Human Behavior, Evolution, and the Law: The Case of the Biology of Possession

19 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2010

See all articles by D. Benjamin Barros

D. Benjamin Barros

University of Toledo - College of Law

Date Written: February 25, 2010


Possession is a foundational idea in property law. Recent scholarship has suggested that respect for possession may be an innate aspect of human behavior. Jeffrey Evans Stake argued in 2004 that there is an evolutionary basis for an instinct to respect possession. More recently, Ori Friedman and Karen Neary have published the results of psychological studies suggesting that both adults and children tend to associate prior possession with ownership. These studies suggest that the respect for possession that is at the center of our property law may be consistent with – and, indeed, may have its basis in – basic human behavioral tendencies.

In this Essay, I consider the relevance of this behavioral research to normative issues in property law. Along the way, I discuss the broader issue of the potential relevance of biological facts about human behavior to the law. I argue that facts about actual human behavior, like those discussed in Friedman & Neary’s research, are potentially relevant to property and other legal issues. In contrast, I argue that evolutionary arguments like those made by Stake are not relevant to property or other legal issues. I criticize Stake’s evolutionary argument on two levels. First, I argue Stake’s evolutionary claims lack evidentiary support and fail to connect in subtle but important ways with substantive property law. Second, drawing in part on arguments recently developed by Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, I argue that evolutionary facts, even if scientifically well founded, have little or no relevance to normative legal issues, in property or otherwise.

Keywords: evolution, evolutionary psychology, psychology, behavior, possession, property

JEL Classification: K11

Suggested Citation

Barros, D. Benjamin, Human Behavior, Evolution, and the Law: The Case of the Biology of Possession (February 25, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

D. Benjamin Barros (Contact Author)

University of Toledo - College of Law ( email )

2801 W. Bancroft Street
Toledo, OH 43606
United States

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