serves this purpose if it is condemned. Punishment is necessary to establish order and safety. At the same time, crime reinforces the sense of solidarity among members of the dominant group at the expense of those labeled as “outcasts.” For better or worse, a strong sense of community requires borders and boundaries that people recognize, consciously or unconsciously, as the source of their solidarity. By excluding a stigmatized group, societies draw the boundaries for empathy and react with ambivalence to the punishment and suffering of those outside of their own group. Similar arguments have been made against segregation, global isolationism, and other barriers used by societies to establish separateness and limit contact between groups.

Reconciliation and Reparation

If we once again consider how other mammals approach punishment, we note a disconnect between animals and many human penal philosophies. While the first reaction to an infraction in an animal social group is to punish the offender, the actions that follow serve to resolve the conflict and repair any damage to the community, or its members, brought on by the infraction.

There are several examples of reconciliation in the animal world. Wolves that bite too hard while playing are encouraged to comfort the wounded party, generally through face-centered contact such as nosing and licking. Apes that have been taught ways to express themselves frequently use signs to convey that they are apologetic, and they follow these apologies with affectionate contact such as hugs and stroking. There is evidence from wild chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans that a combination of facial expressions and gestures are employed to express contrition. These signs are recognized and understood by the aggrieved, who may choose to accept the apology or not.

When animals break a social rule, they are allowed to atone for that infraction in the manner specific to the species. There is emphasis on the restoration of the relationship and, to the extent possible, reparation of damages. When these conditions are met, the offender is readmitted into the social group. There is no perpetual punishment.

Jared Diamond has shared his observations of the approach taken to justice by pre-agrarian tribes in New Guinea,16 which matches well from what has been written about hunter-gathers in Africa and the Amazon basin.17 Conflict resolution among traditional peoples requires the offender and the wounded to meet face-to-face, in the presence of an elder or other tribal authority. In this meeting, the conditions for reconciliation are debated and established. An apology and an admission of guilt is offered, and a retribution fee is agreed upon. The path toward reconciliation is detailed and implemented.

While it may appear unseemly to set a price on the life of, for instance, a murdered child, the transactional and restorative approach that is the hallmark of tribal justice is anything but barbaric. To the extent that justice aims to heal wounds and restore harmony to the social group, modern societies could learn a great deal from tribal cultures. However, it is important not to romanticize pre-agricultural life. The restorative responses to crime are the officially sanctioned procedures, but there is also a great deal of extrajudicial violence that occurs. While capital punishment is not common in tribal societies, “extrajudicial” revenge killing is relatively frequent.

In both animals and traditional human society, the events that follow punishment aim to bring the offender back into the community. Humans, like all social animals, have a strong desire to belong. The question is, in which group do we want offenders to feel that they belong? A person will not persist in, nor follow the norms of, a group to which they do not feel that they belong.

Perhaps paradoxically, apologies elicit, and forgiveness allows, the generation of empathy from the victim to the perpetrator. This empathy closes the loop of victimhood, and enables the individual who has been harmed to regain power over the hurtful experience. The benefits of forgiveness for the victim have been highlighted in scientific studies: forgiveness reduces depression and anger, and leads to improved psychological health.18

While it is sometimes believed that forgiveness and justice are conflicting principles, Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us that “forgiveness is not a subversion of justice,” and it does not equate to forgetting about the injustice or harm. Forgiveness provides an opportunity for perpetrators to redeem themselves and to repair the harm caused.19 Of course, not all individuals will seize this opportunity, but they do not stand a chance at redemption without forgiveness.

There are countless examples of forgiveness for atrocities that have occurred across the world, from Ireland to Rwanda to South Africa. This was exemplified in the aftermath of the brutal murder of Amy Biehl, a young American Fulbright Exchange Scholar in Cape Town. After the offenders served a five-year term, Biehl’s parents supported the decision of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to grant amnesty to the four men convicted of her murder, two of whom went on to work for the Foundation that the Biehls set up in their daughter’s name in Cape Town.20

Similar examples can be drawn from criminal justice systems around the world, particularly those that promote the principles of restorative justice, and the reintegration of those who have offended back into the community. Restorative justice initiatives emphasize less the need to punish the offender, but rather focus on repairing the harm caused to the victim and to the community. A recent systematic review of research on the effectiveness of face-to-face restorative justice conferences found that this approach is a cost-effective method of reducing reoffending.21

In contrast, we know that the focus on retribution, while possibly protecting society from some avoidable crimes, is highly ineffective at breaking the cycle of crime and punishment. In 2015, MacKenzie and Farrington published a meta-analysis of the research on the effectiveness of various strategies aimed to prevent repeat offending.22 They found that interventions based solely on principles of deterrence, surveillance, control, and discipline were ineffective in reducing reoffending. The methods examined include long prison sentences, correctional boot camps, and intensive community supervision. The conclusion of their analysis is that the most popular manifestations of retributive justice are correlated with higher rates of recidivism, that is, repeat offending. In fact, some programs, such as Scared Straight, actually seemed to increase the likelihood of reoffending. In short, research has consistently shown that fear-based interventions based on coercion are ineffective in reducing subsequent reoffending and may actually do considerable harm. The question remains: do such practices go against our biological instincts?

Effectiveness, Justice, and Rights: Are They Compatible?

Not coincidentally, criminal justice systems that capitalize on human beings’ natural desire to be reintegrated into society have been more successful in reducing both recidivism and the prison population. Scandinavia is a prime example, and stands in stark contrast to the United States. For instance, Norway’s incarceration rate is 74 prisoners per 100,000 population, approximately one-ninth of that of the U.S., and among the lowest in the world.

In Norway, prisons are regarded as an extension of society rather than a system that is isolated from it. Correctional officials believe in the importance of making the prison environment as compatible as possible with the outside world. The government ensures that ex-prisoners have access to housing, employment, health care, and other basic needs upon release from prison. Anders Behring Breivik, the man responsible for the mass killing of 77 people in 2011, was only sentenced to 21 years in prison because this is the maximum sentence in Norway.

The barriers to implementing the Norwegian model in the U.S. are structural and systemic. The social welfare systems of Scandinavian countries ensure that individuals who are released from prison will have their basic needs (food, shelter, and health care) met. In contrast, disenfranchisement and discriminatory regulations adopted in the U.S. towards individuals with a criminal history, particularly in employment and housing, make it very difficult for this population to access even the most basic services. In addition, while inequality is generally associated with negative societal outcomes, some research has demonstrated that inequality is less conducive to violent crime in welfare states, in large part because these societies are not structured in a way to create an underclass.15

Not only are systems that prioritize reintegration more humane, they are also more cost-effective. When individuals are better prepared for their return to the community, it enables a smoother transition back to society, better reintegration after release (which in turn reduces the likelihood of crime), lower costs associated with (re)incarceration, and positive effects on affected families and communities.

Reconciling Conflicting Instincts

We are faced with another challenge: how do we reconcile tensions between pro- and anti-social instincts? If we believe that there is an instinctual drive for forgiveness, is the same true for revenge? How do we reconcile prosocial (empathic) with antisocial (egoistic) instincts to produce outcomes that minimize harm to the individual and the community? Insights into these questions can be found in the writings of moral philosophers.

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas argued that desires may be regarded as natural if they “are directed towards the preservation of nature” (i.e., food and sex), or self preservation. Anger is not a sin, Aquinas argues, but is consistent with man’s nature. As for vengeance, Aquinas writes that “it is more natural for man to desire vengeance for injuries done to him, than to be lacking in that desire.” On the other hand, he also maintained that “a man who takes pleasure in the punishment of others is said to be of unsound mind…because he seems on this account to be devoid of the humane feeling which gives rise to clemency.” He further explained that revenge is sought not necessarily to cause harm to the other, but rather to rectify the harm done. These ideas highlight the conflict between empathy and the desire for punishment in human nature.

Moral sense theorists have argued that as social beings, moral sense is a natural, instinctual part of us. Adam Smith and David Hume discussed the mechanisms that lead to the development of sympathy (i.e., empathy). Smith argued that morality, and thus the quest for justice, is an inherent part of us, dictated by nature. While criminal justice legislation seeks to promote justice, it cannot be as effective as the moral rules set forth by nature.

Steven Pinker further points to the evidence of early signs of morality in childhood and highlights that although no “morality gene” has been identified, some evidence has suggested that there is a genetic basis to the moral sense and that “it may be rooted in the design of the normal human brain.”23

In the words of Archbishop Tutu, “people are not born hating each other and wishing to cause harm. It is a learned condition. Children do not dream of growing up to be rapists or murderers, and yet every rapist and every murder was once a child.” If it is true that our natural instincts for empathy are indeed stronger than our natural desire for retribution, it would take specific conditioning to counter the natural instincts and develop one’s desire to be punitive towards others. Desmond Tutu reminds us that “Forgiveness is truly the grace by which we enable another person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew. To not forgive leads to bitterness and hatred.”16

Towards More Effective Justice Practices

In our quest to build a legal system that truly advances justice, we are seeing a convergence of several intellectual traditions.24 Whether we approach the question from a religious moral framework, a critical sociological analysis, or the perspective of evolutionary biology, the emerging consensus is the same: humans have social needs and instincts that direct us toward constructing community. When crime harms that community, a response that aims to repair and restore relationships can heal the wound, while a purely punitive response simply inflicts additional wounds on the victim, on the offender, and on the community.

Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, From Pointless Bones to Broken Genes (cover)

Dr. Nathan H. Lents’ forthcoming book will be released worldwide in spring 2018 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

There is much to celebrate in this convergence across different paradigms. Religious notions of forgiveness and reconciliation mirror behaviors observed in animals, namely the principle that punishment alone is insufficient. The most humane approach, which encourages those who have caused harm to maintain value and purpose for their community, is also the most effective and affordable in terms of financial costs. In light of the remarkably low crime rates and more important, low reoffending rates among the formerly incarcerated in Scandinavian countries, how can we label their approach as being “soft on crime”? In sharp contrast, the American system’s “tough on crime” approach is met with notably higher rates of repeat offending. The American example is tough on criminals, but not on crime. In fact, there is ample evidence to demonstrate that our punitive practices do more to promote crime than to prevent it. Nearly two decades ago, Michael Tonry wrote about America’s exceptional penchant for harsh crime policies, and its inconsistency with our moral values:

In our private lives, we know these things, and our folk wisdom celebrates it—do not strike in anger; sit down and count to 10; do not take your frustrations out on your child, your spouse, or your employee; and write the angry letter, but put it aside until tomorrow and see if you still want to send it. Whether those private insights will soon shape our public policies remains to be seen.25

Though it may appear inconsistent with common sense to react to crime by affirming the dignity and value of individuals who have offended, and ensuring their successful reintegration back into the community, there is abundant evidence to suggest that this is precisely what promotes the abandonment of criminal activity. Humans are social mammals with a strong desire to belong to a community. When a human being perceives himself as a valued member of a community, he will invest in the health and safety of that community, rather than perceive his own needs as being separate from those of the larger community.

It should therefore come as no surprise that systems of justice that disregard the biological predispositions employed by social mammals to manage misconduct are destined to fail in their goals of reintegrating offenders and reducing crime. In a memorandum issued in May of 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called on federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most readily provable offense,” qualifying this policy as “moral and just.” Such policies, which call solely for increased punishment and disregard the reconciliation component, create an imbalance that is not only inconsistent with principles of morality and justice, but is also conducive to more crime. Conversely, justice systems that work in concert with our natural drives and instincts, and capitalize on biological desires for belonging and respect, are more likely to be effective.26 For individuals to behave as valuable and respectful members of society, they must be treated as such. After all, this is what we all desire, despite the socially constructed fences that we have created to divide us. END

About the Authors

Dr. Nathan H. Lents is Professor of Biology at John Jay College of the City University of New York, where he is also the director of the honors programs. He also maintains The Human Evolution Blog and hosts the science podcast This World of Humans. He is the author of Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals and Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes.

Dr. Lila Kazemian is an Associate Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has published extensively on desistance from crime, prisoner reentry, and life-course criminology. She is particularly interested in the study of desistance from crime among prisoners and formerly incarcerated individuals.

  1. These three recent books each offer a summary of a flurry of recent research into the cognitive and emotional experience of other animals: De Waal, F., 2016. Are we Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?. WW Norton & Company; Safina, C. 2015. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Macmillan; Bekoff, M. 2007. The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—and Why They Matter. New World Library.
  3. These examples, along with many others, explained in details in: Lents, N.H. 2016. Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals. Columbia University Press.
  4. Wilkinson, G.S. 1984. “Reciprocal Food Sharing in the Vampire Bat.” Nature, 308 (5955), pp. 181–184.
  5. Brosnan, S.F. and De Waal, F.B. 2003. “Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay.” Nature, 425 (6955), pp.297–299.
  6. Beccaria, C. 1764. 1986. On Crimes and Punishments.
  7. Martinson, R. 1974. “What Works? Questions and Answers About Prison Reform.” The public interest, (35), p.22.
  8. National Research Council, 2014. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. National Academies Press.
  9. Travis, J. 2005. But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry. The Urban Insitute.
  10. Bekoff, M. and Pierce, J. 2009. Wild justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. University of Chicago Press.
  11. 11. Lemert, E.M. 1972. Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Control (2nd ed). Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  12. Braithwaite, J. 1989. Crime, Shame and Reintegration. Cambridge University Press.
  13. Travis, J. 2002. “Invisible Punishment: An Instrument of Social Exclusion.” Appears in: M. Mauer & M. Chesney-Lind (Eds.). Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment (1–36). New York: The New Press.
  14. Manza, J. and Uggen, C. 2008. Locked out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy. Oxford University Press.
  15. Savolainen, J. 2000. “Inequality, welfare state, and homicide: Further support for the institutional anomie theory.” Criminology, 38(4), pp. 1021–1042.
  16. Diamond, J. 2013. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?. Penguin.
  17. Boehm, C. 2012. Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Basic Books.
  18. Enright, R.D. and Fitzgibbons, R.P. 2000. Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. American Psychological Association.
  19. Tutu, A.D. and Tutu, R.M. 2014. The Book of Forgiving: the Four fold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. HarperCollins.
  20. Gobodo-Madikizela, P. 2002. “Remorse, Forgiveness, and Rehumanization: Stories from South Africa”. Journal of humanistic psychology, 42(1), pp.7–32.
  21. Strang, H., Sherman, L.W., Mayo-Wilson, E., Woods, D., and Ariel, B. 2013. “Restorative Justice Conferencing (RJC) Using Face-to-Face Meetings of Offenders and Victims.” A Systematic Review. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 12.
  22. MacKenzie, D.L. and Farrington, D.P. 2015. “Preventing Future Offending of Delinquents and Offenders: What Have We Learned from Experiments and Meta-analyses?” Journal of Experimental Criminology, 11(4), pp.565–595.
  23. Pinker, S. 2008. “The Moral Instinct.” The New York Times Sunday Magazine.
  24. Kazemian, L. 2007. “Desistance From Crime: Theoretical, Empirical, Methodological, and Policy Considerations.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 23(1), pp.5–27.
  25. Tonry, M. (1999). “Why Are U.S. Incarceration Rates So High?” Crime and Delinquency, 45(4), 419–437.
  26. Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, has made this same argument in chapter 11 of his recent book: Shermer, M. 2015. The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Macmillan.

This article was published on May 2, 2018.


9 responses to “What Biology Can Teach Us About Crime and Justice”

  1. says:

    You can’t possibly learn anything useful from “other animals” (we’re not animals) or from Scandinavia (US and the wold ARE NOT Scandinavia).

  2. Richard says:

    Justice, punishment and reform…I live in Mexico and the crime by cartel societies has gotten out of control. These gangs are acting with almost inconceivable atrocities of violence…beheadings, bodies chopped into pieces thrown into trash bags or vats of acid, robberies by gunpoint on public transportation, kidnappings, machine gun assassinations of both police and public officials. All with little deterrence by law enforcement. Capital punishment was outlawed in 2004 and the prisons now called “centro de reinsertion social” (social correction center).
    Perhaps we could look at why India, china and Japan (very old and wise societies) maintain capital punishment for the public good.
    And didn’t Joseph Campbell (a wise social commentator) say “those why deserve a punch in the nose should get a punch in the nose”

  3. Demosthenes Li says:

    I found the article both worthwhile and contributing to a needed dialogue on crime and punishment. But I often wonder whether the evolution of punishment is sufficiently considered.

    Early humans valued lineage as a significant social and political factor; chieftains, shamen, nobility, and royalty are familiar examples. Arranged marriages and castes/classes are practices that reflect the importance of lineage and breeding. Humans appear to focus on both reproduction and its control as part of their implicit techniques for maintaining sustainable and predictable cultures.

    Might not control of reproduction have been a factor in how an early culture dealt with punishment for societal transgressions? Shouldn’t minimizing the offspring of “undesirables” minimize the prevalence of “undesirables” in the society at large?

    Today we know that genetics are only part of the picture. But early humans had extensive and successful experience in domesticating animals and plants through selective breeding. Perhaps, however, like so many other aspects of culture, we have lost the roots of punishment by controlling reproduction, e.g., execution and incarceration, and are left with the practice.

    How could English debtors’ prisons have been a rational method for having debts repaid? The debtors were in prison and unable to earn money for repaying the debts. Could deterrence have been a sufficient explanation? If so, it didn’t have much of an effect.

    Perhaps the “received wisdom” of controlling reproduction was (and remains) a factor for cultures and their governments in maintaining order.

  4. BillG says:

    Justice, punishment and reform: we have the best approach.
    Where have we heard this before?

    Diet / nutrition / sports / training
    Health care / medicine
    Democracy, etc.

    Sometimes these approaches are novel or recirculated from the “good old days.” Cave man diet, ancient Chinese herbs, etc. or the same ideas with a relabeling. Novel (or old) approaches to education often change with hemlines or paint and home decor fashions.

    Ideas on criminal reform – along with the others, comes down to the individual. Effective or ineffective – one size does not fit all.

  5. Craig Gosling says:

    Surely, early humans ostracized those in their communities who were habitually disruptive to their society. I would guess ostracized individuals or groups struck out on their own, possibly planning a future revenge upon those who ostracized them or upon innocent others. Survival and revenge are strong motivators not always able to be moderated or managed by society. Imagined or real superiority self image is enough to justify persecution not just of an individual, but all those who worship, act or appear different. The point being, there are those in our society that are unredeemable and deserve to be imprisoned or banished or even killed for the protection of the society. Redemption and forgiveness does not always work in complicated human societies, including bonobo societies. Fear of physical punishment and ostracization often is a successful deterrent to anti-social behavior.

  6. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    I want to thank the authors for this wonderful article on Restorative Justice and its biological underpinnings. The daughter of close friends is taking a college course which is comparing restorative justice with (our current) retributive justice – and I have learned much from her. When I read the discussion of wolf behavior in re-integrating the offending member, I noted how similar that was to restorative justice.

    Since childhood, I’ve thought our retributive justice system was peculiar – it began when I found out that if a convicted person is assessed a fine as part of a punishment that fine doesn’t (usually) go to the victim, it goes to the government. The same with profits from prison labor. It is as if the government is the true aggrieved party (You wronged one of _my_ citizens – you owe me!)

    The comments in the comment section complement the point of the article that retributive justice isn’t effective at meeting out justice and making our communities better. Our system has been corrupted to serve other purposes. Reasons it will be hard to revamp our ‘justice’ system include the profitability of prisons – including slave labor (note: the 13th amendment’s prohibition against slavery doesn’t include prisoners).

    Thank you again, I will be sure to direct my friends’ daughter to this article!

  7. Paul Braterman says:

    I sympathise with the tenor of this article. However, this statement is nonsense: “The fact that these rituals are observed across diverse species of social mammals compels us to conclude that the complex responses to rule breaking and punishment behaviors stem, at least in part, from inherited genetic programs that have been passed down and shaped over evolutionary time. ”

    We have at least two moreplausible alternatives, given that we cannot claim to find continuity of sucial behavour between humans, wolves, and their last common ancestor. We could be looking at convergent evolution, if these behaviours are hard-wired, or at convergent cultural development, or some mixture of both.

    I tend towards the former, and suspect that the imbalance found in the US system is related to the fact that punishment is now in the hands of a legal system far more powerful than the enforcers in pre-legal societies. I would also blame religion-related self-righteousness, and the fact that disenfranchising felons favours one party (remember Florida 2000?), as well as the things mentioned in the earlier comment.


    Tzindaro’s critique is wonderful and nearer to truth, which I am posting on my facebook timeline too. I agree with it and demand that privatizing prisons may be given up and plea bargaining also given up as far as possible and just and fair trials with reasonable and humane punishment and correction processes be provided.

  9. Tzindaro says:

    This is all a silly fantasy. The hard fact is the prison system in the U.S. has been largely privatized and most prisons are owned and operated by private companies that are paid per capita by the state for the number of prisoners they hold, so they spend millions each year on lobbying and campaign contributions to get more and more laws passed to deliver more and more prisoners to them.

    The purpose of post-prison punishment, such as open criminal records, lifetime registration lists of previous offenders, and other laws discrminating against ex-prisoners is to force as many ex-prisoners as possible to commit more crimes to survive so they can be returned to the prison companies for more profit.

    The U.S. not only has more prisoners than any other country, but also half of them are in prison for “crimes” that are not illegal in any other country. The real reason for the “war on drugs” is to help fill the private prison system with profitable prisoners.

    And there is no conflict of interest law to prevent police, prosecutors, or judges from owning stock in a prison company, giving them a strong financial incentive to frame people.

    Plus, most criminal cases are settled by plea bargining, meaning a coerced confession, without any trial or any need for evidence to be presented in a courtroom. Most people will plead guilty, regardless of if they are guilty or not, when threatened with a much harsher sentence if they insist on their right to a trial.

    Court proceeding are a farce intended to make the system LOOK fair, but in reality, the police are professional kidnappers whose job is to kidnap people off the streets, practically at random, to sell to the prison companies for cash. And the companies are allowed to make their captives work at wages of $00.13 an hour for “luxuries” like soap, haircuts, laundry service, etc., so the true face of modern American justice is identical to slavery except that a single individual cannot buy and own a slave, but a company that goes through the right procedures to get a contract with the state can.

    And philosophical rubbish like this article only shows how out of touch the academics are.

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