A genetic component to extremism and cruelty?

One hundred and thirty two children were massacred by seven Taliban heroes in Peshawar yesterday. Three of the seven were suicide bombers seeking paradise who blew themselves up in an auditorium filled with 9th and 10th grade children. It was a public but an army-run school. The Taliban see anything connected with the Pakistan army as a legitimate target – even children. They have targeted and attacked the families of soldiers before. The day before the valiant heroes of ISIS beheaded another 13 people. Last week we heard about the brutal and degrading methods employed by the CIA. Every other day Al Shabab and Boko Haram kidnap, mutilate and kill innocents – often children. One despairs that humanity has not evolved away from this behaviour. Extremism and unfathomable cruelty is dominated by, but is not the exclusive domain of, religious fanatics. We find fanatics about other causes too. There are fanatics prepared to go to extreme lengths for many nationalistic – hence political – causes. Chechnya, the Uighurs, Kurds, the IRA, in Myanmar and of course in the Middle East and Africa. White power, Black power, animal rights, rain forests, abortion and environmental causes all attract some people capable of exhibiting extreme and cruel behaviour.

I wonder how humans could behave in this “bestial” manner and still be considered human? Is it the “cause” which elicits the behaviour or is it the deviant human who seeks the “cause”? Not every religious fanatic applies to become an ISIS executioner. Not every CIA employee is capable of being a torturer. Some, if not most, people, I think, are not capable of this cruel and “bestial” behaviour.

It suggests to me that there is a genetic component involved here. That does not mean that our genes determine our actual, day-to-day behaviour. But I am sure that it is our genes which determine the unique envelope of behaviours that is possible for each one of us. We may not exhibit all the behaviours within the envelope but all our actual behaviour will be contained within the envelope. I am inclined to believe that there is therefore a combination of genes which brings this kind of extreme and cruel behaviour within an individual’s envelope of possible behaviours, and then into play. Only some humans will have this within their envelope of possible behaviours and only some of them will then actually exhibit the behaviour. Possibly it is nurture and upbringing and exposure which determines if the potential behaviour becomes actual.

There is evidence that being “nice” does have a genetic component. There is little doubt that our social behaviour does have genetic components. Some genes do seem to effect something called the Empathy Quotient and there are clear linkages between empathy and the propensity to cruelty. Matt Ridley speculated in the WSJ about Osama bin Laden’s genes:

…. But, Prof. Baron-Cohen went on, it would at least be interesting to take a look at bin Laden’s MAOA gene (linked to aggression), his AVPR1A and CNR1 genes (linked to emotional expression) and his CYP11B1, NTRK1, and GABRB3 genes, which show some association with how individuals score on a scale called the “Empathy Quotient.” He discovered these linkages in the course of testing his hypothesis that cruelty is generally enabled by a failure of empathy. 

In most cruel people, Prof. Baron-Cohen argues, the “empathy circuit,” which runs through 10 different regions of the brain, goes down either temporarily or permanently, leaving the person with “zero empathy.” The reasons may be partly innate, partly a function of early experiences such as birth trauma or parental neglect, or an interaction of the two.

Not all zero-empathy people are cruel. There is a category of “zero-positive” people, with autism or severe Asperger’s, who lack empathy but show no tendency to unkindness. And not all cruel people lack empathy (bin Laden may be among the exceptions). But if Prof. Baron-Cohen is right, a combination of a brain scan, a genotyping and a case history could “diagnose” many or even most cruel personalities, perhaps even before they commit crimes. ….. 

If we could identify the genes and epigenetic factors which led to “inhuman” cruelty, then what would we do if we diagnosed someone as likely to become a cruel extremist? Would we be prepared as a society to act against an individual because he had the potential to be a terrorist – but before he had committed any terrorist act? And should we be ensuring that he does not pass his genes on?

A New Eugenics perhaps. The rational and logical conclusion if we could clearly identify “unwanted” characteristics would be to eliminate these characteristics in all future generations. We would also have to eliminate the possibility that there is any collateral damage, that some wanted characteristics disappear when the unwanted one is removed. Certainly social skills have been instrumental in the success of the species. But humans without some measure of aggression would probably not have survived. If removing cruelty also removed aggression then we would have to tread very carefully.

Is human cruelty the price the species pays? for what?

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One Response to “A genetic component to extremism and cruelty?”

  1. A-person-with-a-notebook Says:

    Reblogged this on the truth about journalism.

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