Law in Contemporary Society

Vengeance, Evolution and the Criminal Justice System

-- By AndrewWolstan - 14 Feb 2008

Evolutionary Need for Vengeance

The immediate reaction to being harmed is to cause harm in return. It is a trait that is common through nature with many organisms. Overall, evolution almost always favors the members of a species that fight back.

  • What? Can't make any biological sense of this at all. Where did this come from and how did you check it?

However, a change in human evolution caused a divergence from the pattern in the rest of nature that changed the magnitude of how humans fighting back and this created the modern concept of revenge.

  • This sentence is not grammatical, and I can't imagine what sort of evidence you relied upon to support it.

Tribal Blood Feuds in New Guinea

As the human race formed, humans began living together in tribes. Whenever a member of the tribe was injured, particularly when one was killed by a member of another tribe, the injured tribe responded by killing many members of the other tribe. This behavior has been studied by University of Maine anthropologist Paul Roscoe who studied tribes in New Guinea, who today live similarly to the early human tribes.

  • Pardon me? I thought we had long left behind the idea that living human beings, like us the current inheritors of cultures that have been developing and changing for tens of thousands of years, could be "primitive" people, like "early human tribes," because they have not adopted modern technology. It's not anthropology and its not humanism.

Vengeance drove the response to an act that threatened the safety of a tribe. In the tribal societies revenge killings were the common response when a family member was killed, but the study by Roscoe has found that the members of the tribe perceived that their motivation was to weaken the enemies and prevent later attacks. However, from historical records, Roscoe found that the fighting often escalated and fighting could last for decades. These tribes were guided by their evolutionary desire to fight back and they responded more severely with the intention of increasing their safety. This is an example of human nature overwhelming nature’s limitations and shows that it was ineffective.

  • The last two sentences are obscure. "Evolutionary desire to fight back" sounds like hardwired behavior among ants, not the flexible behavior patterns of human beings. "More severely" than what? The imaginary reciprocity of retaliation in our genes? What do "this" and "it" in the last sentence refer to, what was shown ineffective and what was an example of human nature overwhelming nature?

Tribal Blood Feuds in the Rest of the World

The behavior of the tribes in New Guinea was common throughout the ancient world, where the code of Hammurabi prompted the famous phrase “eye for an eye”.

  • Depends what you mean by "prompted." The Code of Hammurabi was unknown to Western and Islamic Civilization until the late 19th century. The idea of "an eye for an eye" instead descends for subsequent purposes from Exodus 21:20-22 and Deutoronomy 19:13, where it is used to describe justice without pity appropriate in certain exceptional situations. In Exodus, for example, it appears in connection with the penalty for assault upon a pregnant woman resulting in the premature birth of an injured child. As for commonness "throughout the ancient world," you don't specify what behavior of the (now plural) "New Guinea tribes" you are talking about.

Although now perceived as Draconian, this was a dramatic liberalization of justice, intended to end destructive tribal revenge killings. However, it appears that this may have been the last dramatic effort to reduce the elements of revenge in the criminal justice system. Today vengeance has remained as a major element, if not THE major element, in criminal justice systems throughout the world.

  • This statement is completely unsupported. Nothing that you have said so far lays a factual foundation for it. Nothing has been done to clarify the definitional or theoretical issues that prevent one from knowing how to test its truth. This quite astonishing proposition is simply asserted, and what has gone before hardly strengthens your credibility for an assertion of this breadth.

Vengeance Today

Vengeance is undoubtedly an element of the American criminal justice system. We allow the testimony of victims and their relatives in order to determine sentencing, and people still commonly use the rhetoric that “criminals have to pay.”

  • Surely by now it is not unreasonable to expect a definition. Does "vengeance" mean any combination of private revenge with public retribution? If there is no element of private revenge is all retribution still vengeance? Does only corporal infliction qualify as vengeance, or can shaming, ostracism, and similar non-corporal responses be included? Is a civil damages action by victim or relations against a solvent wrong-doer vengeance?

Some high minded intellectuals think that the American system is above the primitive desires of retribution and that the goal of our criminal justice system is to prevent crime. However, the evolutionary bloodlust has remained prevalently in our societal structure of criminal justice. Capital punishment is probably the clearest form of institutionalized revenge in the criminal justice system: if removal from society were a goal, life incarceration would achieve the same end. Texas is the most prolific exhibitor of vengeance through the criminal justice system, choosing to exact revenge in a state rife with vigilante sentiments as a proud part of its history. An essential question to ask is if this is because of in the inertia of primitive justice systems or if it is because we still cannot resist the evolutionary urge to exact vengeance on someone who committed a crime. If the mere fact that the element of the vengeance in the criminal justice system has always been present is the sole reason for its continued existence, then it should be possible to move the sentiments of the American people. The death penalty, as an ultimate example of revenge in our justice system is falling out of favor with the American people, of course with the exception of the bastion of executions, the Republic of Texas. This could be a sign that some measure of change is on the horizon.

  • A few sentences ago this was all baked in the clay of the human genome, put there by evolution and therefore acting equally both on Modern Man and on Texans. Now apparently it is all changing with eye-shattering suddenness. Shouldn't we have been given some explanation for why we should believe both parts of this extraordinary story?

Lets Call Our Justice System What it is

I see no problem with a societal decision that vengeance is an important element of our criminal justice system. What I do see as a problem is dressing the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Some try to make the argument that execution or additional punishment serves as a means from separating the law abiding public from the “bad seeds” or that the punishment serves as a deterrent. Countless studies suggest that this assertion is simply false, but an argument that says that vengeance should be exacted for crimes, however crude, is one that I can accept. I say this though with one caveat, the society must openly recognize that they are making this choice in the sacrifice of reducing crime. When people recognize that the criminal justice system is structured primarily as an extension of our evolutionary bloodlust, the society can make a full, informed conscious choice. Human evolution caused a dramatic over-extension of vengeance beyond the measure that is present in most of nature. Thousands of years ago, it was recognized that reducing that level of vengeance was essential to a healthy society. We as a society, if truly informed, have the choice to continue to evolve, but if we're not ready let's acknowledge that we still need vengeance.

  • Is the conclusion here that nature is aboslutely red in tooth and claw except that we put claw feet on the covered legs of the piano? What you were last seen arguing was "bred in the bone" is now some sort of "choice" we are going to make by telling the truth about how impossible it is for us to make it. We needed a clear statement of a plausible thesis, followed by the introduction of credible and relevant evidence supportive of the thesis, along with an intelligent discussion of the most relevant and serious objections to the thesis that can be anticipated. That's where another draft would most probably concentrate.


Study in New Guinea:

Hammurabi’s code:

Americans reducing their desire for the death penalty:

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r5 - 12 Jan 2009 - 22:38:26 - IanSullivan
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