Chemical correctness

2011-09-24 00:00

I’VE recently been immersed in an era where mechanical augmentations are used to replace body parts; where humankind starts to become more machine­ than biological squishy-ness. This is not reality — not yet, at least — but is a video game called Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which depicts a portrayal of what the world might be like in 20 years time.

The biggest appeal of this popular title is that it raises significant questions concerning human morality. What makes us human? What makes people good or evil? These questions have been a part of philosophy and the human imagination for millennia and have now entered the realm of crime and punishment, with a new field of investigation called “neurolaw”. In a nutshell, those accused of capital crimes can now appeal to have their mental states assessed by a neurologist during trial.

What we can be sure of is that it is not in our nature to take the life of another human being. We all share a moral instinct to protect life — specifically the lives of those we care about. When this moral instinct is suppressed, and people are forced to kill others, they can lose all respect for life and be filled with hatred, fear and confusion. This accounts for the high number of suicides during and after the war in Vietnam.

This is of course, unless one is psychotic. The majority of serial killers throughout history — the Ted Bundys and Jack the Rippers — were found to be psychotic. They lacked the human emotion that the rest of us share — specifically empathy, which made their killing sprees seem as regular as watering the roses.

Neuroscientists have determined that psychopathy is mostly genetic, but also depends on brain structure and a chemical called oxytocin, which has become known as the “moral molecule”. Neuroscience has also isolated a gene which has become known as the “warrior gene”. Whether this nasty gene is triggered or not depends on upbringing and environment. An abusive childhood is the most common trigger to unleash the warrior within.

If a psychopath has a pleasant childhood on the other hand, the outcome can be vastly different. It has been discovered that the “successful psychopaths” are largely to be found in big business or powerful positions in society ­— almost four times as many as in the general population in the U.S.

Psychologists suggest that corporate culture is the ideal environment for someone with such a disposition, where the lust for thrill-seeking can be sated. The correct brain structure and a lack of the moral chemical, oxytocin, can make the most charismatic leaders. Although lacking profoundly in empathy and being supremely egotistical and shallow, psychopaths have at their disposal a large repertoire of human­ behaviours and emotions which can be easily mimicked. Psychopaths can put themselves in the skin of others intellectually, read their body language and use this to charm, intimidate or manipulate others.

So how can we tell whether someone might be a psychopath at an early age? One “morality test” that has been done with babies is to put on a puppet show to do with sharing. A central puppet plays with a ball before passing it to another puppet to play with, which soon passes it back. The ball is then passed to a third puppet who promptly runs off with the ball. The baby subjects are then encouraged to choose between the “good” puppet and the “bad” puppet. Experimenting with hundreds of babies revealed that 70% of them choose the morally good puppet and this indicates that from an early age we are drawn towards kindness. In such experiments it is hoped that the remaining 30% perhaps fell asleep during the show.

So if you have any little ones in your life, go now and shower them with hugs and kisses and tell them how much they are loved, no matter how much they might protest.

• This information was largely derived from a BBC Horizon documentary called “Are You Good or Evil?”

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