From the Savannah to the Magistrate’s Court: The Roots of Criminal Justice in Evolved Human Psychology

Manuel Eisner, Aja Louise Murray, Denis Ribeaud, Margit Averdijk, Jean Louis van Gelder

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Recent research claims that criminal justice institutions have universal features that are rooted in psychological mechanisms shaped by human evolution. In this chapter, we review three core questions touching on this perspective: We examine the notion that our evolved psychology has led to cross-culturally shared intuitions about what constitutes a crime; we assess the extent to which arguments based on behavioral game theory and evolutionary psychology can account for the emergence of centralized punishment in complex societies; and examine procedural fairness as a pivotal normative element of criminal justice across the world. We show substantial cross-cultural variability in what is considered a crime, and propose a theoretical perspective that recognizes change in the normative bases of cooperative behavior. Also, we argue that seeing criminal justice primarily as a system that imposes costs on freeriders may be incomplete. In particular, we highlight fair procedure and legitimacy as core characteristics that distinguish institutionally anchored justice from mere punishment.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSocial Dilemmas, Institutions, and the Evolution of Cooperation
EditorsBen Jann, Wojtek Przepiorka
PublisherWalter de Gruyter
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9783110472974
ISBN (Print)9783110471953
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017
Externally publishedYes


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