When we want to know the stories of events that happen nationally and around the world we switch on the news. These news stories consist of heroism, politics, tragedy, health, sports and terrorism etc. More recently, the Turkey terror attacks in which more than 90 lives were lost is the latest chapter in the history of terror. I asked myself, as we all probably did “What makes a person do something like that?” and “How can someone be so evil?”
But behind every news item whether it is heroic, stupid, or terrifying, the underlying reason for that story was that an individual or group demonstrated particular behaviours and motives. So the more important question is; why do we do the things we do? Are we born predetermined to be something and hold particular characteristics or do we learn to be what and who we are?
These questions reminded me of a TED talk from Steven Pinker (who was also named 3rd in the “World Thinkers 2013” in Prospect Magazine). In the talk Pinker discusses the power and impact that his book “The Blank Slate” has had not only within an academic sphere but in the public sphere as well. In which it has received a mixed review of adulation and contempt from both spheres.
The concept of a Blank Slate or “Tabula Rasa” its original Latin term is more often attributed to Philosopher John Locke but the concept appears as early as Aristotle in his treatise “De Anima”. It takes an empirical stance and posits that the mind has no innate traits. It argues that the human mind is born a blank slate, a piece of clay if you will, that is moulded, shaped and chiselled by exposure to socialisation, perception and experience. If this is in fact true, then by definition we are all born free of prejudice, hate and other aspects of human traits, beliefs and desires. But that also means we are not born loving, happy or friendly. We are born uninfluenced by anything; negative or positive. Locke’s philosophy emphasized that this “Blank Slate” allowed the individual freedom to author their soul.
But it’s not really that simple is it? Is it possible that aspects of who we are, are determined biologically or neurologically? Our Brains have determined functionalities. For example the limbic system in the brain plays an important role in regulating our emotions. Of course that doesn’t mean to suggest that they are developed perfectly or impenetrable to dysfunction, even in utero.
So how do people become evil? Psychology’s Social Learning Theory supports the notion of a Blank Slate in which our behaviour can be manipulated by vicarious learning. In a famous experiment by Albert Bandura, he showed children a video in which depicted adults aggressively attacking a Bobo Doll by kicking, pushing and even striking it with a hammer. Next the children who were exposed to this behaviour were placed in the same room as the Bobo Doll. The children replicated and exhibited the same aggressive behaviour demonstrated by the adults on the video. Another set of children were shown a video of adults demonstrating pro-social and positive behaviour towards the Bobo Doll, those children replicated this behaviour and performed the same attitudes and behaviour when introduced to the Bobo Doll. This study demonstrated that we can learn particular behaviours by vicariously observing others and applying it to our lives.
So if we learn by observation and external influences then we can argue that films, televisions and computer games could accept some responsibility for negative behaviours and attitudes by desensitising the perception of evil. In the wake of any disaster, for example a high school shooting, it’s usually common practice to blame the arts for “inspiring” this radical, anti-social and violent behaviour. It may be an element but it’s naïve to believe the arts are solely responsible. The news is always reporting stories of violence and anti-social behaviour. Is this also glamourising the concept of evil behaviour?
Are those feelings of violence and evil already neurologically wired into us? Darwin’s theory of Evolution which Richard Dawkins calls the “Greatest idea anybody ever had” has saturated research which has suggested that humans may be predisposed to some innate behaviours. One of the most popular evolutionary heirlooms available to humanity is that of the “Fight or Flight” response. When humans become fearful or scared the brain automatically takes control of the body and its functions. In charge of the operation is the hypothalamus (the Managing Director of the brain if you will, controlling many autonomic functions such as thirst, hunger and body temperature) which tells the body “be alert for a potential threat”.
This innate response makes the pupils dilate to take as much light as possible, heart rate and blood pressure increase, muscles tense up, energised by adrenaline and glucose (responsible for goose bumps, when tiny muscles attached to each hair on surface of skin tense up, the hairs are forced upright, pulling skin with them)
There are more physical responses associated with this response but importantly this demonstrates a determined evolutionary trait in which dictates behaviour. Furthermore, this response is universal and therefore not culture specific. Interestingly many disciplines have adopted the notion that our lives and personalities are determined. For instance, Christianity dictates that people are “born sinners”. Freud popularized the notion that behaviour is predetermined. He suggests behaviour is inspired by sexual and aggressive desires which are born in the most animalistic part of the brain, a term in which he called the “id”. Furthermore, unknown to Freud at the time, the “id” is located in the most developed part of the brain at birth. Could this suggest that by our biological development these drives are innate and therefore inspire evil and negative thoughts? English philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that if there was no authoritarian figure (a Sovereign or political ruler) to keep order then by their nature man was animalistic and evil calling this the “State of Nature”.
“In a state of nature life would be nasty, brutish and short” Thomas Hobbes
Although the brain does have innate functions it is possible for the brain to be manipulated and shaped by its environment. This is called Neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity can cause changes in neural pathways and synapses, which can often result in change of behaviour and neural processing. Interestingly it is this plasticity which could form the notion of evil thoughts and processes. When a child is born the brain is not fully developed. One area of the brain that isn’t fully developed are the frontal lobes. This is important because much of our personality and our moral perception (what is interpreted as good and bad) are localized within the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes of the brain are also responsible for the suppression of socially unacceptable actions. As a child grows, the external environment has an influence on the development of the frontal lobes. For example, the frontal lobes work in harmony with the brains limbic system which modifies emotional responses to socially accepted norms. The problem however, is that socially accepted norms are subjective and relative to the individual. This would suggest that if a child was raised surrounded by violence or anti-social behaviour then violence could be normalized and interpreted as acceptable behaviour and affect the neural development of their brain.
So why do people become evil? Well there is no singular, isolated path to the destination of “Evil”. On one hand, it can be argued that people can be manipulated, influenced and taught to be evil as John Locke’s ‘blank slate’ would suggest, however, on the other hand; we do have innate, determined animalistic drives that influence behaviour which our (UK) modern society would deem “anti-social”. Perhaps the pathway to “Evil” is a mixture between a “blank slate” and determinism. For example, the brain starts its life similarly to that of a smartphone, standardized and pre-programmed to carry out particular functions. It’s only as life happens and the mobile phone is exposed to its subjective reality that it becomes unique in the apps that characterize it.