ORLANDO, Fla. — Scholars have long hypothesized about how laws came to be part of human civilizations. Some have credited ancient legal experts and judges, while others believe God is the source of order in the world. A study by researchers at the University of Central Florida and the University of Montreal found that several ancient societies had remarkably similar legal codes, despite being thousands of miles and years apart, indicating that law and order may be an instinct of sorts for humans.
The researchers have posited that people in these ancient societies had some intuition about whether particular punishments fit particular crimes.
“We sometimes think of the law as this completely rational enterprise that is the result of wise experts sitting around a table and working from logical principles,” says co-author Carlton Patrick, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida, in a media release. “And instead, what this study suggests is that these intuitions that people tend to share about justice may be the things that are becoming institutionalized.”
Led by University of Montreal assistant professor of psychology Daniel Sznycer, the study compared modern and ancient conceptions of crime and punishment. Sznycer and his team believe the research is the first to examine the intuitions of societies across thousands of years.
The researchers asked participants in the United States and India to rate offenses written in two ancient legal codes and one modern code. The participants rated offenses from the Laws of Eshnunna–Sumerian laws over 3,800 years old, 1,400-year-old Chinese laws, and the Criminal Code of Pennsylvania.
The participants rated only the offenses and didn’t see the punishments for those offenses, ranging from not properly controlling one’s ox that gored another person to modern assault offenses. A portion of the participants were asked to come up with their own appropriate fines for each offense, while another portion was asked to dole out prison sentences.
All modern participants assigned harsher punishments to crimes they felt were the most serious, despite different ancient offenses and the participants coming from different countries.
“The match between participants’ intuitions and ancient laws was notable,” says Sznycer. “Criminal laws, like the writing that supports those laws, are cultural inventions: present in some societies, absent in others. However, this new research adds empirical weight to the possibility that the capacity to make laws–the brain mechanisms that appraise offenses and generate justice intuitions–are universal, and a part of human nature.”
The study is published in the journal Human Nature Behavior.