Evolutionary Theories Of Criminal Behaviors Research Paper

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Rooted in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, evolutionary explanations of antisocial and criminal behaviors have been studied extensively across various disciplines. This research paper will focus specifically on the evolution of rape, spousal abuse, child abuse, and neglect, as well as homicide. In addition, a review of the most prominent evolutionary theories of antisocial and criminal behaviors, more broadly, is provided. These include cheater theory, r/K theory, conditional adaptation theory, alternative adaptation theory, staying alive hypothesis, and evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory. A review of this literature suggests that antisocial and criminal behaviors evolved as a way for our ancestors to overcome obstacles related to survival and/or reproduction. Incorporating evolutionary theories of antisocial behavior into mainstream criminological research has the potential to greatly enhance our current understanding of criminal behaviors.


When studying criminal behavior from an evolutionary perspective, it is assumed that the behaviors considered “antisocial” today must have evolved because they had, at one point in time, served to increase our ancestors’ likelihood of survival and chances of reproducing. Based on Darwin’s (1859) theory of natural selection, certain selection pressures can lead to adaptations (physical, psychological, and behavioral) as a way to address a specific problem associated with survival and reproduction. Individuals who engaged in these adaptive behaviors were more likely to pass on their genes to future generations. Evolutionary theories of criminal behavior assume that the adaptive benefits to engaging in what we call “antisocial behavior” must have at some point outweighed the costs, at least in certain contexts and for certain people. While adaptations may have served to increase our ancestors’ chances of survival and reproduction, not all adaptive behaviors from the past remain beneficial in today’s environment. For example, the evolution of a “sweet tooth” may have been adaptive in ancestral environments as a way to recognize food that had valuable nutrients; today, however, this adaptation is associated with obesity, which is a leading cause of death (Wright 1994). Furthermore, adaptive behaviors from the past, such as aggressive/victimizing behaviors, may have increased an individual’s chances of survival and procreation but are considered criminal and immoral by today’s standards.

Several evolutionary theories have been developed to explain specific types of criminal behaviors, such as rape, spousal abuse, child abuse/neglect, and homicide. Other evolutionary theories have been proposed to explain criminal and antisocial behaviors more generally. These theories include cheater theory, r/K theory, conditional adaptation theory, alternative adaptation theory, staying alive hypothesis, and evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory. A review of these evolutionary theories and perspectives is provided next.


Perhaps one of the most controversial topics in evolutionary explanations of criminal behavior is rape. Research has clearly shown that males are more likely to be the perpetrator in rape cases compared to females. Similarly, rape (i.e., forced copulation) is not a human-specific behavior; it occurs in many other species, especially in those who are genetically similar to humans, such as orangutans (Ellis 1986). In 2000, Thornhill and Palmer presented an evolutionary explanation of rape in their book A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. This book has received both positive and negative attention in the academic community. In discussing the ways rape could have evolved, Thornhill and Palmer present two distinct hypotheses: a rape-specific hypothesis and a by-product hypothesis.

First, the authors propose a rape-specific hypothesis, which states that males have evolved, through the process of natural selection, rapespecific behaviors. From this perspective, rape evolved in humans due to the tension between men and women in terms of their reproductive strategies. Specifically, males are able to reproduce with minimal to no parental investment and there is little restriction in the number of offspring they can produce. As a result, the male reproductive strategy is ultimately based on the number of fertile women he can mate with. Females, on the other hand, can only produce a limited number of offspring in their lifetime. Thus, their reproductive strategy is to choose mates carefully and to avoid mating with males who would provide little to no parental investment. Therefore, females are more selective in their mate choices (Thornhill and Palmer 2000).

Due to these sex differences in reproductive strategies, in some contexts, rape may have evolved as a conditional mating strategy for some men. For example, in the past, disadvantaged men who were unable to secure a voluntary mate, men who perceived a low cost of consequences (e.g., a woman who is alone and unprotected), and/or men who suspected that their partner was unfaithful may have resorted to forceful copulation (McKibbin et al. 2008). Overall, it is suggested that some males rape to increase their likelihood of reproductive success. As a result, their genes will be more represented in future generations compared to males who do not use force. If genes that promote rape have evolved to increase reproductive success, severe punishments would be needed to prevent their proliferation in future generations (Ellis 1998).

Next, Thornhill and Palmer (2000) propose a by-product hypothesis, which states that rape is a consequence of some other male sexual adaptations that served some other purpose. Specifically, a male’s strong sex drive and desire to mate with several females may have accidentally led to rape. In other words, rape did not evolve as a specific reproductive strategy, but rather as a side effect of some other sexual adaptation (e.g., promiscuity, strong sex drive) that served to increase the chances of reproducing.

Although both hypotheses differ with regard to how/why rape evolved in humans, they both suggest that rapists are motivated by innate sexual desires. This perspective contrasts the feminist’s view on rape as being motivated by a man’s urge to control and dominate a woman and not by his need for sexual gratification (e.g., Brownmiller 1975). There are many critiques of Thornhill and Palmers’s (2000) hypotheses, interpretations, and suggestions concerning the evolution of rape (see Coyne and Berry 2000; Lloyd 2001).

Spousal Abuse

Spousal abuse/assault can be viewed from an evolutionary perspective as an evolved form of aggressive behavior. While the research has predominantly focused on male abusers, females also commit a nontrivial amount of abuse toward their significant others (Dutton 2007). It has been suggested that spousal abuse/assault by women may have evolved as a way to discourage abandonment from a mate in an effort to retain his involvement in raising their offspring (Ellis 1998).

For men, one of the main motivators underlying spousal abuse and assault is sexual jealousy either as a result of infidelity or suspicions of infidelity (Daly et al. 1982). It has been suggested that there are at least two conditions under which it may have been adaptive, in ancestral environments, for men to abuse/kill their wives. These include cuckoldry as well as the possibility of losing a fertile partner to another man (Buss 2004). Cuckoldry refers to the parental investment in another person’s offspring (Wilson and Daly 1993). Males are more likely than females to be cuckolded because they are not the ones who carry the child to term. Put differently, men are more likely to be cuckolded because, while a woman is always certain she is the parent, a man cannot be as sure. There are many consequences associated with being cuckolded including the following: (1) wasted time, effort, and resources in rearing another man’s child; (2) the loss of time, effort, and resources invested in originally securing his sexual partner; (3) the loss of his partner’s investment in any future children they could have produced together; as well as (4) reputational damage if others find out that he was cuckolded (Buss 2004).

It is clearly disadvantageous for a male to be parentally invested in an unrelated offspring as their own genes will not be passed on to future generations as a result of that investment. Due to uncertainty in paternity, males have evolved feelings of sexual jealousy and may take extreme measures to ensure that their mate is not sexually involved with other males (Wilson and Daly 1993). These extreme measures include physical abuse and violence as a way to either control a woman’s sexual behavior, to intimidate a woman from sexually straying from the relationship or as a way to induce stress. Research has shown that stress can impact a woman’s reproductive ability by lowering her chances of becoming pregnant as well as increasing her chances of miscarrying if pregnant. Thus, from an evolutionary perspective, it has been suggested that younger women with higher reproductive value are at greatest risk of domestic violence by males who are sexually jealous (Wilson and Daly 1993).

Child Abuse/Neglect

It would seem counterproductive, from an evolutionary perspective, to harm one’s own child. There are, however, at least four conditions under which parental abuse, parental neglect, and/or even murdering one’s own child could have evolved. First, if parents already have children who require care and resources, the addition of any new child will increase the likelihood of abuse and neglect as there is not enough time and/ or resources to successfully care for multiple children. Therefore, if child abuse/neglect is an evolved adaptation, it would occur most often in larger families, with multiple births, and with few resources (Daly and Wilson 1988a; Ellis and Walsh 1997). These factors have in fact been found to be associated with child abuse/neglect. A second condition that could lead to child abuse/ neglect is when one parent is not investing any time/resources into the care of their child. The absence of one parent can increase the likelihood that the remaining parent would also provide less resources and care toward their child (Daly and Wilson 1988a; Ellis and Walsh 1997). Research has shown that abuse is more likely to occur in single-parent households. Third, parents may be more likely to abuse/neglect their nonbiologically related children (e.g., stepchildren) compared to their biological children. This is because harming one’s own biological child has greater repercussions by decreasing the likelihood of passing on familial genes to future generations (Daly and Wilson 1988a; Ellis and Walsh 1997). It is argued, however, that parents may also abuse/neglect their biological offspring if that child is perceived to be less likely to reproduce in the future, such as children who are ill or deformed (Daly and Wilson 1988a; Ellis and Walsh 1997). Overall, these four conditions are closely tied to circumstances where investing any time/effort into raising the offspring interferes with one’s own potential of passing on genes to future generations.


There are differing perspectives with regard to the evolution of homicide. Two in particular, set forth by Daly and Wilson (1988b) and Buss and Duntley (2002), have received quite a bit of attention in the evolutionary literature. First, Daly and Wilson (1988b) argue that homicide itself is not an adaptation, rather it is an unintended consequence, often referred to as an “overactive mistake,” a “slipup,” or a “dysfunctional by-product” of mechanisms evolved for some other nonlethal purpose (e.g., violence). For example, if a man kills his wife because of sexual jealousy, it is not because of an evolved psychological mechanism for murder, but rather it is a by-product of an evolved mechanism for violence. In this scenario, the man is intending to control his wife’s sexual behavior through violence but it simply goes too far and results in death. This viewpoint, however, does not explain premeditated homicides. This led Buss and Duntley (2002) to propose that males have in fact evolved psychological mechanisms specifically designed to kill under certain circumstances.

Unlike Daly and Wilson (1988b) who suggest that homicide is a by-product of some other evolved response, Buss and Duntley (2002) state that homicide itself is an evolved response to solving adaptive problems and that the mechanisms underlying homicide are context specific. Their homicide adaptation/design theory acknowledges that, for the most part, the costs associated with killing another human far outweigh the benefits (Buss and Duntley 2002). However, they also recognize that in certain contexts, it may have been beneficial to kill another human. These circumstances are closely tied to situations where the killer may be (1) directly eliminating a competitor, which would result in greater reproductive advantages for the killer; (2) gaining access to the rival’s material resources and fertile mates; (3) protecting not only himself but also his mates, offspring, relatives, and allies from being exploited, injured, raped, or killed by a rival; (4) gaining social status and the respect of others, thereby decreasing the chances of being exploited, injured, raped, or killed by others in the future; (5) protecting his territory, resources, shelter, and food from rivals; (6) eliminating the possibility of expending resources on individuals who are not genetically related, such as stepchildren; and/or (7) eliminating the possibility of expending resources on genetically related individuals who are incapable of themselves reproducing in the future, such as children who are ill or deformed. As such, under some circumstances, psychological adaptations for homicide may have evolved as the best strategy to solve adaptive problems (Buss and Duntley 2002).

Criminal Behavior In General

r/K Theory

MacArthur’s (1962) r/K selection theory views reproductive strategies of organisms on a continuum with r(growth rate) and K(caring capacity) selection located at each end of the spectrum. First, those who reproduce in large quantities and provide little to no resources to raise their offspring are said to be r-strategists. These types of organisms can succeed in environments in which resources are plentiful and competition is low. On the other hand, organisms that follow a K-strategy will reproduce only a few times and will devote a great deal of time, effort, and resources into raising their offspring. This strategy is most often adopted in environments in which obtaining resources is competitive, and it serves to increase the likelihood that the few offspring will live on to reproduce (MacArthur 1962). In general, humans follow a K-reproductive strategy. However, there is a great deal of variation with regard to reproductive strategies within humans, with males being more r-selected than females due to their greater capacity to reproduce. There is also variation in reproductive strategies within individuals (Jolly 1985). Specifically, individuals tend to follow more of an r-strategy when younger but will eventually adopt a K-strategy as they age, especially if they have already produced children. This is because it is more beneficial to the parent, at a later point in their life, to devote their energy and resources to already existing children as opposed to putting effort toward gaining new mates in which to create new offspring with (Ellis 1987).

The r/K theory as it applies to criminal behavior suggests that criminals are more r-strategists compared to noncriminals who tend to follow a K-strategy. Ellis (1987) proposed that an rselection approach to reproduction is highly intertwined with factors that are related to criminal behavior. Specifically, characteristics used to identify r-strategists are often the same ones associated with individuals who commit crimes against others. These factors include (1) large numbers of siblings within the home, (2) single-parent homes, (3) demographics (e.g., gender, age, and race), (4) prematurity and low birth weight, (5) short-life expectancy, (6) lower parental investment in child (i.e., child abuse and neglect), (7) early onset of sexual experiences, and (8) greater promiscuity. It is evident that these correlates of criminal behavior overlap with the description of an r-strategy approach to reproduction (Ellis 1987). r/K theory can be applied to explain criminal behavior in general as well as specific types of crimes, such as rape. For example, in the case of rape, an r-strategist may go to the extreme to achieve his goal of reproducing in large quantities with no or little investment in rearing offspring.

Cheater Theory

Cheater theory views criminal behavior as an evolved male strategy that is due to the distinct reproductive strategies employed by males and females (Machalek and Cohen 1991). For example, the mating strategy for males is based on the number of fertile females available to reproduce with. The more females they can have sex with, the greater their reproductive success. On the other hand, the number of times that females can produce offspring is limited by pregnancy, lactation, and menopause. This limitation makes females more selective when deciding on a sexual partner compared to males (Buss 1994; Wright 1994).

It is more beneficial for females to procreate with males who will provide resources and assistance in raising their offspring. However, males vary in terms of the amount of parental investment they will provide in raising their offspring, and their reproductive strategies have been termed “cads” and “dads” (Cashdan 1993). Cads are males who trick/force females to have sex with them and then leave to pursue additional women. This strategy is often used by adolescent males when pursuing a sexual partner and involves various techniques, such as (1) proclaiming love and commitment to a woman yet leaving once impregnated, (2) threatening and/or injuring rival males, (3) overstating their ability to provide resources by stealing and cheating others, and/or (4) resorting to the use of coercion/force to have sex. Cads tend to be self-gratifying and pleasure-seeking – characteristics that tend to overlap with antisocial individuals. The reproductive strategy used by cads will continue for males who are lacking in emotions (e.g., psychopaths) but for the most part will be replaced by strategies used by dads (Lykken 1995). Dads are the alternative male reproductive strategy to cads; these men help to raise their young by providing a great deal of parental involvement. This strategy is eventually adopted by most males in adulthood and is facilitated by social emotions, such as love (Walsh 1995). Overall, traits used to describe individuals who follow a cad strategy are similar to the traits used to describe antisocial individuals.

Conditional Adaptation Theory

While cheater theory focuses primarily on the reproductive strategies of males (i.e., cads and dads), conditional adaptation theory discusses female reproductive strategies as well (Walsh 2006). Specifically, conditional adaptation theory states that reproductive strategies vary based on environmental factors, such as the degree of paternal bonding that occurs early in the life course. The absence of a father in a child’s life can have a profound effect on the reproductive strategy later employed by his offspring, particularly female offspring (Draper and Harpending 1982). For example, in unstable, resource-scarce environments where the quality of relationships is low and/or unpredictable, individuals are more likely to adopt an active and unrestricted reproductive strategy (Walsh 2006). For females, in particular, when early experiences with men are unstable (e.g., lack of attachment with father), she will be more likely to adopt a promiscuous sexual strategy. This is because her experiences with men tell her that there is a low probability that a man will invest much time in helping to raise their children (Hrdy 1999). Thus, in order to obtain short-term benefits from several men, a female is better off adhering to an unrestricted sexual strategy. On the other hand, individuals who have secure and stable relationships are more likely to adopt a restricted mating strategy and mate selectively. For young females, a strong relationship with their father shapes their perceptions of males as devoted caregivers. As a result, it is in the female’s best interest to portray fidelity and to secure a sexual partner who is devoted to long-term care of her offspring (Walsh 2006). As it relates to criminal behavior, conditional adaptation theory proposes that when resources/ attachments are unstable and low, there will be an increased likelihood that individuals will adopt a risky lifestyle.

Alternative Adaptation Theory

Alternative adaptation theory differs from conditional adaptation theory in that it incorporates individual genetic differences as a way to explain why some people choose one mating strategy over another (Rowe 1996; Walsh 2006). Similar to r/K theory, alternative adaptation theory views reproductive strategies on a continuum with one extreme representing mating efforts and the other extreme reflecting parenting effort. Mating effort is defined as the energy, time, and resources invested in the acquisition of a sexual partner (e.g., searching, courting, and procreating). Parenting effort, on the other hand, is defined as the time, energy, and resources invested in one’s mate and offspring (e.g., caring, providing, protecting). Genetics, rather than the environment, will dictate where an individual falls along this continuum (Rowe 1996; Walsh 2006). Specifically, genetic differences that lead to increased mating efforts result in deception and criminality in the pursuit of mating opportunities. In other words, characteristics such as dishonesty, risk-taking, and self-gratification may help to secure sexual partners by putting effort into mating, and they are also useful in conducting criminal acts (Walsh 2006). On the other hand, traits such as compassion, selflessness, and caring are often found in individuals who devote much of their efforts toward parenting and who lead a prosocial lifestyle.

Alternative adaptation theory also incorporates the element of intelligence as an important factor in determining a person’s reproductive strategy (Walsh 2006). Individuals who are more intelligent will be more likely to invest their time and effort into raising their children. These individuals are also better equipped at delaying gratification and living a prosocial life. Conversely, individuals who are less intelligent are more likely to devote their time and energy toward obtaining sexual partners. These individuals seek immediate gratification and give little to no thought to the consequences of their actions (Walsh 2006). Overall, from an evolutionary perspective, the genetically influenced traits used to characterize an individual who tends toward the mating end of the continuum are the same traits used to explain antisocial individuals.

Campbell’s Staying Alive Theory

Campbell’s (1999) staying alive theory focuses primarily on female criminal behaviors, or more accurately attempts to explain why women do not engage in as much criminal behavior as men do. Campbell (1999) proposed that females have evolved to avoid engaging in risky types of activities because their survival is critical to the survival of their offspring. In other words, greater female investment in their offspring leads them to avoid risky situations and therefore less likely to engage in criminal activities. By ensuring their own survival, women are increasing the likelihood that their children will survive and that their genes will be passed on to future generations. As such, a woman’s reproductive success is dependent on her ability to “stay alive” by avoiding dangerous situations. The mechanism by which females have evolved to avoid risky situations is said to be through fearfulness (Campbell 1999). Specifically, even though women need resources to support their reproductive efforts (i.e., ovulation, pregnancy, lactation) and to provide for their developing child, fear counteracts the pressure on women to physically compete for resources themselves as the risks of injury/death are too high and costly. As an alternative, women tend to compete with other women to secure a partner who can provide for them and their children. Their success in securing a partner hinges primarily on the male’s perception of her fidelity, which will impact his certainty in paternity and subsequently the degree to which he will invest in his offspring (Campbell et al. 2001). Overall, Campbell’s staying alive theory hypothesizes that sex differences in criminal involvement are due to sex differences in fear threshold, which may have evolved due to the selected pressures on women to avoid risky situations in order to increase their chances of survival and the likelihood that their offspring will survive as well.

Evolutionary Neuroandrogenic Theory

Ellis (2000, 2005) developed his evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory (ENA) in order to explain the higher prevalence of competitive/victimizing behaviors displayed by men compared to women. While the evolutionary component of his theory seeks to explain why males tend to commit crimes at higher rates than females, the androgenic component focuses on how male sex hormones affect the male’s brain to promote criminal behaviors, especially during the teenage years.

The first component of ENA theory involves the evolutionary process. Based on Darwin’s theory of natural selection, biological and physical characteristics that increase the likelihood of survival also tend to increase the likelihood of reproducing (Darwin 1859). These characteristics are in turn passed on to future generations. For example, the strongest and most competitive organisms of a given species are more likely to survive and thus produce offspring, while the weaker and more timid organisms are more likely to die before they have the chance to procreate. Similar to natural selection, sexual selection also promotes the transmission of certain characteristics. For example, competitiveness in males can be considered a desired and sought after characteristic for females who are looking to reproduce. Therefore, males who can demonstrate this desired trait would be more attractive mating partners. This process is often referred to as “female choice.”

Female mating preferences can explain, in part, why males typically engage in higher rates of aggressive behaviors. Specifically, women are more likely to mate with males who are reliable providers of necessary resources. In other words, a female is more likely to choose a sexual partner based on his ability to compete for resources and provide for both her and her children. In turn, this allows the woman to focus on caring for and raising children as opposed to spending her energy on obtaining resources. Therefore, the female choice phenomenon has the effect of encouraging competitive and victimizing behaviors in males. For example, males will aggressively compete with other males, even to the extent of victimization, in order to procure resources and increase their chances of being chosen by a female as a sexual partner (Ellis 2000, 2005). Since the majority of females prefer competitive males, genes which promote competitive/victimizing behaviors are more likely to be passed on from generation to generation. This theoretical perspective helps to explain why males are, in general, more prone to committing aggressive crimes compared to females.

The second component of ENA theory involves male sex hormones (i.e., androgens), particularly testosterone. Sex differences in testosterone levels may help to explain why males are more likely to engage in aggressive and victimizing behaviors compared to females (Ellis 2000, 2005). This component of ENA theory explains how increased levels of testosterone affect brain functioning in three ways: (1) suboptimal arousal, (2) susceptibility to seizures, and (3) rightward shift (Ellis 2000, 2005). First, exposing the brain to testosterone, both at the perinatal and pubertal stages, results in decreased brain sensitivity to incoming environmental stimuli. This reduction in sensitivity, often referred to as suboptimal arousal, increases the likelihood that an individual will exhibit criminal forms of competitive/victimizing behavior. Second, high levels of testosterone in the brain increase the susceptibility of the limbic system to experience seizures. Minor forms of seizures, known as episodic dyscontrol and limbic psychotic trigger action, occur in areas of the brain that regulate emotions, which can result in impulsive bursts of rage, especially when an individual is exposed to stressful events (Ellis 2000, 2005). Thus, increased levels of testosterone in the brain increases the brain’s susceptibility to seizures, thereby resulting in aggressive outbursts. Finally, increased levels of testosterone shifts the brain’s functioning away from the left hemisphere of the brain toward the right hemisphere (Ellis 2000). This results in individuals having better spatial reasoning abilities while simultaneously lacking in language-based reasoning, thereby increasing the probability of engaging in antisocial forms of competitive/victimizing behaviors.

While these three biological factors operate to promote competitive/victimizing behaviors, two neurological factors function to inhibit criminal forms of competitive/victimizing behaviors. These two factors include an individual’s ability to learn (i.e., intelligence) as well as their ability to plan and foresee consequences (i.e., executive functioning). Specifically, greater mental capabilities and effective executive functioning capabilities can result in an increased likelihood of exhibiting more sophisticated and socially acceptable forms of competitive behaviors (e.g., becoming a competitive businessman) (Ellis 2000, 2005). Conversely, males are more likely to engage in criminal activities when they fail, as the result of insensitivity to punishment and low IQ, to learn competitive strategies that avoid retaliation. Overall, ENA theory states that biological factors have evolved to promote competitive behaviors in males and, in turn, competitive behaviors have become pronounced within the human species because women prefer mating with men who are secure providers. The theory further assumes that most forms of criminality are “crude” expressions of male competitiveness.


Evolutionary theories have been used to explain a wide range of behaviors deemed antisocial by today’s standards. A review of these theories and perspectives suggests that antisocial/criminal behaviors evolved as a way for our ancestors to overcome obstacles related to survival and/or reproduction. Whether the criminal behavior itself (e.g., rape, murder) is the adaptation or whether it is a by-product of another adaptation remains debatable. In a way, antisocial/criminal behaviors are said to be maintained over time through the process of natural and/or sexual selection. Future research should continue to investigate the evolved psychological mechanisms that motivate antisocial/criminal behavior. It is only through rigorous empirical studies that incorporate both ultimate and proximate explanations of antisocial/criminal behavior will we gain a greater understanding of these types of behaviors. In turn, a deeper understanding of the causes of antisocial/criminal behaviors can serve to better inform intervention and prevention efforts.


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