The origins of criminal law


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.

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Fig. 1: Participants rated offences drawn from three legal codes: Title 18, the Tang Code and the Laws of Eshnunna.
Fig. 2: Participants’ offence-specific ratings of time, money, moral wrongness, devaluation and shame as a function of the corresponding punishments provided by law.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of these experiments have been deposited in a public repository at Source data for Fig. 2 are presented with the paper.


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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.

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D.S. conceived the experiments. C.P. searched for the legal codes. D.S. and C.P. wrote the stimuli. D.S. conducted the experiments and analysed the data. D.S. and C.P. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Daniel Sznycer.

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Sznycer, D., Patrick, C. The origins of criminal law. Nat Hum Behav 4, 506–516 (2020).

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