Linking Individual Behavior and Aggregate Crime

Human Ecology, Crime, and Crime Control: Linking Individual Behavior and Aggregate Crime

Savage, Joanne


The paper extends previous research published by Cohen, Machalek, Vila, and others on the evolutionary-ecological paradigm for understanding criminal behavior. After reviewing literature related to human ecology and crime, the paper focuses on elements relevant to human ecology-biology, development, and ecological factors-and their role in criminal behavior. Major emphasis is placed on the linkages between individual factors and macro-level crime using chronic offending as a case in point. The principles of evolutionary ecology then are used to discuss counterstrategies to crime, and the prospects for protection/avoidance, deterrent, and nurturant strategies in light of evidence on chronic offending.


This paper addresses two fundamental questions from the literature on human ecology and crime. The first is why some individuals commit a great deal more crime than others. Although Cohen and Machalek (1988) (alluding to Durkheim) stress that crime can be ” ‘normal’ behavior performed by ‘normal’ individuals in unexceptional social systems” (p. 466), it is evident from research that roughly half of all crimes are committed by “chronic offenders”-the 5 to 7 percent of the population who commit five or more crimes. The second concern is about the disjuncture between understanding crime at the individual level and crime at the aggregate. This is the question that Cohen and Machalek (1994) suggest has “both intrigued and frustrated social scientists since Durkheim: What is the relation between the behavior of individual human beings and the organized aggregates in which they live?” (p. 288). The paper addresses these questions using the ecological lens and incorporating recent research on chronic offending by revisiting Vila’s (1994) general paradigm for understanding criminal behavior and focusing on biological, developmental, and ecological factors thought to be associated with the development of criminal strategic styles. This paper then applies principles of evolutionary ecology and cultural evolution to the problem of crime prevention, emphasizing the need to address chronic offending. First, however, we tackle several apparent discontinuities in the human ecology literature that are relevant to a seamless understanding of crime and crime control.


The ecological paradigm is useful for understanding the behavior of animals, including humans. Ecological insights enable us to compare fundamental behavioral dynamics across many different types of organisms. Discussions of key variables such as violent behavior thus can be expanded to compare humans to other species. Comparisons of this nature can help us understand the depth of some crime strategics in evolutionary terms and may ultimately help us reduce crime. Although there has been ongoing debate in the literature about the appropriateness of using the ecological lens to study certain topics, and the very definition of “human ecology” is seen differently by different authors, here we take a broad view that is firmly anchored in the foundations of the field. We believe this perspective demonstrates that ecology provides an appropriate approach to studying all of the various behaviors of human beings, including crime, and that it enables us to link the causes of individual crime and aggregate crime.

A human ecological perspective based primarily on the work of plant ecologists gained acceptance in the social sciences early in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, it lost touch with biological ecology just as the natural sciences were galvanized by the neo-Darwinian synthesis of ecology to genetics (see Mayer, 1982, 566-570) that eventually led to the contemporary interdiscipline of evolutionary ecology. Unlike many scientific revolutions where one paradigm overthrows another, the fusion of these previously antagonistic fields opened a seamless organizing scheme that enabled researchers to:

1. understand how different types of organisms function from the sub-molecular level up and how they tend to respond to external stimuli and resources;

2. understand the biological imperatives and strategic dynamics that drive interactions between individual organisms and groups of organisms, as well as between organisms and their physical surroundings;

3. understand how varied responses by individuals and groups to social and environmental opportunities and challenges can cause change over time in the physical makeup of types of organisms by favoring some combinations of genes more than others;

4. understand how varied responses by individuals and groups to social and environmental opportunities and challenges also can cause change over time in the type, frequency, and variability of behavioral strategies employed by individuals and groups of individuals in a particular environment to obtain valued resources;

5. understand how the frequency, distribution, and behavior of individuals and groups can cause change over time in physical and social environments.

The untimely disconnection of human ecology from biology led many to see it as a sub-field in the increasingly balkanized social sciences and it drifted farther from its biological roots while the natural sciences continued their centuries-old pursuit of interdisciplinary consilience. In their quest for a reconciliation of life from the sub-molecular level to huge organic communities, natural scientists have been using the same set of well-tested evolutionary ecological principles and concepts to guide the exploration of communities of organisms-from tropical rainforests to ocean reefs, and from the teeming plains of Africa to the biota lining our own intestines. In recent decades, however, that quest has led many natural scientists to focus more and more on their own species. As the distinguished naturalist E. O. Wilson (1998) asserted, the human condition “is the most important frontier of the natural sciences” and the “material world exposed by the natural sciences … is the most important frontier of the social sciences and humanities.” Culture and the “unique qualities of the human species,” he said, “will make complete sense only when linked in causal explanation to the natural sciences” (p. 267).

Most “ecological” research reported in social science journals today is disconnected from human biology, focusing mostly on macro-level community factors that influence criminal behavior or on interactions between humans and their physical environment. This emphasis on higher levels of aggregation artificially limits what can be done by human ecologists. Here we will argue that the two are inextricably linked-a view that is not “new” (as one reviewer pointed out, this debate was “hot” 60 years ago) but which is now supported by 60 more years of biological research.

In our view, at least five distinct literatures are highly relevant to understanding the human ecology of crime. The first three have come to stand more or less on their own as subdisciplines within the social sciences: sociological human ecology, anthropological cultural ecology, and social ecology. Two other literatures, crime and community and the evolutionary ecology of crime, are more explicitly interdisciplinary. Because a comprehensive review of these literatures is impractical within the scope of this paper, we attempt only to introduce them and their relevance for understanding criminal behavior and crime control holistically.


The work of McKenzie and his protégé, Hawley, is said to have forged the field of human ecology as it exists today. Contemporary human ecologists have lamentably taken a narrow view of the proper purview of this perspective and attempted to maintain its distinctness from other fields. In particular, they have defended, sometimes fiercely, the view that human ecology is a macro-level enterprise. For example, Hawley (1998) writes that

“Human ecology, as distinguished from bioecology, originated with the observation of analogous forms of organization in urban and plant communities. Since its inception, therefore, the discipline of human ecology has evinced a strong predilection toward the use of collective organization, not the individual, as its unit of analysis” (p. 11).

He contends that a preoccupation with social-political-economic environment (instead of the bio-physical environment) “sets human ecology apart from bioecology” (implying that setting it apart is favorable) and suggests that the tendency to apply principles from human ecology to a wide variety of human affairs is “imperialistic,” recommending ways to restrict such tendencies (pp. 11-12).

Other contemporary human ecologists (Poston and Frisbie, 1998) also favor a narrow view and suggest that human ecology correctly defined “is a field of study grounded in the four referential constructs of population, technology, organization, and environment. The principal unit of analysis is the human population. …” (p. 29). They infer, therefore, that “. . . an ecologist must logically narrow the arena of inquiry to those factors that, in light of existing technology, serve as limiting resources for the adaptation and growth of populations” (p. 41). These authors emphasize sustenance-producing activity rather than incorporating behavior inspired by other motivations (such as mating). Micklin and Sly (1998), in the same volume, also embrace the macro-level but quietly acknowledge the relevance of micro-level analysis: “The principal motivation for our decision … is historical: human ecology has developed almost exclusively through research at the macro level of analysis. We appreciate the utility of micro-level analysis and applaud recent efforts to better understand micro-macro linkages” (p. 52).

The contemporary view of human ecology would suggest a rejection of the enterprise we (and others) have chosen to undertake and we believe the case must be argued. We prefer the broad view of human ecology as embraced by McKenzie (1968 [1924|), who quoted the Encyclopedia Americana defining ecology as “that phase of biology that considers plants and animals as they exist in nature, and studies their interdependence, and the relation of each kind and individual to its environment” (p. 3). Human behavior is always performed at the individual level-and a complete understanding of the prevalence of behaviors (such as crime) at the aggregate, must therefore link the individual with its ecological environment. Wc believe the ecological paradigm is the only way to make this linkage. McKenzie (1968 [1924]) did later refine the definition of human ecology in a way that contemporary authors lament “a study of the spatial and temporal relations of human beings” (p. 4), but even that definition does not reject the idea that individuals within the environment are an important concern (as we argue here). McKenzie goes on to describe his understanding of the human community, “The human community has its inception in the traits of human nature and the needs of human beings” (p. 5), and provides general classifications for ecological factors which include geographic, economic, political, and in particular cultural factors, as we do here. Rather than emphasize the aggregate, we embrace the more encompassing view of McKenzie: “Human ecology differs from demography and human geography in that the main object of attention is neither the population aggregate nor the physical-cultural habitat but rather the relations of man to man” (p. 410).


In some ways the anthropological school known as cultural ecology, developed by Steward based on his field work with traditional peoples in the Americas, closely parallels the style of human ecology Poston and Frisbie favor because of its emphasis on interactions between population, technology, social organization, and environment. But cultural ecology tends to shift across perspective and scale naturally because it incorporates archaeological, historical, and ethnographic data to study the mechanisms by which culture evolves in human society.

Steward’s (1955) theory of cultural evolution posited a relationship between the latent possibilities contained in a physical environment (e.g., water, soil quality, climate), the technology (knowledge and tools) available to people living in that environment that could enable them to exploit those resources, and the patterns of social organization-especially the organization of labor-necessary to bring technology to bear on resources. Steward was process-oriented. Instead of studying, for example, a contemporaneous relationship between crime and social organization in one or another part of a city, he explored how interactions between population, environment, and social structure affected the possible ways that culture and technology could evolve-then examined how those changes in turn could be expected to affect population size and density, the physical environment, and the structure and organization of society. To our knowledge, cultural ecology has not been used to study crime and crime control in any systematic manner. However, his methods, questions, and holistic emphasis on the ways that environmental resources, micro-level interactions, and macro-level effects influence changes in the human behavioral repertoire-and how those behavioral changes can change the availability, quality, and utility of environmental resources for individuals-is consistent with the evolutionary ecological approach we favor. (see Steward and Murphy, 1977, for a thorough review of cultural ecology.)


Sociologists borrowed early from the literature on ecology and have not looked back, and this may be a partial source of contention between the fields discussed above. Here, the relevant literature comes from that part of sociology that purports to be “ecological” and sometimes is. Robert E. Park began using ecological principles to organize the social sciences in the 1920s. His studies examined the ways that human criminal behavior is affected by the urban environment (Park, 1926, 1936a, 1936b). Shaw and McKay (1942) found that neighborhoods had enduring patterns of delinquency in spite of the fact that the individuals living in them were moving in and out. Some of those who see themselves as “human ecologists” lament the focus on spatial relationships that sociologists have accepted (often blamed on McKenzie though, as Hawley states, McKenzie never really meant for human ecology to be so confined [Hawley, [1968]) and they also insist that the sociological work is sometimes not terribly ecological-any community factor is taken to be “ecological” without a proper grounding in the ecological paradigm. In fact, the analysis of spatial relationships became so common that some human ecologists complained “So confined to that preoccupation were the early researchers that human ecology came ineluctably to be regarded as a study of spatial distributions” (Hawley, 1986, p. 2). Poston and Frisbie (1998) are equally critical citing the “incorrect characterizations of human ecology as the study mainly of spatial relations” (p. 28). Nevertheless, the social ecology model survives today.


A third literature also can inform our understanding of the human ecology of crime and its control: the literature on crime and community factors, urban planning, and design. This encompasses several literatures on topics such as “defensible space,” “crime control by environmental design,” “broken windows,” and “hot spots” that we can only begin to introduce here. Even though many of these studies are not explicitly linked to ecology, it is clear that understanding criminal behavior by understanding the ways that people respond to environmental characteristics is central to each of them.

Newman’s (1973) book Defensible Space and its discussion about optimizing guardianship by designing human environments to capitalize on territoriality was not explicitly ecological or biological, but has clear correspondences to this view of human beings (see Perkins et al., 1993 for a later review of the defensible space literature). Several years after the book was published, criminologists began to advance formal theoretical descriptions of how ecological factors such as routine activities relate to crime. For example, one of the most often cited studies in this genre, Cohen and Felson’s (1979) “Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach” is inherently ecological because of its emphasis on situation and strategy. Their findings suggest that time, place, and interpersonal actions are at the heart of direct-contact predatory crimes because those crimes require the convergence of a suitable target, lack of capable guardians to commit a crime, and a motivated offender in time and space.

A variety of studies related to urban communities and crime also began to emerge in great numbers shortly thereafter. Again, although not explicitly “ecological,” they clearly focus on factors related to human ecology and crime. Harries (1980) and Mayhew (1981) (in a volume by Brantingham and Brantingham) recognized early the importance of the environment in criminal behavior. Other examples abound: Gottfrcdson and Taylor (1986) asked if we can improve recidivism predictions if we know the socioenvironmental context into which an offender is released. McDonald (1986) studied the effect of gentrification (a phenomenon closely analogous to ecological succession) on crime rates. McGahey (1986) looked at economic conditions, neighborhood organization, and crime in Brooklyn neighborhoods. Introducing an important volume on this topic, Reiss (1986) asked “Why are communities important in understanding crime?” and discussed many ecological factors-visibility, features of the offense, and neighborhood. Also during this period, Sampson and Groves (1989) examined the ecology of victimization in Britain, and Skogan (1990) forwarded an implicitly ecological view of urban disorganization and crime that emphasized the effects of disorder-instead of emphasizing disorder as part of a process. The reader is referred to Wikström (1998) for a review of the literature that discusses issues of community and crime in more detail.

In addition to this, the whole area of environmental criminology (Bottoms, 1994; Brantingham and Brantingham, 1993) and crime control by environmental design has helped us understand the location of offending and adds to our understanding of the ecology of human criminal behavior. (see Felson, 1998, for a thorough review.)

In recent years, analyses of neighborhood effects have become more sophisticated with the development of hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) techniques. For example, Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls (1997) studied “collective efficacy,” and found that various measures of violence were negatively related to it. The attempt to measure a truly psychological or cultural construct at the aggregate level makes this study rather unique and links it closely to the ecological view we espouse here.

We compliment researchers in this area for making important theoretical and empirical contributions to our understanding of crime. But we criticize the literature as a whole for, in most cases, failing to make explicit linkages between ecology and human nature. If we make no assumptions about humans as a species, how can we fully understand why signs of disorder, for example, affect human behavior? Even more sophisticated analyses might be possible if the ecological view and its link to the biological sciences were more explicit. For example, the broad strategic principles of animal behavior can provide guideposts for human research that are unbiased by current fashion or politics. Instead of taking cooperation and conformity for granted, we might ask why human groups exhibit “collective efficacy” at all, or why individuals tend to conform when confronted with cues in the environment that indicate social order and control.

Some authors in this area have provided the depth we seek-making the link between human behavior and ecology. For example, Bursik’s characterization of factors such as racial covenants, unemployment, owner-occupied dwellings, and political decisions related to the placement of public housing as ecological factors (Bursik, 1984, 1986, 1989) was groundbreaking. Sherman’s work on “hot spots” also warrants mention here. Studies on this topic are numerous and report findings which suggest that features of a neighborhood such as bars, liquor stores, parks, bus depots, and so on, are associated with clusters of crime events (Sherman, Gartin, and Buerger, 1989). Even when the authors of these studies do not explicitly refer to “ecology” or “human ecology,” these pieces are clearly ecological in approach.

Bernard (1990) provides an excellent analysis of violence in high poverty areas that begins to touch on biology. He bridges a highly stressful urban environment with individual physiological responsivity and anger to describe the dynamics that make violence common in such environments and explain how a violent culture might evolve over time. Without referring to ecology directly, the author proposes a sophisticated description of a long-term ecological system in which violent strategic styles proliferate. Finally, Sampson and Wilson’s (1995) discussion of the dynamics of concentrated poverty, family structure, social isolation, and crime provides a credible, ecological explanation for the race-crime relationship.


Finally, there is developing literature that provides explicitly evolutionary and ecological discussions of crime, found in the writings of Cohen, Machalek, Vila, Ekblom, ElHs, Walsh, and others. These make explicit links between human nature, ecology, and crime, combining both deeper ecological analyses and what often is referred to as either evolutionary psychology or, in anthropology, cultural evolution. Cohen and Machalek (1988) introduced a theory of expropriative behavior (theft) based on principles from evolution and ecology. Their contributions include the insight that using the behavioral strategy as the unit of analysis may help us understand the normality of crime as originally observed by Durkheim. Cohen and Machalek cast humans as behavioral strategists, comparing them to bees, eagles, and other species and distinguishing them as more intelligent, more prone to use cultural transmission of behavior, and keener at recognizing opportunities to devise new strategies than other types of organisms. They point out that the usefulness of any particular behavioral strategy for acquiring desired resources depends on the frequency with which that strategy is being used in the population as a whole. They also suggest that “resource holding asymmetries” (differences between individuals in attributes or resources that enable them to acquire and retain resources) can help explain why some individuals are more likely to use expropriation as a strategy for obtaining resources. In essence, they predict that highly disadvantaged individuals will tend to use expropriation to make the best of a bad situation while highly advantaged individuals might be tempted to use expropriation to take advantage of a good situation.

Expropriative strategies also are said to emerge inevitably in any community where a sufficiently high proportion of individuals employ cooperative (i.e., non-expropriative) productive strategies because the payoffs of expropriation tend to be inversely related to the proportion of expropriators. The transmission of these strategies across a population is discussed in detail in later writings such as Vila and Cohen (1993) and Cohen, Vila, and Machalek (1995).

Cohen and Machalek (1994) summarize their theory as arguing for

“…[A] naturalistic approach that explains social facts such as crime in terms of individual behavior, but relies on the mechanisms of cultural rather than genetic evolution. We contend that repetitive involvement in certain forms of expropriative criminal behavior can be derived from models of evolutionary strategy selection in which individuals try to increase their probability of acquiring resources. Such an approach suggests a possible solution to the following analytical questions that have both intrigued and frustrated social scientists since Durkheim: What is the relation between the behavior of individual human beings and the organized aggregates in which they live?” (p. 288).

In answering these questions, Cohen, Vila, and Machalek (1995) and Machalek (1996) provide rich detail on expropriate crime, characteristics of successful expropriative strategies and how they spread, and implications for crime control policy. This approach is explicitly ecological and connects this fruitful branch of science to our understanding of criminal behavior.

However, Cohen and Machalek’s explanation of expropriative behavior as a function of frequency-dependent payoffs and resource asymmetry, does not account for why some individuals choose expropriative strategies at higher rates than others even though their situations and resource holding potential are very similar. Vila’s (1994) “general paradigm” extends Cohen and Machalek (1988) in several ways. First, Vila’s paradigm is said to apply to all criminal behavior (which he defines as the tendency to use force, fraud, or stealth to obtain desired resources). second, Vila introduces the concept of “strategic style”-arguing that people develop suites of behavioral strategies (p. 323) and that those suites tend to be less mutable than individual strategies themselves. “Stylistic consistency,” Vila writes, “is reinforced by underlying dispositional differences, internal psychodynamics, social interactions, and functionality” (1994, 323). Thus, criminality-the propensity of a person to use force, fraud, or stealth to obtain desired resources-is a dimension and any given individual’s strategic style could be characterized based on its locus on that continuum.

Like Cohen and Machalek (1988), Vila emphasizes that humans are behavioral strategists and that resource holding potential and resource valuation affect their choice of behavioral strategies-but unlike them, he acknowledges that some individuals may be more “criminal” because humans tend to develop habits and to re-use behavioral strategies that work for them. This view is more consistent with data that suggest a) that aggressive tendencies begin early in life and tend to persist (Caspi and Moffitt, 1995; Ellickson and McGuigan, 2000; Farrington, 1991; Huesmann, Eron, Lefkowitz, and Walder, 1984; LeBlanc and Frechette, 1989; Loeber, 1982; McCord, 1983; Olweus, 1984; Pulkkinen, 1983; Sampson and Laub, 1993; Wolfgang, Thornberry, and Figlio, 1987), and b) that some individuals become chronic criminal offenders who commit many more, and more serious, offenses than others (Chaiken and Chaiken, 1984; Hamparian et al., 1978; Pulkinnen, 1988; Shannon, 1980; Tracy, Wolfgang, and Figlio, 1990; Wolfgang, Figlio, and Sellin, 1972).

Vila’s full model also provides some detail about how individuals develop criminal strategic styles (including components on biology, sociocultural factors, and development) and takes into account motivation and opportunity. From conception onward, the development of “criminality” is influenced strongly by personal factors, interactions with the physical environment, and interactions with other people, groups, and institutions. Vila discusses “micro-level,” “ecological,” and “macro-level” factors separately but emphasizes that interactions between these three components are so extensive and so synergistic that they must be viewed as parts of a system rather than as distinct categories-as most often has been the case in criminology.1 According to the full model, whether or not a crime is committed by a particular individual at a particular point in time is a probabilistic function of the individual’s behavioral style, immediate motivation, and opportunity. Individuals arrive at a criminal opportunity with their strategic style and attributes that affect their valuation of and ability to obtain desired resources through legitimate means-both of which affect their criminal “motivation.” Criminal opportunity (Cohen and Felson, 1979) stands between motivation and crime. “If motivation is sufficiently high and if an opportunity exists, a crime can occur” (Vila, 1994, p. 334).

Although Vila’s introduction of the strategic style gives entrée to the possibility of linking micro (aggressive individuality) and macro (prevalence of criminal behavior in a population), he did not explicitly discuss chronic offending and its impact on aggregate crime levels. Below we revisit Vila’s model and discuss biological, developmental, and ecological factors relevant to the development of chronic criminality. The literature on biology will be updated, a modified perspective on development will be presented, and the human ecological context will be explored and made more explicit.


Although Vila (1994) explicitly adds the idea of “criminality” to the evolutionary-ecological framework, some criticize this addition because it implies a value-laden view of behavior inconsistent with the ecological paradigm, which sees behavior as normal. This raises an age-old debate on the “normalcy” and pathology of crime. The data suggest that crime rates at aggregate levels are due to both situational factors that open the door for behavioral innovation and to the prevalence of individuals whose behavioral repertoires favor dishonest, expropriative, and/or violent strategies. Unlike most models of crime, Vila’s model allows for both criminal strategies that are “normal” given a particular situation and chronic criminality (that is seen by many as aberrant). Studies cited earlier suggest that some individuals are chronically criminal in their behavior and many psychological studies suggest that there are pathological elements to the development of chronic offending. Even some evolutionary analyses (Ellis and Walsh, 1997; Mealey, 1995) and genetic studies suggest an element of genetic transmission of “deviant” behavior. And, of course, a large volume of studies suggests that situations, community factors, and structural factors affect crime rates. A general paradigm, then, appropriately incorporates both “normal” crime (likely due to situation) and pathologically chronic criminality (likely due to individual biology and development).

As Cohen and Machalek noted (1988, p. 495; 1995) the probability that an individual will adopt one strategy over another in any given situation depends in part upon the value he assigns to the goal and his ability to achieve the goal using that strategy. Early life experiences may shape both the goals and the behaviors used to achieve those goals, and appear to have an especially strong influence on the development of strategic styles. Criminal strategies are likely to be of low prevalence in a population because formal and informal sanctions will act to minimize them. It follows that the development of criminal strategic styles is likely to be somewhat rare in a population. Then what causes the development of chronic offending? Moffitt (1993) has forwarded the view that “The juxtaposition of a vulnerable and difficult infant with an adverse rearing context initiates risk for the life-course-persistent pattern of antisocial behavior” (p. 682). This has largely been interpreted to suggest that a combination of one or more “biological” risk markers and several environmental risk factors will lead to heightened likelihood of chronicity. Translating Moffitt’s view into an ecological one would change “adverse rearing” to a physical and social environment that does not provide the resources or teach non-criminal values or provide the individual with culturally legitimated opportunities to obtain what he desires. Such an environment would tend to favor the use of criminal strategies rather than productive and cooperative strategies.

In the following sections we will first discuss biological factors associated with chronic criminality and the role of child development in the acquisition of criminal strategic styles. It will be clear from this discussion that a general paradigm of criminal behavior must include these components and that the current research on chronic offending suggests it is best explained by biology and development. We will then discuss the unique features of the human ecological environment that affect criminal behavior and behavioral style development.


Biological Factors. It is beyond the scope of this paper to review the extensive evidence on the links between biology and criminality and criminal behavior. (Fishbein, 2001, provides an excellent review of this voluminous literature.) Here we will limit ourselves to some recent research on chronic offending and early onset. Before we do it is important to note that contemporary researchers do not often suggest direct effects of biology on offending. Rather, the effects of genetic factors, intellectual or attention or learning deficits, exposure to toxins and the like are believed to affect criminal behavior only indirectly. Walters (2000) provides an example of the dynamic: “Certain temperaments have a higher likelihood of eliciting negative parental feedback than other temperaments. Consequently, irregular children given to frequent negative moods, suggestive of a difficult temperament, more typically evoke hostility and criticism from their parents than children with more positive moods and greater regularity” (p. 181). Lytton (1990) points out that having a biological disposition for conduct disorder may elicit negative interactions with parents and others, thus preventing the formation of social bonds that might prevent further conduct problems. Moffitt (1997) provides a very thorough description of these processes (p. 18). Although these factors set the physical boundaries of human behavior and influence affective state, they do not determine which of the myriad possible behaviors we perform.

Further, most biologists disparage the idea that biological factors are distinguishable from environmental factors-since both appear to affect each other in a reciprocal manner. For example, Tremblay, Schaal, Boulerice, Arseneault, Soussignan, and Perusse (1997) found that testosterone level had a dynamic relationship with social adjustment.

Although predictors of chronic offending (as compared to any offending) are slow in coming in the published research, numerous published studies have reported that early onset of offending is associated with chronicity (Mason and Windle, 2001; Piquero and Chung, 2001). Thus, several authors have turned their attention to the prediction of early onset. Because Moffitt (1993) had earlier proposed theory to guide research distinguishing offenders by offending chronicity, her proposal of a biological component has been a chief source of empirical testing in this area. Several studies do support a biological component in early onset and/or chronic offending. For example, Tibbetts and Piquero (1999) found an effect of low birth weight on early onset of offending (among low SES subjects only). Gibson, Piquero, and Tibbetts (2000) found that maternal cigarette smoking was predictive of age at first police contact (early onset) among African American males in their sample. Moffitt ( 1997) reports in her study of New Zealand boys that neuropsychological deficits are linked to “the kind of antisocial behavior that begins in childhood and is sustained for lengthy periods” (p. 20). Findings by Gibson, Piquero, and Tibbetts (2001) directly support Moffitt’s interactional hypothesis-the chances of early onset of offending in their sample was significantly increased by the combined effect of low verbal IQ scores and family adversity. Taylor, Iacono, and McGue (2000) suggest that early-onset delinquency has an underlying genetic link, whereas later onset delinquency is likely to be environmentally mediated.

In summary, the current thinking in this line of research suggests that biological factors play an important role in the development of chronic offending. For more discussion of this issue, please see the review by Krohn, Thornberry, Rivera, and LeBlanc (2001).

Development. As part of the reexamination of Vila’s (1994) general paradigm undertaken here, we also would like to discuss the difference between “developmental criminology” and the field of child development from psychology. Though criminologists frequently write about “developmental” factors, they typically are referring to factors that affect the development of children, not the developmental stages known to occur across humans. Here we suggest that integrating the view of development from developmental psychology-and what is known about developmental stages in learning, language, cognitive development, morality, etc.-could guide our understanding of the impact of those other “developmental” factors on criminality.

From this point of view, development is the process of physical, intellectual, and emotional growth that begins with conception and ends with death. Contrary to a “blank slate” view, developmental psychologists agree that development of the physical self and cognitive and emotional competencies proceeds in an orderly manner, some believe in sequential stages, and is consistent across humans-suggesting innate, gene-driven processes. Because of this, the stages at which humans face the biological and sociocultural intrusions we have been discussing may determine whether or not those factors encourage the development of criminal strategic styles. In other words, rather than having an independent effect, as in Vila’s model, it might be more useful to see developmental status as an intervening factor that mediates the effect of biology and environment on the development of criminal strategic styles (motivation in the model).2

During early childhood, for example, needs and desires are different from those later in life, and cognitive and emotional skills are less developed. Young children are particularly vulnerable to the parenting practices of their parents (Eron, Huesmann, and Zelli, 1991; Hay, 2001; Howell, 1995; Loeber and Farrington, 1998, pp. 122-123), physical or emotional abuse (Widom, 1997), certain neurotoxins (Masters, Hone, and Doshi, 1997), school problems (Seydlitz and Jenkins, 1998), and criminal role models (Farrington, 1989), and their behavioral development is deeply affected by these factors. Growing up in a disrupted family is strongly associated with child antisocial behavior-of which crime is one type (Huesmann et al., 1984; Lozoff, 1989; Patterson, DeBaryshe, and Ramscy, 1989; Patterson, Reid, and Dishion, 1992). During adolescence and adulthood these factors are likely to have a weaker effect on strategic styles because these experiences are set against a lifetime of past experiences and behavioral consequences. By adolescence behavioral styles and psychological character are thought to be largely established. Further, highly developed cognitive skills and emotional maturity may buffer adolescents against the effects of adverse stimuli. Nevertheless, “adolescence-limited” delinquent behavior is very common (Moffitt, 1993; Nagin, Farrington, and Moffitt, 1995; Nagin and Land, 1993), suggesting that special characteristics of human development around the age of puberty encourage or facilitate delinquent behavior. During adolescence, too, changes in needs and desires and the demands of life may change the factors that affect immediate motivation for crime. For example, situational factors such as school attachment, peer deviance, and neighborhood environment may play a significant role in the manifestation of criminal behavior. Some variability in criminal activity among adults will be expected based on needs and goals, motivations, and opportunities that arise among that age group. For example, previously unavailable opportunities to steal from the workplace may arise. Research on criminal careers and the life course also suggests that changes in social bonds (such as marriage or employment) can alter trajectories of criminal behavior (Sampson and Laub, 1993).

We will discuss some of the data that bear on the development of criminality. With respect to moral valuations, it has been found that by age three children have developed the cognitive ability to reflect on intentionality and evaluate responsibility. By kindergarten, they start to apply criteria to the assessment of blame and impose a hierarchy on criteria for blameworthiness (e.g., harm should not occur, one should not cause harm, one should not mean to cause harm, and one should not mean to cause harm with malevolent motives) (van Lieshout and Doise, 1998). This suggests that children are able to learn prohibitions against aggression at a very young age and it is possible that there is a critical window for this type of social learning, which underscores the importance of socializing children against aggression early in life if we wish to minimize the use of this strategy in the population. Dodge’s work (Dodge, Bates, and Pettit, 1990; Dodge and Schwartz, 1997) suggests that the link between child abuse and later violence is the development of cognitive styles-such as hostile attribution bias-that favor interpretations of the world as hostile and aggressive, and thus favor an aggressive response to that world. The effects of child abuse, then, are probably going to vary depending on the age of the child and be at their most extreme when children are developing these cognitive processes.

In summary, the interaction between biology, experience, and developmental stage is likely to be highly relevant in the prediction of chronic offending-and chronic offending, as we know, is an important component of aggregate crime levels. The most important developmental factors include not only age, generally, but certain cognitive and physical abilities. The development of criminality requires an interaction of certain environmental or biological influences occurring at the right time. Further, if it is true that aggression is learned (and unlearned) at an early age, environmental features that are likely to promote aggressive behavioral strategies will do their best work among small children. Periods during which children are learning cognitive styles are probably very important. Data that suggest that early onset of offending is associated with later chronicity, and that biological factors are associated with early onset provide an important indication that it is early development that creates most chronic offenders and that finding the biological and experiential correlates of early onset should be a research priority.

Unique Character of the Human Ecological Environment. Vila’s (1994) model refers to “socio-cultural factors” that influence criminal behavior. Because of the ecological emphasis of this article, these factors may be seen as “ecological factors” and treated as part of the human ecological environment that affects strategy choice. In order to understand the role of ecological factors on strategy choice and style development, it is first useful to discuss what the landscape of “human ecology” looks like and the unique features of “human” ecology compared to the ecologies of other species.

Although Hawley and colleagues were sure in their definition of what constitutes an ecological factor, the literature on crime and human behavior is far more ambiguous on this point. In this discussion we see biological factors as those that inhere in the individual-including genetic factors, physiological factors, even psychological factors because they inhere in brain chemistry (even if these are caused by the environment). Like McKenzie, we refer to those factors in the physical environment that affect human behavior as being ecological. In our view this includes a wealth of factors, including those that are reminiscent of ecological studies of other species-topography, weather, and food availability, for example. We recognize that many ecological factors affect behavior by affecting brain function. For example, overcrowding may increase hostility (Baum and Paulus, 1987) or affect the immediate fear or well-being that individuals feel from moment to moment in different physical surroundings. Hot weather has been found to be related to deadly assault (Anderson, Bushman, and Groom, 1997; Cohn, 1990) and there is some evidence for seasonality in offending (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1988), although this could be mediated by routine activities-which, in turn often arc affected by weather. People respond quite differently in hot, crowded subways or gridlocked freeways (Novaco, Kliewer, and Broquet, 1991) than they do in dark, lonely parking lots or serene parks.

The human physical environment has unique features. For example, the extent of man-made buildings with a variety of materials rivals that of even the most industrious animal species including ants and bees. The effects of these large-scale structures-which affect our ability to acquire food and other resources, to find mating opportunities, to rear our offspring-on our behavioral repertoire are enormous.

The human ecological environment also includes factors that affect us because of our advanced intellectual abilities and euculture. For example, indicators of “social disorganization” and signs of “social control” such as the presence of graffiti, trash, incivilities, or “broken windows” (Wilson and Kelling, 1982), affect our behavior. Political factors, identified by Bursik (1984, 1986, 1989) such as the presence of racial covenants, prevalence of unemployment or owner-occupied dwellings, the location of public housing, and the like, may limit our mobility or living arrangements and funnel the strategies chosen by individuals in neighborhoods.

Finally, social and cultural characteristics -beliefs, morals, behaviors, and social situations-present in the environment can be seen as part of human ecology. These are factors in the environment that affect our behavior. Though these usually manifest themselves in communications (as do bird calls or scent markings in other species), they exist as factors in the ecological landscape that shape behavior. In fact, these often overlooked features of our “ecological” environment exert an enormous effect on behavior. The human ability to learn complex language allows us to develop ideas, form concepts, and has fostered a “euculture” (Lumsden and Wilson, 1981) characterized by our unique ability to reify information. The human mind absorbs information, most of which lacks immediate relevance, and “constructs an internal reality” (p. 5). Although we are not the only organisms that teach and learn, humans are the only eucultural species. And the extent of behavior learned through verbal communications is exceptional among animals. Such a euculture allows factors such as political structure, zoning laws, and the like to affect behavior.

Research on environmental factors and crime center on factors that are easiest to measure. There is research that suggests that factors such as family environment (parenting practices, conflicts, and role modeling), school environment (which interacts with the characteristics of the individual to produce achievement, attachment, and attainment), neighborhood environment (social disorganization and signs of disorder and urban design), poverty and social isolation are all correlates of criminality.


In this discussion we have proposed that an ecological view of crime can incorporate both a) the view that crime is “normal,” and b) the evidence that certain individuals develop criminal habits and therefore are responsible for an inordinate amount of crime. We have suggested, like Moffitt (1993) and Taylor et al. (2000) that “normative” criminal behavior strategies probably are most affected by features of the environment, including, as Cohen and Machalek (1988) suggest, their frequency dependent payoffs. “Pathological” criminal behavior-committed by those who develop chronic offending patterns in spite of the fact that frequency dependent payoffs tend to be low-is likely due to factors that influence the development of criminal behavioral styles in children. Now we turn to the matter of counterstrategies and the implications of what we have been discussing for the control of crime.

The biologically-rooted ecological theorists at some level assume that human motivations to behave at all are consistent with those of other species-and that we have evolved unconscious psychological mechanisms that enhance our ability to survive, mate, and promote our offspring. First it is useful to discuss two distinct processes from evolutionary theory that are important here. The first is that humans are likely to be equipped with psychological mechanisms designed to recognize promising behavioral strategies when they see them, to learn them easily, and to devise their own in the face of circumstances making it difficult to obtain resources in the ways they have already learned. The field of evolutionary psychology has proposed a host of related psychological mechanisms including those related to mate selection, resource acquisition (especially among males), sociability (Savage and Kanazawa forthcoming, 2002), etc. This point of view suggests that we can never eliminate criminal activity because humans are competitive, selfish, and malleable in behavior. And as long as there are resource asymmetries, or resource shortages, some humans will be motivated to use novel strategies to get what they need. From this point of view we can never hope to eliminate crime, only to minimize it (Mealey, 1997). The good news for those of us living in highcrime societies like the United States, as opposed to much lower-crime societies like Canada, is that this minimum appears to be a long way off.

A second important lesson from evolutionary theory is that culture evolves in much the same way as genes do. Culture -learned behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs -is an informational medium. Culturally transmitted behavioral strategies that are successful proliferate over time. As a consequence, the relative frequency of more successful variants in a population tends to increase over time while less successful variants tend to become more rare (Boyd and Richerson, 1985; Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981; Dawkins, 1996; Holland, 1992; Lumsden and Wilson, 1981;Mitchell, 1996).

Which strategies are successful tends to vary over time due to new opportunities and threats. The relative frequency with which a behavioral variant is applied in a population also affects its success, either positively or negatively (e.g., everyone driving on the same side of the road improves coordination and safety but too many people making a living as litigators can reduce average legal salaries). The implication of this is that humans learn and invent criminal behavioral strategies readily. Consequently, crime control efforts must either be very flexible and capable of countering newly devised criminal behaviors (i.e., highly adaptable) or they must try to prevent individuals from attempting criminal behavior strategies by making the frequency-dependent payoffs of production high when compared with crime. The former tends to result in an arms race; the latter underlines the importance of strategies that promote the distribution of resources and strong cultural prohibitions against criminal behavior.

Evolutionary theory suggests that the “ends” of any human behavior (including crime) are going to be consistent with the human tendency to do those things that enable us to survive, mate, and promote our offspring. For example, all else equal, humans will try to avoid physical danger, a loss of freedom and-as inherently social beings-conflict with others because of the risks it entails and the anxiety it causes us (Hirschi, 1969; Savage and Kanazawa forthcoming, 2002).

From this point of view, we might expect that concerns about relationships with other human beings would have a strong influence on behavior for most people and that, to the extent that society abhors criminal behavior, most people would learn alternative strategies for getting what they need and desire. These observations suggest several courses of action in preventing “normal” criminal behavior by “normal” people most of which have been exploited already (protection/avoidance, deterrence). But chronic offenders appear to have aberrant socialization, do not appear to respond to punishment in the same way that most people do, and confront the criminal justice system with a real conundrum. We suggest that the most efficacious way to address chronic offending is through the least-exploited of crime control strategies: nurturance (also referred to as “developmental prevention” [Tonry and Farrington, 1995, pp. 9-10]). In the following sections we will spend some time on each of these crime control strategies.

Protection/Avoidance Strategies. Protection/avoidance strategies attempt to reduce criminal opportunities by changing people’s routine activities, increasing guardianship, or incapacitating convicted offenders. These strategies are always necessary because of the need to limit the desirability of crime and opportunities for it-and probably are most useful in preventing crime among “normal” individuals who want to avoid getting in trouble. Individuals who have other behaviors and resources at hand can easily pass up criminal opportunities where protection/ avoidance is in place, choose another strategy, and crime can thus be prevented. Unfortunately, for individuals who are very criminal in their behavioral habits, the effects of new protection/avoidance counterstrategies almost invariably tend to be transitory because of arms race dynamics. Motivated offenders will respond to each counterstrategy with efforts to come up with some new expropriative or violent strategy (Clarke, 1995, pp. 119-122; Cohen, Vila, and Machalek, 1995; Ekblom, 1999) in an endless coevolutionary cycle.

Incapacitation through incarceration, although very expensive (Vila, 1997, pp. 8-9), can be expected to have some effect on crime if chronic offenders are targeted. Other incapacitation strategies such as electronic monitoring and/or tracking bracelets that help enforce “home detention” programs also show promise (Langan, 1994; Renzema and Skelton, 1990). The trick is to incapacitate only the right people, and the current “three strikes and you’re out” laws that proliferated in the 1980s have been criticized for definitions of “chronic offender” that include nondangerous offenders, mostly drug addicts and dealers (Tonry, 1995).

Deterrence Strategies. Deterrence strategies attempt to diminish motivation for crime by increasing the perceived certainty, severity, or celerity of punishment. A properly functioning deterrence strategy causes people who otherwise would commit a crime not to do so. Chronic offenders are particularly difficult to deter through conventional means because they already have developed criminal habits and any new experience is simply weighed against their vast past experience with offending. Since most of the time offenders do not get caught or punished for their offenses, the more crimes someone commits, the lower his estimate of his chances of being caught. Empirically, chronic offenders are more likely to be reckless, impulsive, and present-oriented than most people (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990), suggesting that in order to affect their behavior, we need consistent and immediate sanctions (Kleiman, 1998).

Instead of relying on punishment alone, “neo-deterrence” theories (Wilson and Herrnstein, 1985) recommend that we also increase the stake individuals have in conventional activities. These approaches seek to change individuals’ cost/ benefit calculations by increasing risk and opportunity costs associated with crime. Thus, they may be particularly useful for correcting the “life trajectories” of people who are spiraling toward chronic offending (Sampson and Laub, 1993)-or even those who have had an extended involvement in serious offending (Laub and Sampson, 2001). This approach blends with the nurturant approach discussed next.

As the feedback loop between opportunity and motivation in Figure 1 shows, the threat of punitive sanctions will always be needed to deter more rational calculators from crime because crime often is an attractive alternative for obtaining desired resources (Axelrod, 1984, 1986; Boyd and Richerson, 1992). However, the effectiveness of punitive deterrence appears quite limited for controlling many crimes in a free society (Brown, 1978). For one thing, punitive deterrence only can work on those who have developed the skills necessary for rational calculation and the propensity to use them. It has little effect on those who are highly impulsive or who cannot calculate risks and benefits logically because, for example, they are impaired developmentally, intellectually (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994, pp. 235-251 ), or perhaps, by drugs. Much crime is impulsive in nature, and the certainty of punishment for any particular criminal act generally is very low.

Nurturant Strategies. Nurturant strategies focus on prevention of the development of criminal strategic styles rather than on remediation of crime. These strategies also are referred to as “developmental prevention” because they intervene during the period when we believe criminal strategies are emerging in the developing child. These strategies are particularly important because their greatest effect will probably be in limiting the production of chronic offenders who commit a substantial proportion of crime (Blumstein, Farrington, and Moitra, 1985; Loeber and Farrington, 1998, pp. 114-132; Moffitt, 1993).

There are two main types of nurturant strategies: those that improve early life experiences to forestall the development of strategic styles based on criminality, and those that channel child and adolescent development in an effort to improve the match between individuals and their environment. Social programs that attempt to address early life-course problems and channel people in productive directions are not new. But they seldom are identified explicitly as crime control strategies in public discussions, and their importance for the control of crime often is neglected. This increases the vulnerability of child development programs by making it easier for their funding to be diverted to traditional crime control strategies involving the police, courts, or prison systems.

It is well established that nurturant strategies can be effective at the individual level. Tremblay and Craig’s (1995) exhaustive review of experimental research assessing the effectiveness of developmental crime prevention strategies on later delinquency and antisociality3 among preschool and school-age children found statistically significant treatment effects, especially when “the interventions are aimed at more than one risk factor [e.g., socially disruptive behavior, cognitive deficits, and poor parenting], last for a relatively long period of time, and are implemented before adolescence” (p. 151). Similar effects have been shown for earlier interventions such as pre- and perinatal health care and nutrition (Lozoff, 1989; Olds and Kitzman, 1990; Piquero and Tibbetts, 1999).

Lagged Effects. One major drawback of nurturant approaches to crime control is the long time between the institution of a nurturant program and a subsequent reduction in crime. Since few young people commit serious crimes before they enter middle adolescence, nurturant interventions tend to require a decade or more to have an impact on crime. Furthermore, even though nurturant strategies work on individuals, their impact on macro-level crime rates has not been tested extensively. Early cross-national tests of this “lagged nurturance” hypothesis (Savage, 1997; Savage and Vila, 1997) yielded mixed results. However, recent evidence supports the hypothesis, suggesting that changes in national measures of early childhood health and education are negatively associated with later shifts in national crime rates (Savage and Vila, 2001) and positively associated with academic achievement (Glewwe, Jacoby, and King, 2001)-which has a well-established negative relationship with crime.


The present paper extends Vila’s (1994) general paradigm of criminal behavior. Here we have presented the case that using an evolutionary-ecological paradigm, crime can both be “normal” and “pathological.” Normal human beings respond to situations, act in their own self-interest, and are willing learners of any behavioral strategies that help them achieve their goals. Some human beings, who are biologically or socially disadvantaged, are repeatedly exposed to conditions that lead them to develop an inordinate dependence on criminal strategies-inordinate because the payoff for using these strategies is low.

In this paper we have also attempted to show how this model can bridge the gap between understanding crime at the individual level and crime at the aggregate. Individuals develop behavioral styles; environmental factors affect the development of behavioral styles in those persons exposed to them and affect immediate situations and opportunities that affect individual criminal behavior in the moment. If environmental factors in a large society are very favorable toward criminality-pervasive poverty in a city, for example-we believe that large cohorts of individuals may develop a dependence on criminal strategies and that this can affect crime rates when those individuals reach the age of peak offending. Environmental factors may also cause cohorts of individuals who are not especially “criminal” to turn to criminal behavioral strategies when more desirable strategies do not work or their payoffs are comparatively low; for example, in times of high unemployment or civil unrest or unusually profitable criminal opportunity (like alcohol prohibition or the crack epidemic).

A unique feature of an evolutionary ecological approach to crime is that it clearly prescribes a balanced mix of protection/avoidance, deterrence, and nurturant strategies for the control of crime. An evolutionary ecological approach to understanding criminal behavior and crime control provides a flexible and useful framework for integrating information from a variety of fields and unifies our understanding of individual level and aggregate level crime. It also provides a format for testing hypotheses about crime causation and control at both individual and aggregate levels. The ecological model helps us understand rapidly changing dynamics of crime in urban centers. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s significant numbers of inner-city youths became involved in drug trafficking when the introduction of crack cocaine created an opportunity for monetary gain that required little economic or social capital. The ease with which resources could be acquired by selling crack cocaine probably was weighed against the relative difficulty of working long hours for minimum wages. Those who were poor and unemployed were most vulnerable to the temptation, and many persons with borderline levels of criminality probably were lured into the drug business. Few extant theories of crime would have predicted this dramatic phenomenon.

This perspective also is able to bridge micro and macro views of criminality. It suggests that in addition to situational factors, aggregate crime rates may be affected by the size of the cohort of chronic offenders. Research already has uncovered discernible “cohort” effects (Greenberg and Larkin, 1985; Smith, 1986; Steffensmeier, Streifel, and Shihadeh, 1992), but has not examined the characteristics of the cohorts that make them so criminal. It is proposed here, and remains to be empirically tested, that cohorts which are exposed to more criminogenic biological or sociocultural factors at important stages in their development-namely, early childhood-will tend to be more criminal as a group than other age cohorts.

Evolutionary ecological theory provides a natural utilitarian framework for organizing what we already know with reasonable confidence about the causes of criminal behavior. The general paradigm developed from this approach holistically describes how ecological, micro-level, and macro-level factors associated with criminal behavior interact and evolve over time, and how they influence individual development over the life course and across generations.

Applying the same well-established techniques and concepts that have unified our understanding of complex organic systems in the biological sciences-while giving special consideration to the unique properties of culture-provides a truly general perspective on human behavior. It allows us to view crime as a cultural trait whose frequency and type evolve over time as a result of dynamic interactions between individual and group behavior in a physical environment. Moreover, an appreciation of the indeterminability of these processes encourages us to consider ways to guide the evolution of culture in desirable directions.


The authors are grateful to Cynthia Morris for her continuing assistance in developing this line of research.

1 Haskell (1940) provides a classic discussion of the problems inherent in differentiating between factors in ecological systems. sec Vila (1990) for a detailed systematic analysis of the relationships between causal factors associated with criminal behavior.

2 Tittle and Ward (1993) have been cited as demonstrating that correlates of crime do not interact with age (supporting the view of Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990). This implies that developmental stages are not important. It is important to point out, however, that the sample used hy Tittle and Ward in their study did not include young children or adolescents and it is possible or even likely that their choice of predictors (measures of deviant peers, anomic, social integration, and social control) would not be as relevant to the study of the development of criminal strategies as other factors such as victimisation (child abuse), school experiences, parenting styles, and the like.

3 Note that antisociality and criminality are sufficiently analogous terras to be used interchangeably here. Traditionally, psychologists have favored the former and sociologists the latter.


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Joanne Savage*; Bryan Vila[dagger]

American University; National Institute of Justice

* Please address correspondence to Prof. Joanne Savage, Department of Justice, Law and Society, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20016-8043,

[dagger] The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of the National Institute of Justice or the U.S. Department of Justice.

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