Exploring the dark side of the brain

By  Eleonore Fournier-Tombs, Catholic Register Special
  • July 28, 2009
{mosimage}Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain , by Kathleen Taylor (Oxford University Press, hard cover, $34.95 [U.S.]).

Could eradicating cruelty ever become government policy? According to Kathleen Taylor, author of Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain, it should.

Such policy might involve stronger punishment for cruel behaviour, pedagogical programs aimed at fostering empathy in children and the encouragement of openness and acceptance. It would require human beings to admit that our societies — and we ourselves — are capable of cruelty and are often perpetrators of cruel actions. It would also entail that we re-inject moral parametres into our concrete societal objectives. Taylor thinks this is desirable — that is, if we all agree on a definition of cruelty and its causes.

Taylor infuses this book with the idea cruelty is as natural to human beings as love or self-sacrifice. Her work comes right on the heels of the 2008 movie The Reader, which explores a similar subject. The anti-hero, Hanna, played by Kate Winslet, commits horrible crimes as an SS guard, then seduces and eventually betrays a 16-year-old boy. It is difficult to imagine anything worse, yet the movie shows Hanna as a perfectly human — if very flawed — woman, whose actions are the consequence of a complicated past, beliefs and choices.

Just like this movie, Taylor’s book travels on an unsteady ridge between understanding and punishment, forgiveness and blame, justification and just desserts. She courageously attempts to structure a murky, dangerously obscure area of our individual and collective unconscious.

{sa 0199552622}Her work is thoroughly researched, open-minded and humble. The answers she suggests unveil disturbing questions, as she constantly challenges us and herself.

But can we really understand cruelty?

Taylor has spent years trying to answer that question. A neuroscientist trained at Oxford University, she left academia to pursue science journalism. However, she is still affiliated with the university’s department of physiology, anatomy and genetics. In her own words, “I write about human brains and their sciences, but as an observer not a worshipper. The flabbage in our skulls is fascinating, breathtaking even, but it also has a darker side. Understanding how it works is crucial and urgent.”

While she does discuss the anatomy of the brain, she also explores moral, philosophical, cultural and literary explanations for cruelty.

This is not her first book exploring why we do what we do. In 2004, she published Brainwashing: the Science of Thought Control.

Cruelty is not an academic read. It’s fairly easy to comprehend and while Taylor apologizes for the complexity of some scientific concepts, an average reader will have no trouble grasping them. The book is difficult, however, because of the disturbing subject matter, and would probably have negative side-effects if consumed in one sitting.

Attempting to grasp an essentially intangible concept, Taylor ranks acts of cruelty on a scale from callousness (indifference to suffering) to sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others). She explores as many explanations for inflicting pain as one can imagine. These emerge in two semi-distinct categories — scientific reasons (our genes and our brains) and moral reasons (our beliefs, our emotions, our sense of self).

The categories themselves suggest potential solutions. We could change our brains to eradicate the capacity for cruelty or change ourselves and our society. Taylor leans towards the latter, the more difficult of the solutions.

Are we free to change? Given factors such as genetic predisposition, childhood abuse, societal conditions and neural connections, it can credibly be argued that cruel people and their victims are bound to act in a certain way. There is something very reassuring about this deterministic argument. It tells us that, in fact, we are all victims — of circumstance.

Christians, however, have always espoused the notion of free will by acknowledging that all are able and at times tempted to commit evil acts. And we all must work hard in order to do good. God gives us choice, we are taught, and it is through making the right choices we come closer to Him.

While Taylor does not explore this notion directly, she seems deeply influenced by it. Just as any theologian might do, she calls us to action, in a discrete but astonishing way.

“We could ... make cultural changes which would render callousness less socially acceptable... We could make people less cruel, if we cared enough to do so.”

Taylor has not so much completely elucidated the mystery of cruelty but rather she has given us a rough road map and told us to go explore for ourselves — individually and as a society. It seems an incredibly perilous journey, but could it be worthwhile?

(Fournier-Tombs is a freelance writer in Ottawa.)

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