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Biology 202, Spring 2005
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Evil: Natural or a Matter of Choice?

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On September 13, 1948, a young construction worker by the name of Phineas Gage experienced a grave injury to the head; a tamping iron, three feet seven inches long and weighing 13.5 pounds, entered first under his left cheekbone and then exited through the top of his head, landing about 25-30 yards behind him (6). In an astonishing recovery, Gage retained the ability to function without severe disability and even resumed his vocation as a construction worker some months after the accident. Even more astonishing than his miraculous recovery was his sudden change in personality: before the accident, Gage was highly respected by his peers and employers, excelling at his job both as a capable construction worker and astute businessman, but after the accident Gage was recorded as being grossly profane, impolite and incompetent. Many of his friends and coworkers claimed: "He was no longer Gage" (6). Gage's story would go on to function as one of the more famous examples of the, still relatively mysterious, relation between personality and the brain. However, even more interesting in Gage's case is his sudden propensity for cruel behavior; a propensity that, in his case it seemed, resulted from his brain injury and was well beyond his control.

There was much discussion in Neurobiology 202: Neurobiology and Behavior about the nature of depression and a consensus was reached stating that individuals who suffer from some manifestation of depression are experiencing an illness that is well beyond their control. Severely depressed individuals cannot control serious spouts of hopelessness, reduced or increased sleep, a constantly irritated state of mind, etc... The notion that one can contain depression is largely an incorrect notion encouraged by society; it was agreed that it was imperative to recognize that the helplessness that is associated with depression prevents the inflicted from just "snapping out of it." To some measure, it might prove interesting to examine the phenomenon of 'evil' under this state of reference. Gage's story raises a very valid question: is evil a choice or is it, like depression, a biological illness that causes its inflicted to behave without some measure of personal control?

In a recent article in the New York Times, writer Benedict Carey explores the question of evil as it relates to murderers and serial killers. In recent years, neuroscientists have found evidence that physical differences in brain function can be found between normal individuals and individuals who have committed serious crimes. For example, using a brain-imaging study, American and Canadian researchers have discovered that psychopaths process certain words, such as power and future, differently from nonpsychopaths (3). These observations seem to suggest that it is not a matter of personal choice that forces certain individuals to commit atrocious crimes, but a matter of the brain. Of course, it is important to realize that three possible conclusions can result from this observation: first, that the brain controls behavior and therefore criminals commit crimes because their neuronal pathways force them to. Second, that behavior affects the brain and therefore criminal behavior can be documented by brain-imaging studies, and lastly, that it is a combination of the two - the brain contains a certain degree of influence, but criminal behavior can also reinforce certain brain function. It is impossible to ascertain exactly what causes 'evil' behavior, but the possibility that it is induced, rather than chosen, is a concept that has intrigued scientists and philosophers for centuries.

In the nineteenth century the philosophical movement, Natural Theology, gained momentum as a leading movement that sought to reconcile science with scripture. They argued that since God was the creator of the universe then by understanding the universe, its nature and earthly mechanisms, then a comprehension of divine law could be acquired. They argued that if nature was God's scripture then all the mechanisms related to nature were, in theory, God's work. Critics of Natural Theology argued that to believe that God was the creator of the universe, and that nature was a representation of divine law, forced the believer to accept, then, that evil and suffering was the work of God. David Hume, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, creates a scene where three characters (Cleanthes, Philo, and Demea) are engrossed in discussion recorded by observer, Pamphilus. Demea and Philo point out the misery of humans and "curious artifices of nature...embitter the life of every living being. The stronger prey upon the weaker, and keep them in perpetual terror and anxiety." Cleanthes', an advocate for Natural Theology, replies, "the only method of supporting divine benevolence (and it is what I willingly embrace) is to deny absolutely the misery and wickedness of man." (2). But the existence of misery can be proved, Philo interjects, and "not by chance surely. From some cause then. Is it then from the intention of the Deity?" (2). This controversy regarding the existence of evil was never resolved and would go on to remain a contemporary problem for believers of religion.

Religion has played a major role in shaping contemporary society's conception of evil; evil, for the most part, is associated with punishment in the afterlife or the influence of Satan. In fact, it can be argued that religion gave birth to morality as a whole, allowing individuals to divorce good from evil, to further the development of society on the backbone of benevolence and altruism. Religion teaches us how to behave, how to respond to certain situations, and encourages us to accomplish good with the promise of heaven in the afterlife. On the other hand, the argument that religion gave birth to morality can be counteracted with the fact that other organisms, who are not subject to the tenets of religion, exhibit altruism thus raising the possibility that morality might have preceded religion. If this is the case, then the same can be said about evil. If the existence of evil preceded religion, then it cannot be attributed to the influence of Satan or the creation of hell, but rather a natural component of human behavior. Just as altruism has been documented in both lower and higher organisms, so too has 'evil' behavior been observed in lower and higher organisms. For example, scientist Frans de Waal has noted that monkeys and apes exhibit kind behavior towards disabled members of their group, showing sympathy not only to kin but unrelated members of the group as well (5). In addition to altruism, aggression is also noted in the behavior of monkeys. A few cases have been observed where a member of the group will begin to exhibit psychopathic behavior for no apparent reason, engaging in cruel behavior such as attacking and killing younger members of the group (1).

If evil really is a matter of the brain, beyond our control, then this results in drastic implications for society. Not only does it throw into question the nature of free will, but it also throws into question the morality of administering punishments to criminals. Is it moral to punish a criminal if there is evidence that he is suffering from an illness, the illness being that of 'evil', as opposed to making clear judgments as to the nature of his crime? Dr. Angela Hegarty, a psychiatrist, has encountered four violent criminals in her profession who were so vicious that no other word except for 'evil' could describe their behavior. One man murdered his own wife and young children and showed more annoyance than regret; when a staff member at the facility where he was kept, after he was arrested for the crimes, arrived late with a video, he grew violent and abusive, insisting on punctuality (3). This man was sentenced for his crime, but his aggressive behavior did not lessen. It appeared, in his case at least, that it was something that was characteristic of his behavior; perhaps his brain was programmed in such a way where it encouraged aggressiveness and prevented feelings of compassion? Is it acceptable to punish this man, who brutally murdered his own family, if there is evidence that he could not help his actions? Is it possible to punish anyone if their brain made them do it?

This has serious implications when applied to cases of mass murder, for example the Holocaust or the recent genocide in Rwanda. Imagine Augustin Bizimana or Felicien Kabuga in front of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and their lawyers using the argument that their actions were purely biological and that they should not be held accountable for their actions. There have been numerous cases where it has been documented that the 'mob mentality' can override your own moral judgments, causing individuals in a mob to commit crimes that had never entered the minds of the individuals when removed from the crowd. Because it has been shown that the 'mob mentality' can force conscious citizens to become murderers, is it right to punish these individuals if it can be proven that their vicious actions are only biological responses to a specific environment? Would the society find this interpretation acceptable? I would argue that this could have serious repercussions for society because future criminals could interpret this response as a green light to commit future immoral actions.

If Emily Dickinson, in her poem 'The Brain is Wider than the Sky', is right and brain really does equal behavior, then how can we punish an individual for their biological make-up, for the patterns that evolution has deemed is appropriate, even if it encompasses the behavior of serial killers and war criminals? My answer to this above question is simply: we can punish these individuals because Emily is not right, but "less wrong." We can punish Augustin Bizimana and Felicien Kabuga because there exist men like Paul Rusesabagina who risked his life numerous times to save other Rwandans. We could have punished men like Adolf Hitler because there existed men like Oskar Schindler who risked his life to save German Jews. Our brains do not dictate our behavior; there is room for modification, for internal processing, and room for new conclusions. It is true that evil does exist in nature, that it is a natural component of human behavior, but modification, too, exists in nature. Organisms are constantly changing in their physical appearance to adapt to changing environments; what's not to say that we are not changing internally? When a change in the environment takes place, it does not lead to a certain modification, a certain by-product, but has the potential to give rise to numerous modifications and here is where our choices are made. Bizimana and Kabuga chose to act malicious, to become 'evil,' but they could have equally chosen to act benevolent.

Of course, one could argue that a harsh childhood for the aforementioned individuals led to their 'evil' nature and, to some extent, this may be true. There appears to be a critical period when the choice between evil and benevolence can be made equally, this critical period most likely existing during our development, but once evil is chosen it becomes more difficult to change. This is analogous to the development of the neural tube in chick embryos, whereby the removal of somites at stage 11-12 has drastic consequences on the nearby neural tube. However, when the same removal is done at stage 13 or more, there is no apparent change (4). Our development is impressionable; our psyche can be molded into an infinite number of ways. That is why appropriate punishments would be counseling sessions aimed at deconstructing initial notions of moral and immoral, good and evil, etc... for criminals to help and re-teach the necessary principles needed for nonviolent behavior. With this in mind, it is important to realize that criminals can change if placed in the appropriate environment. Criminals should be held accountable for their actions, but more energy and resources should be spend on ways to assist these individuals in adapting appropriate behaviors for society as opposed to classifying them as purely 'evil' without any hope for change.


1)"Oregon Primate Rescue"

2) Callaway, David. Melvile in the Age of Darwin and Paley: Science in Typee, Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Clarel. Dissertation, Graduate School of Binghamton University State University of New York, 1999

3)"For the Worst of Us, the Diagnosis May Be 'Evil'."

4)Developmental Biology

5)"The Basis of Morality: Scientific vs. Religious Explanations."

6)"The Phineas Gage Story."

7)"Morality's Biological Nature: Implications for the Attribution of "Good" and "Evil."

8) Weikart, Richard. From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2004

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