What can neuroscience teach us about evil?

What can neuroscience teach us about evil?

Not much. At least, that's what I think. Ron Rosenbaum discusses the question at length in a thorough and thoroughly interesting piece in Slate. Rosenbaum's discussion confirms my impression that neuroscientists think the ability to fabricate colorful and misleading technicolor pictures of brains license them to philosophize with impunity. Here's how Rosenbaum begins:


Is evil over? Has science finally driven a stake through its dark heart? Or at least emptied the word of useful meaning, reduced the notion of a numinous nonmaterial malevolent force to a glitch in a tangled cluster of neurons, the brain?

Yes, according to many neuroscientists, who are emerging as the new high priests of the secrets of the psyche, explainers of human behavior in general. ... They argue that the time has come to replace such metaphysical terms with physical explanations—malfunctions or malformations in the brain.

Rosenbaum goes on to talk a bit about free will, and some cheeky neuroscientists think they've disproved that, too.

All this debunking stuff is based on a very questionable premise: that claims about evil or free will are implicit claims about the way the brain functions. But are they? I think not. You can't disprove the existence of evil or free will by looking at brains if free will and evil aren't neurological phenomena.

The view that free will and determinism are incompatible with moral responsibility is called, sensibly enough, incompatibilism. Many folks -- and I think some of them are neuroscientists -- simply assume that our intuitive, everyday conception of free will is incompatibilist. Thus, if we peek at the brain and find that the springs of action are determined by forces independent of the will, the incompatibilist will declare free will debunked. But I don't find incompatibilism intuitive at all. Experimental work on intuitions about free will show that I'm not the only one. Indeed, recent research suggests that whether or not you have compatibilist or incompatibilist intuitions about free will depends on how extraverted you are, lending some credence to Nietzsche's view that our philosophical commitments reflect our personal dispositions. Anyway, it may be that when someone infers the non-existence of free will (or evil) from a brain scan, they tell us more about themselves than about free will.

About evil specifically, it seems obvious that people with perfectly normal brains do evil all the time. The interesting empirical question about evil is not whether or not there is any. Anyone who doubts it just confused. For the life of me I can't see what anything about the brain has to do with the evil of chattel slavery, the brutality of colonial occupation and dispossession, the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, etc., etc. Rosenbaum gets it right when he says "Evil does not necessarily inhere in some wiring diagram within the brain. Evil may inhere in bad ideas, particularly when they're dressed up as scientific (as Hitler did with his 'scientific racism')." The interesting empirical question is how it is that people who are not in the least lacking in empathy or disposed to psychopathy can, in the right circumstances, find themselves quite ready and willing to torture, kill, and humiliate other human beings -- to do evil. 

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

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Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
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Urban foxes self-evolve, exhibiting Darwin’s domestication syndrome

A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.

A fox at the door of 10 Downing Street on Janurary 13, 2015.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A study from the University of Glasgow finds urban foxes evolved differently compared to rural foxes.
  • The skulls of the urban foxes are adapted to scavenging for food rather than hunting it.
  • The evolutionary changes correspond to Charles Darwin's "domestication syndrome."

How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

fox sleeping beneath stadium seats

A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

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