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Evolutionary Theory (Fall 2012)

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Every theory has a starting point. This one began with Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution is about how humans have evolved by natural selection and biology.  The major part of his theory is the idea of connecting our behavior with our surrounding environment.

Evolutionary Theory began with Lee Ellis and Anthony Walsh and their premise that “gene-based evolutionary theories can explain criminal behavior both in general and in specific types of crime” (Akers & Sellers, 2009). Evolution is the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. Both Ellis and Walsh believed that there were specific gene patterns that could identify why someone did what they did. An example of this theory is the crime of rape. As stated by Akers, this is viewed to be an evolutionary thesis because it is more likely that the genes of the rapists are hereditary. Rapists are known to have more sex lives and pregnancies then men who engage in voluntary sex because through their sexual aggression they are able to achieve their goal. “Because they have the least investment in raising those offspring, males have more to gain genetically than females from multiple sex partners, and sexual aggression is an effective technique for achieving that advantage” (Akers & Sellers, 2009). This theory, however, is hard to fully explain because each crime committed is different and so is the individual, making it more difficult to understand how our genetic imprints control our actions.

The reason we have evolutionary theory today is because of two biologists: Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. Charles Darwin came up with the theory of evolution and how we came to be by natural selection. His idea of natural selection meant that organisms that are better adapted to their environment have a higher chance of survival. Mr. Mendel discovered the idea of genes, which led to the field of genetics.

“Especially after these two monumental discoveries were combined in the 1920s to give rise to the so-called Modern Synthesis, they became enormously useful for understanding how life on earth arose and how life has been transformed into millions of species over billions of years” (Walsh 232).

Within the area of gene-based evolutionary theories is a term that is known to help understand criminal behavior: kin selection. Kin selection means that individuals can often help ensure the representation of their genes in subsequent generations by helping other close genetic relatives to have offspring (Walsh 232). There are different ways to apply the gene-based evolutionary theory to the study of criminal behavior. One way is to focus on one particular crime, such as rape or child abuse and the other type is usually geared toward the type of criminal behavior, such as cheating or deception.

The background of Evolutionary theory revolves around why we are here to begin with.  Vernon L. Quinsey, from Queen’s University in Ontario, said that they are environmental and selectionist in orientation because past environments are posited to have selected characteristics of organisms by acting at the level of individual genes (Quinsey 1). He believed that the theory helped explain the reason behind sexual coercion.

“From an evolutionary viewpoint, men would be expected to be indifferent to female mating preferences when the costs of doing so are very low when women are perceived as adversaries, when men are too intoxicated to calculate possible delayed costs of sexual aggression in dating situations, and when men can attract many partners and are correspondingly unconcerned about their future relationship with a particular woman” (Quinsey 4). With the way society is growing and adapting in time, our theories should be changing as well.

Lawrence Cohen and Richard Machalek wrote about how crime appears to not be unusual as a characteristic of a growing society. “By viewing deviance and crime as expressions of behavioral diversity, we are able to employ an evolutionary ecological theory… we integrate previously unrelated social science insights with the aid of established principles of behavioral ecology and evolutionary theory” (Cohen & Machalek, 1988). To get a better understanding of how evolution works, you need to learn the foundation of how we, as humans, came to be. There are three concepts that help with this: adaptation, advantage, and resource holding potential (RHP) (Cohen & Machalek, 1988). Adaptations are any physical or biological traits that can increase the chances of one being able to produce offspring. To be advantageous means to care and provide for your kids and offspring. The third concept is known as resource holding potential, which helps explain the diversity in each individuals surrounding environment. In total, one's traits fit into RHP to determine how the individual acts.

With different crimes and specific actions, there is always a theory to go with it. Theories are what help us comprehend why something is happening and to prevent it from occurring again. There are five main evolutionary theories of criminality. They include Rape, spousal assault, child abuse, cheater theory and r/K theory.

An example of a specific crime is rape or sexual assault. The definition of rape is a crime that is committed by a man forcing another person to have sexual intercourse with him without their consent and against their will. Many theorists (have come to) believe that sexual assault occurs because of natural selection, meaning that the desire is within the one who has the least amount of investment in his children. “According to the evolutionary theory of rape, the male reproductive advantage derived from having multiple sex partners has resulted in natural selection favoring genes promoting brain patterns for ‘pushiness’ in pursuit of sexual intercourse” (Walsh 235).

Another example is spousal assault, also known as the “romantic triangle”. Spousal assaults can vary from hitting someone to physically harming the person over and over, which could lead to murder. “Romantic triangle assaults are assaults directed by one individual toward another person (usually of the same sex) in order to prevent the victim from gaining sexual access to third individual (usually of the opposite sex)” (Walsh 238). The theory explains how the impulse or desire comes from one person wanting all the control. An additional example of a specific crime is child abuse or neglect. Under some conditions, theorists have discovered that there may be a reason why parents do what they do to their children. (Ellis & Walsh 242)

There are two main examples of criminal and antisocial behavior using the evolutionary theory. The first is known as the cheater theory, or cad, of Criminal and Antisocial behavior – “a subpopulation of men has evolved with genes that incline them toward an extremely low parental investment reproductive strategy” (Walsh 245).

The second is the r/K theory, which represents all living and non-living organisms. Those that are near the r reproduce fast and do not invest too much energy and time with their offspring. The organisms closer to the K reproduce slower, but they invest a much higher amount of time into their family.

            Every policy is based on some theoretical assumption. Criminologists have reasons why we are who we are. The main implication with the gene-based evolutionary theory is the Darwinian model. Lawrence Cohen believes that it is applicable because it “may be used to describe the growth or decline over time of learned behavioral strategies based on media such as language or other forms of symbolic expression” (Cohen 877). Our lives are impacted by the environment we live in; with that comes different mindsets and goals. If criminal traits are inherited through the media and our surrounding atmosphere, then the Darwinian approach would not necessarily apply.

“Over time, ecological interactions in which illegal expropriations occur tend to produce defensive counterresponses such as protective measures. These measures tend to increase the cost of expropriation and thus could lead to its decline” (Cohen 878).

            There is great controversy on whether criminal and antisocial behavior is indeed genetic or is it a result of the people we surround ourselves with. In my opinion, I believe that what makes us individuals and unique is because of both genetics and our surrounding environment. Each one influences us differently and impacts how we grow and change over time.


Akers, R. L., & Sellers, C. S. (2009). Criminological theories (5th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Cohen, L. E., & Machalek, R. (1988). A general theory of expropriative crime: An evolutionary ecological approach. American Journal of Sociology, 94(3), 465-501.

Cohen, L. E., & Vila, B. J. (1993). Crime as strategy: Testing an evolutionary ecological theory of expropriative crime. American Journal of Sociology, 98(4), 873-912. doi:

Duntley, J. D., & Shackelford, T. K. (2008). Darwinian foundations of crime and law. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 13, 373-380. doi: 10.1016

Ellis, L., & Walsh, A. (1997). Gene-Based Evolutionary Theories In Criminology. Criminology, 35(2), 229-276. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1997.tb00876.x

Quinsey, V. L. (2002). Evolutionary theory and criminal behaviour. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 7(1), 1-13. doi: 10.1348

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