Understanding biological foundation of human behavior critical to improving laws

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 beha

Contact: Melanie Catania
Vanderbilt University

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