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Genocide: Does a disruption in our moral behavior change our brain?

Zoe Fuller-Young's picture

If our behavior changes, does our brain change? This questioned was raised this semester in Paul Grobstein’s Biology 202, Neurobiology and Behavior. Attempting to work through this possibility, my thought process quickly went to my interest in genocide. Many have researched and wondered how people can commit genocidal acts, and how apparently “ordinary men” carry out genocide. Genocide, briefly defined as an attempt to destroy, in whole or in part, a certain group of people, forces us to question human behavior concerning our own survival, morality, and capability. If our behavior from what is normal suddenly or gradually turns to the barbaric, do our brains change? Do perpetrators of genocide share a pattern of brain transformation? There are two parts to the question, the first is how humans come to commit what most consider unthinkably barbaric, and second, do those humans who move from the ordinary to the evil have irreversibly changed behavior and therefore irreversibly changed brains? Answering these questions is beyond the scope of this web paper. Instead, I will use observations of genocide perpetrators and brains of people with antisocial behavior to try and understand what might be the answer to these questions.

Before beginning, I want to mention one source of inspiration for this subject which is the scientific fiction film ‘The Matrix.’ The movie is set in a world created by and for machines, using humans as energy and manipulating their brains to believe they are living in a reality that is in fact a computer program. All students who have seen the movie and taken a course with Grobstein can guess that ‘The Matrix’ is pertinent to his practice of pushing us to think about science, truth, and reality. Grobstein is clearly comparable to ‘Matrix’ teacher Morpheus, who also claims that humans are batteries, that reality is simply input and output, and such things as “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” Although these philosophical scientific questions are fascinating and relevant to many class discussions, the movie line that most interests me is said by Agent Smith, someone who appears human in the matrix but is actually a very smart machine. Agent Smith relays to Morpheus his feelings about humans when he says “I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure.”(1) Although most people are unbelieving of acts committed during genocide, are there components of mass killing that reflect human nature?

In order to understand how the ordinary turns extreme, it must be addressed what is ordinary. Ordinary is any person who is not accustomed to acts of genocide, meaning they have not committed any or been a regular witness to such events. Acts of genocide can be summarized as killing, torture, or assistance in these acts. To clarify further the meaning of ordinary, it wil be assumed here that an ordinary person will feel guilt, shame, disgust, or regret after their first acts. More specifically, ordinary people will not take pleasure in their initial extreme behavior. In the case of genocide, “extreme” behavior can be compared to “evil” behavior. John Darley discusses evil and defines it as something more than just bad, it is seen as bad with intent, bad with excess and often accompanied by pleasure by the perpetrator.(8) It should be maintained that although this paper provides brief explanations, it is not attempting to simplify the complexity of participants in genocide or make presumptuous correlations.

Now that some clarifications have been made between ordinary and extreme (evil), let us come back to the question of human nature. Is there something about humans that makes genocide natural to our behavior? Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is a branch of Darwinian thought that seeks to understand how biology affects human psychology. James Waller explains that this approach argues that there is a universal human nature but it is adapted to hunter-gatherers, and not necessarily to the modern industrialized world. (7) In the modern world, Waller points out that there are three tendencies that humans express starting in childhood which are ethnocentrism, perception of own group as superior, xenophobia, fear of outsiders, and aggression and violence, an innate desire for power, specifically power over death. “These tendencies represent evolved social capacities that are at the core of human nature. They are the underlying, distant biological capacities that, in concert with other immediate and proximal influences, help us understand our capacity for our extraordinary evil to one another.”(7) Waller further explains the social science perspective that does not blame evil personalities for evil doing but rather circumstances that encourage certain behavior of which possibly every human is capable. There may be a human nature that allows us to participate in genocide, but there is also a maintenance of ordinary behavior until the time for extreme behavior presents itself. This further explains that it is ordinary people, not antisocial personalities without guilt that commit evil acts. Often it is a process of dehumanization of the victims that removes norms of restraint against aggression and violence.

Research is limited in this field. The most useful observations that might explain what happen in the brains of genocidal perpetrators are experiments on the brains of psychopaths. Many characteristics of antisocial behavior are comparable to the behavior of the more experienced genocide participant. Therefore, if we understand what is different about these brains, we may be able to predict what occurs in the brains of men who behave in antisocial ways. Scholars of genocide have, for the most part, agreed that there are only a very small percentage of perpetrators who suffer from Antisocial or Psychopathic Personality Disorders. These disorders are somewhat different, but both are categorized as lacking shame or remorse after having hurt someone and have an aggressive tendency. (9) Raine and Yang describe antisocial and psychopathic individuals as containing a failure to follow moral guidelines. They conducted research on individuals suffering from these personality disorders and report that their brains are functionally or structurally impaired in, what they describe, as antisocial populations. These regions of the brain include dorsal and ventral regions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), amygdala, hippocampus, angular gyrus, anterior cingulated and temporal cortex.”(5) Many of these areas are also found to be activated during moral judgment. Actors in genocide do not necessarily lack moral judgment. Some feel great shame, others disregard their actions as only following orders, and some maintain that they were doing the right thing. There are probably different patterns of brain changes considering varying degrees of guilt, but regardless those who move from ordinary to extreme behavior experience a disturbance in moral judgment. The question becomes is it merely a disturbance that can cause a change in the brain? Also, are those who feel great guilt or shame changed in a similar way as victims of violence experience change? The amygdala is said to be responsible for operating, therefore an input/output box, for intense emotions. At this time, observations lead us to conclude that there is probably a change in the amygdala and other regions associated with remorse of ordinary to extreme perpetrators.  



2.      For more on the idea that humans are a virus, see “The World Without Us” by Ruth Goodlaxon3.      /exchange/node/4814. 6. 9.


Paul Grobstein's picture

The Matrix, morality, and the brain

Morpheus would probably suggest that indeed "barbaric" acts can be committed by "normal" people under particular circumstances and be intrigued by similarities between features of humans that lead to "moral" behavior and to barbaric behavior (see Genes, Brain, and Being Social). Morpheus would probably also wonder whether there is in fact any such things as "human nature" (see toward the end of section 5 of The Brain, Story Sharing, and Social Organization.

See also