Panel Review: Brutality & the Brain

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The Evil in Us All:  Human Morality & Violence

Experimentally increasing serotonin levels in the brain inhibits subjects’ propensities for violence.  Watching or initiating punishment of someone believed to have done something wrong lights up the same part of the brain that eating ice cream does.  A man with a tumor in his right orbital frontal cortex increasingly engages in pedophilic behaviors as the tumor grows, initially keeping it secret, then eventually turning himself in to the authorities.

Neuroscientific discoveries like these provided fodder for rumination by panelists exploring the ramifications of a growing body of evidence that suggests biology plays a major role in violent behavior.  In particular, a much returned to theme was how might the fruits of research like this be applied to the practice of criminal and civil law.

As part of the 2010 program of the World Science Festival, an annual June event held in New York City, Walter Isaacson (a life-long journalist committed to fostering educational opportunities for all) moderated a spirited debate among Mark Hauser (an evolutionary biologist with a passion for cognitive neuroscience), Oliver Goodenough (an expert at the interface of neuroscience and law) and Stephen J. Morse (a psychologist and lawyer devoted to the concept of personal responsibility).

The discussion, Brutality and the Brain, described in the program as an exploration of the neurobiology of violence that promised to include renowned author and neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, ended up focusing primarily on how and whether recent discoveries should change ideas about responsibility, criminality and punishment/treatment.

After showing film clips of infamous violent events that included campus shootings, Columbine, armed conflict, Abu Ghraib and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, Isaacson challenged the panelists to explain the ubiquitousness of violence in human lives.  Hauser declared that “to deny evil is to deny an important part of human nature” and that “the capacity for evil is as ancient as humanity.”

Later on, returning to the question of the evolutionary value of aggression as a committed strategy, Hauser suggested that it can influence others and Morse explained that punishing free riders is critical for insuring tribal cohesion and survival.  Hauser elaborated that all species distinguish between their own and others’ groups, insiders and outsiders, giving preference to their own.  Additionally, posited Goodenough, one sure way to rally the troops is to declare war; external threats increase respect for leaders.

But biology is not destiny and “causes are not excuses,” contended Morse, who had already made the point that although advances in neurochemistry and brain imagery now make it possible to get inside the skulls of those who commit violence, it is their brain states that are being assessed, not their mental states.  Insisting that intent be included as part of the consideration of culpability, he pointed out that human beings make decisions about their actions and that not all brain states become mental states.  “Brains don’t kill people; people kill people,” he quipped.

Goodenough contended that influencing the brain could lead to better behavior and later on when discussing genetic markers for psychopathy, made it clear that the expression of these genes was linked to violent upbringing.  It’s the combination of having a gene that decreases serotonin production and being exposed to violence in childhood that adds up to becoming violent as an adult.

If giving serotonin-increasing drugs to children with the defective gene could prevent them from becoming violent adults, would that be better than early family intervention?  Goodenough challenged the other panelists to consider such a choice while Morse leaped into the fray with the observation that no matter what tests were devised to determine which children should be drugged, there would always be false positives and false negatives;  no biological test is ever perfect.

But even if such a course of action could be guaranteed safe and effective, Morse continued, the question remained:  how much should moral behavior be enhanced?  And then there’s the law of unintended consequences.  An aggressive person is not necessarily a dangerous person; many such individuals make valuable contributions to society.  Hauser lent support to the alternative—environmental intervention—where much more is known in terms of the impact of abuse and neglect on the developing child than about innate biology.  He wanted to know why “biology [is] always…seen as deterministic when environment isn’t.”

Those who wonder whether understanding their perpetrators’ behaviors somehow relieves the people who hurt them of responsibility might consider Morse’s extended comments about free will and whether explanations undermine morality.

Believing that a society that doesn’t punish wrongdoers is unworkable, Morse repeatedly returned to the notion of intention—acting for a reason.  If people are rational and responsive to reason then morality and responsibility are possible for them and they can be held accountable for their behavior, regardless of any biological constraints.

That the psychopath tries to prevent discovery to avoid being caught and punished, that pedophiles do things in secret, that violent spouses beat up their mates but not their bosses, all indicate a level of rationality and intention.  Society needs to have in place consequences for such behaviors for the protection of its members regardless of underlying brain chemistry/structure.  The nature of those consequences might, however, change over time, becoming more humane and therefore more effective as neuroscience delivers greater understanding of humanity’s aggressive and often violent nature.