In this paper I will briefly describe the evolutionary theory in general, and specifically as it relates to the study of criminology. I will examine the ways in which natural selection has shaped the processes which motivate human behavior, especially in terms of how competing for limited resources and ensuring that one’s genetic code is passed on are linked to aggressive behavior. Two crimes of which I have personal knowledge will be evaluated, with emphasis placed on the ways in which evolutionary theory may account for the aspects of criminal behavior in each. Finally, I will reflect on the ways in which evolutionary theory may help further our understanding of the causes and predictors of criminal behavior and whether it should become a focus of a practitioner’s efforts to help prevent crime and reduce recidivism on an individual and programmatic level.
Evolutionary theory is the study of the ways in which human behavior has been shaped over the history of the development of our species through the process of natural selection. Since human behavior includes criminal behavior, the study of evolutionary theory can he helpful in our understanding of the causes of crime. Evolutionary theory seeks to better understand and possibly predict today’s criminal behavior by examining the history of humans as a species to determine the root source of aggressive and violent behavior.
Natural selection is the process by which certain naturally-occurring adaptations get passed on from generation to generation because they provide some advantage to survival and reproduction (reproductive success). Simply stated, if one of our ancestors has a genetic trait that makes him or her more likely to survive, mate, and reproduce in a harsh social and physical climate, this trait will be carried on to his or her children. While on the other hand, an individual lacking this trait will be less likely to reproduce and pass his or her traits on to the next generation. Over time, the gene traits that are favorable to survival and reproduction continue to pass from one generation to the next, to eventually be present in modern man. This is survival of the fittest, that the most genetically fit individuals are the ones who survive and pass their gene pool on to the next generation through sexual reproduction.
Evolution through natural selection is a slow process, however, and the environment can change much more quickly than the evolutionary process. This means that the adaptations which increased likelihood of survival and reproduction in our ancestral environment thousands of years ago do not necessarily help us to do so today. Neanderthal’s did not have access to supermarkets, match.com, or central heating. Modern man does have access to plentiful resources, but our brains have not had the time to catch up.
In fact, these traits that once helped keep us alive as individuals and as a species can be harmful in our current environment, which is fundamentally different than the environment in which these drives were formed. In his seminal book, On Aggression (1966), Konrad Lorenz posited that aggressive behavior is inherited to help an individual to protect scarce resources, such as mates and food (Lorenz, 1966). Whereas aggression may have made it more likely that you would successfully compete for food and mates in our distant past, it now leads more often to what is considered antisocial and criminal behavior.
The two crimes that I will discuss today were carried out by offenders with whom I have worked directly, which provides me with some unique insight into the situations, backgrounds, and psychological mindsets of the actors involved. Last spring, Joe stabbed his girlfriend of 5 years multiple times in the face, chest, and neck. His girlfriend, Donna, sustained multiple life-threatening injuries requiring emergency surgeries and were nearly fatal. If not for the quick response by first responders and the effective interventions of ER staff and doctors, this crime would be classified as a murder. Donna had filed a protection-from-abuse order a year before the assault, after Joe confronted and assaulted her for believing that she had been sleeping with another man. This order was broken several times before the stabbing took place, but Joe was quickly released each time.
In my opinion, an evolutionary theorist would say that this act of violence was motivated by the fear of losing one’s mate, and therefore his means by which to reproduce. If this had occurred in our ancestral environment, the motivation may have been more necessary as males would be competing for a limited number of female mates, but this is certainly not the case today. Some other facts about Joe are that he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and was not medicated because he could not afford his prescriptions. He had dropped out of school in 10th grade, leaving him limited employment opportunities, he was an active substance dependant, and he was raised in a single-parent household after his mother died in a car accident when he was 7.
Joe’s father left his other son (Joe’s brother), who was only four years older, to take on the majority of Joe’s upbringing from this point on. In my opinion, even though Joe may have had an innate drive to protect what he believed to be a threat to his mate, it was the lack of protective forces and the presence of a combination of criminogenic risk factors, across multiple disciplines, which led to his criminal behavior. Evolutionary theory might have been able to describe why some of the mechanisms by which Joe’s aggressiveness developed, but it could not account for the crime itself because everyone is born with these same innate aggressive mechanisms.
The second crime I will describe was an assault carried out by members of rival gangs in a dispute over a female and rights to prime drug-selling territory. Desmond is a member of the CRIPs gang and is involved in selling cocaine and marijuana in Northeastern PA. He has a prior record of three Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Deliver charges, two convictions for Assault, and was currently on probation. One day during the summer, he came home to his apartments at the Sherman Hills development to find his girlfriend talking with a member of a rival gang, the Bloods, whom she claimed to know from elementary school. The Bloods are also involved in selling drugs in this area, and both gangs often feud over how the territory should be broken up, but this area was clearly marked as belonging to the CRIPs. Desmond confronted the man, and after he claimed that he was “disrespected”, beat him up and smashed his head on the curb with his foot.
Evolution theorists would state that the motivations involved in this crime would be hatred between rivals (unrelated acquaintances) based on competition for limited materials and intangible resources like social status and respect (Daly & Wilson, 1997). The resources in this case being exclusive access to the money to be made in an area with a high concentration of “consumers”. The other environmental factors at play here are the perceived threat to Desmond’s girlfriend, or mate, who is the means by which his gene pool will be passed on. In addition, Desmond gave as reasoning for his crime the fact that he had been disrespected and had to reassert his social status through a violent reaction.
Although I believe all of these evolutionary motivations to be valid, I don’t believe that it was innate drive alone which led to this crime. Anyone who is in a situation where he feels disrespected becomes angry, but not everyone responds by causing permanent damage to the offender’s facial nerves. As Bartol & Bartol state, “there is little evidence to justify portraying humans as innately dangerous and brutal or as controlled by instinct” (Bartol, 2011, p. 116). I believe that it was the presence and interplay of a number of criminogenic risk factors which decided whether this interaction would end with words or fists.
In this case, the risk factors with the most influence on behavior were low socioeconomic status, lack of a pro-social peer group, lack of access to gainful employment opportunities, and antisocial attitudes and beliefs, among others. There were the difference between how you or I would have reacted and how a gang member reacts. If these risk factors were mitigated by programs initiated to reduce Desmond’s criminogenic risk and to provide him with access to protective factors, the crime most likely could have been avoided. There would be no way, however, to change his innate biological drives, developed over thousands of years of evolution, because these drives are static.
I believe that evolutionary theory can help us better understand how and why the physiology and functioning of the brain developed the way it did through the process of natural selection. I also believe that this can be useful to our “investigation of the mind’s structure and operations” (Daly & Wilson, 1997). This knowledge can help us look for explanations for why some individuals engage in criminal behavior and to better understand the mechanisms by which this behavior occurs; which can give us insight into developing more effective interventions (Ward & Durant, 2011). I think that the evolutionary theory can help us to understand macro-criminality, but I do not believe that this understanding can help us nearly as much in our search for the causes and predictors of crime on an individual level. Working to reduce an individual offender’s risk of recidivating requires a careful analysis of what factors led him or her to lack the ability to control these innate drives and an intervention program to help them to learn to do so.
Every person alive today has been shaped by the same evolutionary process, so what are the factors that lead some individuals to be able to keep these drives in check and make rational decisions while others give in to their primal desires and engage in criminal behavior? I believe that the answer to this question is that individuals who engage in criminal behavior are exposed to some combination of biological, sociological, and physiological criminogenic risk factors while lacking the presence of protective factors which may have neutralized these risks.
On these factors is where I believe we should be focusing our efforts and studies. Daly & Wilson state that the insights into the workings of criminal behavior “should not be viewed as alternatives to sociological and psychological analysis, but as complementary components of a more complete understanding” (Daly & Wilson, 1997) In this way, I believe evolutionary theory can give us insight into the “how” and the “why” of criminal behavior, but I believe we should be looking more closely at the “who”, “where”, and “when”.
Lorenz, K. (1966). On aggression. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (1997). Crime and conflict: Homicide in evolutionary psychological perspective. Crime & Justice, 22, 51–100. Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2011). Criminal behavior a psychological approach. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall. Ward, T. & Durrant, R. (2011). Evolutionary behavioral science and crime: Aetiological and intervention implications. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 16, 193-201.
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