Understanding biological foundation of human behavior critical to improving laws

March 14, 2005

Laws and public policy will often miss their mark until they incorporate an understanding of why, biologically, humans behave as they do, scholars from Vanderbilt and Yale universities argue in the March issue of Columbia Law Review.

"The legal system tends to assume that either people are purely rational actors or that their brains are blank slates on which culture and only culture is written. The reality is much more complicated and can only be appreciated with a deeper understanding of behavioral biology," said Vanderbilt law professor and biologist Owen Jones. He co-authored the article with Timothy Goldsmith, Yale professor emeritus of molecular, cellular and developmental biology.

All laws at their foundation are designed to influence human behavior, from how we interact with one another, to how we relate to our own property and that of others, to how government agencies interact with each other and with citizens, Jones said.

When developing laws, legislators and legal scholars have traditionally relied heavily on the social sciences, such as economics, psychology and political science, often responding to the popular or political trends of their time. They have rarely looked to incorporate the latest findings from fields such as biology, neuroscience and cognitive psychology, which have grown exponentially in recent years and have shed brand new light on how the human brain is structured and how it influences behavior.

One reason for this imbalance, Jones believes, is a false public assumption that acknowledging biological causes of behavior somehow denigrates human free will or minimizes the importance of social and cultural conditions.

"It may follow from demonstrably false dichotomies, such as 'nature versus nurture,' taking misleading hold in the public mind," he said. "It may also follow from a variety of misunderstandings about how genes, environments and evolutionary processes interact with implications for behavior. And it certainly has something to do with fears about what the political implications - for racism, sexism, genetic determinism and other evils - might be, based on the use or misuse of biological information."

Jones argues that integrating law with behavioral biology, which examines the biological underpinnings of human behavior, could strengthen legal measures in a variety of areas. Such an approach might enhance understanding of why some penalties are more effective than others, how people make choices in areas such as environmental protection and retirement savings, and what the underlying causes of aggression are and how they help explain why young men are sometimes willing - even in the face of the severest penalties - to kill in reaction to threats to their status.

"What we're learning about development of the mind and the biology of thinking is growing at a tremendous rate," Jones said. "The main significance of this article is that it demonstrates how the legal system can be more effective in pursuing its goals if it integrates life science and social science perspectives on behavior."

In the article, Jones and Goldsmith explore how an understanding of current behavioral biology research could improve the effectiveness of laws by - among other things - identifying behavior patterns that would be useful to understand when developing laws; revealing conflicts that exist between innate human behavior and public policy written to regulate that behavior; improving the cost-benefit analyses that are often used in developing laws; exposing unwarranted assumptions; assessing the effectiveness of legal strategies; and outlining deep patterns in the legal architecture.

Jones and Goldsmith's publication in the Columbia Law Review indicates that the field of law and behavioral biology has momentum in legal scholarship.

"The Columbia Law Review is one of the most prestigious scholarly journals in the legal academy. The fact that it has agreed to publish this article signals the growing legitimacy and influence of the field of law and behavioral biology," Chris Guthrie, associate dean for academic affairs at Vanderbilt Law School, said.

"We are fortunate to have the country's leading law and behavioral biology scholar here at Vanderbilt."

Law and behavioral biology is a small but growing field, sometimes known as "evolutionary analysis in law," a term coined by Jones in 1995. To encourage scholarship and research in this area, Jones founded the Society for Evolutionary Analysis in Law in 1997 to promote the integration of law and the life and social sciences and to help improve behavioral models relevant to law. The organization currently has 300 members in 24 countries. The Gruter Institute for Law and Behavioral Research, with which Jones is also affiliated, was founded in 1981 to explore these same issues and to help inform the fields of law, economics and other social sciences with the latest scientific findings about human behavior.

"I hope this paper will spark continuing research in this area and foster a greater synthesis of life science and social science perspectives, ultimately enabling law in many areas of human behavior to achieve its goals more efficiently and effectively," Jones said.

Jones has a joint appointment in the Vanderbilt University Law School and the university's biological sciences department.

Vanderbilt University

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