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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 22.4 > What Biology Can Teach Us About Crime and Justice

What Biology Can Teach Us About Crime and Justice

ARTICLE

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 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.

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About Skeptic

CAMPUS CRAZINESS: THE WAR ON SCIENCE No Barriers to Inquiry; I Am Not a Racist, And So Are You: An Unauthorized Peek at the Great Shaming Taking Place at an Institution of Higher Learning Near You, and Other Fireside Tales; Radically Wrong in Berkeley; When Secularism Becomes a Religion: The Alt-Left, the Alt-Right, and Moral Righteousness; When Science Becomes the Enemy SPECIAL SECTION — BIOLOGY & BEHAVIOR Canine Cognition: Did dogs become smarter through domestication? An interview with Dr. Brian Hare; Bird Brains: Are crows as intelligent as some scientists claim?; What Biology Can Teach Us About Crime and Justice ARTICLES: Gary Taubes and the Case Against Sugar; From Camelot to Conspiracy: Memory, Myth, and the Death of JFK; Now Playing at a Cartesian Theater Near You: Dualism Returns COLUMNS: The SkepDoc: Diet Sodas: Are the Dangers In the Chemicals or the Headlines?, by Harriet Hall, M.D. JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Ghost Ships, by Daniel Loxton