A Demon in the Head II: Early Days and Murderous Violence

02/06/2009 11:21 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

(see previous column in this series)


In the basic sciences--physics, chemistry, and biology--it's possible to define most terms exactly, either according to measurement or calculation or a set of operations. Measure the temperature at which a liquid freezes and call the result "freezing point". Calculate the distance light travels in one year and call the result a "light-year". Separate out suspended cells from blood and call what remains "blood plasma". Most basic scientists attempt to use terms according to precise accepted definitions. When they do, their terms mean the same to scientists everywhere. Unfortunately, precise accepted definitions are less common outside the basic sciences, and in the popular media linguistic chaos reigns in many Towers of Babel. The problem with linguistic chaos is that it can often have destructive consequences, produce disagreements, confrontations, and even violence. When important words like beauty, truth, honor, patriotism mean different things to different people and these people come together in discussion without awareness of linguistic differences, the consequence can be great trouble.


Madness is a social term and tangentially a psychiatric term. In these columns the word "madness" is essentially a social construct that describes extreme behavior, nonconforming, unpredictable, sometimes bizarre, sometimes delusional, sometimes self-destructive, behavior of individuals or groups. Many but not all clinical psychiatric behavioral conditions can be described as madness. Stating that madness is a social construct and then defining it as applicable to groups presents a paradox and an apparent violation of cultural relativism: Who decides what is nonconforming, bizarre, and so on? The reader will need to decide for himself or herself whether in any meta-group exploration the term "madness" retains any useful meaning. Meanwhile, the paradox remains: ripping the heart out of a living child in a religious ritual may seem madness to a modern Westerner, but it was obviously an accepted ritual in Aztec society. Or was it? The details need discussion. My general view is that without introducing any debatable postulates about the existence of a "group mind", it's possible to characterize the behavior of a group as madness. For example, I do not accept the idea that in our own time genocide or random terrorism is merely a political and not a psychiatric problem.


The consequences of the new approaches in science to murderous violence are enormous, impacting not only psychology and psychiatry but also politics, education, social work, and economics. The reason for this is that analysis suggests that interventions may change the course of children's lives--lives now directed toward violence or the acceptance of violence--and thereby change the course or acceptance of group violence. My attitude is that the human species is not helpless. We are not a herd of animals merely pushed along by biological and cultural evolution. We have, at least in principle, the ability to make our own destiny. Of course, one can make the philosophical argument that any making of our own destiny is no more than a consequence of the push of evolution. But that's an academic question of emphasis. I am more interested in the fact that the complexity and plasticity of the human brain means that as a species we can effectively choose our path.


On one point we must be clear. There is absolutely no reason to prefer simple answers about human behavior. Human behavior is complex, about as complex a biological phenomenon as one can find in the animal world, and we must expect that explanations of human behavior will also be complex. My view is that both biology and culture are involved in nearly all human behavior, and that causes are usually multiple rather than singular, interactive rather than isolated, variable rather than fixed. In addition, because individuals differ in biology, vulnerabilities, development, history, and culture, the outcomes of causes can differ greatly from one individual to another. Two concepts in the social sciences and psychiatry are useful: the idea of equifinality and the idea of multifinality. They are not complicated ideas. Equifinality describes a system in which any single outcome may be produced by many different causes. In parallel, multifinality describes a system in which any initial state, impact, or "cause" can produce many different outcomes depending on circumstance. The caveat is that human behavior can be expected to exhibit both equifinality and multifinality, and this needs to be kept in mind in any attempt to isolate causes. Our view of the natural world must be constrained by reality and not the other way around. We may emphasize certain sets of causes as likely to be involved with certain sets of behaviors, but modern science has no concrete algorithms to predict human behavior in individuals or groups. We are still searching in the shadows of our ignorance about the human species.


Whatever one thinks about the unity or duality of mind and brain, explanations of human behavior and especially of violence usually travel two different roads, one road emphasizing biology and the other road emphasizing environment. But both roads are headed in the same direction--towards understanding. In order for people to earn a living, they need to specialize, and so we have neuropsychologists, cultural anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, social psychologists, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and so on. Specialists use different methods, sometimes different jargon, and they sometimes disagree about what's important. But the essential and usual reality is that when these people actually sit down and talk to each other it quickly becomes evident that their agreements are more profound and important than their disagreements.

Of course sometimes disagreements seem like high obstacles. It's an irony that in their attempts to explain human behavior some evolutionary psychologists are more Darwinian about behavior than evolutionary biologists, most of whom stand back and mutter something about not enough evidence. How is this so? I think it derives from the strong roots of psychology in philosophy and the consequent tolerance of speculation and rhetoric as theory. Evolutionary biology also has philosophical roots and an emphasis on speculation, but evolutionary biologists have fossils to keep their feet on the ground. There are little if any fossils of behavior. We may have fossil evidence for the physical form of a prehistoric woman, but we have no fossil evidence for how she behaved as a mother. Statements about how she behaved as a mother are speculations constrained only by whether they seem to make "sense" to us. But the reality is that what makes sense to us is ephemeral, and so such speculations are rarely enduring and useful. My experience as a neuropsychologist is that biological evolution may suggest what's possible in human behavior but so far it hardly ever tells us what's probable in our own time.

There are two Darwinist excesses that need to be avoided in any analysis of murderous violence. The first is the general idea that an evolutionary description of any behavior is a satisfactory explanation that closes off any need to consider the way environment may shape that behavior from one extreme to another. The second Darwinist excess is the particular notion that murderous violence is a genetically evolved universal human trait. There is in fact no evidence for this at all, either for the genetic evolution of murderous violence as a trait or for the universality of murderous violence.

A third excess, not exclusively Darwinist, is the idea that our modern sciences are so far advanced that any conclusions we reach today about human behavior should be considered complete and enduring. Any working scientist with a modicum of common sense knows this is a lie and often a dangerous lie. We are in fact primitives. As I've said before in other places, in the far future they will collect our skulls and call us Early Man. And they will call many of our currently vaulting conclusions the science of Early Man. At this moment we're a species with a short history and hopefully a long future, and human behavior still confounds us. Any notion that we already know the beach let alone the sea of knowledge in front of us borders on the ridiculous.

In general, concerning biology and culture, there is a single most important reality: If it's true that some behavior requires experience for its development, and this means some change in the wiring of the brain, it's also true that there must be capacity for brain wiring to change, and this capacity can be shaped by biology and genetics both in the large and in detail. We have advanced far enough to at least recognize that the roots of any human behavior always involve both genetics and experience in various degrees.


The major conclusion of science about murderous violence is that although in any individual or group murderous violence may have multiple and differing roots, one important thread apparently connects individual murderous violence and group murderous violence through history and across cultures: the social experience of children. Social experience, especially in the earliest years, even earliest months of life, apparently shapes the response of children to violence, what they will condone and what they will exhibit in their own behavior. Both individual murderous violence and group murderous violence are more a consequence of culture than of biology. An important corollary is that intervention in early years can reduce murderous violence in both individuals and groups. The human species is not locked inside a tunnel of murderous violent horrors.

A tangential but important conclusion is that we need to be careful about ideas relating evolution to morality. The idea that man has evolved as a moral animal, that morality is in our genes, is an idea with consequences. For if this notion is correct, then "immoral" behavior is atavistic, against the grain of human evolution, and in an extreme judgment, "subhuman" and animalistic. And where does this lead but to "final solutions" based on value judgments about morality and immorality? In contrast, what modern science tells us is that morality is shaped by early environment plus local and main culture and not by genes. Genes do provide the biological substrate for human attributes such as morality, but they are not direct agents. If we want to understand morality and its deficits our focus should be on the direct agents of early and later experience.

(to be continued)