Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Is there evil in us all?

All These Evil Things in Me by Martin Pueschel 2009

Hi everyone! Sorry it’s been a while, but I’m back from exhibition changeovers and museum conferences and getting into some more reading and thinking and finally writing. I'm now investigating some of the specific subject areas mentioned in Lynda's last post.

My favourite bedtime reading these days is a fantastic overview of the subject “Evil- A Primer: A history of a bad idea from Beezlebub to Bin Laden, by William Hart.

I’ve been particularly engrossed with his chapters on Survival of the Worst, Postmodern Demons, The Monster Within, and Heinous, Cruel, Depraved. It gets me thinking about the nature of evil and some of the scientific viewpoints outside of the debates on ‘morality as a human attribute' and our continually changing ethical framework.

Hart introduces us to the field of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) and the principle question; “If natural selection drives changes in physical features then shouldn’t it also shape the evolution of humans’ brains and thus behaviour? Although evil is not the preferred path for humans, we routinely do bad and heinous things. The EP point of view suggests that perhaps this has arisen from some neurological misfire that occurred in our biological past. Furthermore, the force which drives us to commit evil, is simply an act of survival and our brains and nervous systems are biologically stuck in the past while our social systems and cultural world had evolved at breakneck pace”.

Other scientists such as Edward Wilson and Richard Dawkins in the field of sociobiology even go so far as to state that this struggle for survival has made 'aggression' a positive, and after all “we are survival machines guided by selfish genes”. While the debates around cultural (memetic) and biological evolution are complex, the simple idea of “us all being capable of evil and possibly biologically programmed to commit it” is certainly an interesting idea isn’t it?

Studies on psychopaths and people with antisocial personality disorder also bring up ideas of their disposition being a ‘wiring’ issue. While these people are described in Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist as having certain qualities such as a profound disquieting boredom, lack of empathy, remorse and guilt, they are also described as rational, having a strong need for stimulation and superficial charm. These qualities make them great “social cheaters,” and Hart explains “it makes sense in terms of evolutionary drives for socially disadvantaged to employ deception, manipulation and even violence to obtain resources and access to reproductive opportunities”.

…and so “in every man, of course, a demon lies hidden” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

1 comment:

  1. One of the first ideas I had was about the psychology of human evil. I think exploring ideas about whether persons who do evil things are pathological or whether they really are clinically 'sane' yet just choose to do deviant and immoral things because they feel like it. I think we as a society try to explain or make sense of people such as Fritzl by hoping that they have some sort pf psychological or psychiatric disorder to explain why they committed such heinous acts.