One of the things that neuroscience is doing today is the mechanistic examination of many conditions that we previously assumed to exist. Like the matter of evil. This concept is deeply embedded into culture and most of us are born, live, and die in a world where we assume there is a real metaphysical condition called “evil”. Well, except for some carpet walkers in the philosphy department who have actually thought about the problem for a while.

Ron Rosenbaum at Slate has written an interesting article on the question of evil in the age of neuroscience.  One thing the concept of evil does is let we mortals off the hook in a sense for responsibility for our misdeeds. If people commit atrocities and holocausts because of the intervention of supernatural forces, then individuals and groups are never really the original cause. Humans would only be guilty of propagating meanness or atrocities rather than being the true author. Seems very convenient.

People naturally saddle up on the notion that the world is a battleground between good and evil.  We think in terms of conquest when opposite forces are perceived. Good and evil constitute a natural dualism for ape brains that seem constructed to find patterns.

Since we started remembering the thoughts behind our thick brows thousands of generations ago, we have been anthropomorphizing our world into a haunt of bipedal spirits who, even in the spirit world, have gender identity and appendages for locomotion. The notion that evil may be manifested in a character isn’t much of a stretch for our brains- maybe it is an inevitability.

What I like about the work described in the Rosenbaum article is that it forces us to reconsider what it means to be “evil”.  Are evil deeds really the expression of some deep malevolence from the underworld? Or, is evil a particular assemblage of thought patterns and a lack of barriers in behavior? Evil is not a philosophy, to be sure, but it can manifest from a brain that is substantially normal in many respects.

Even though evil may be just the work product of highly focused psychopathy, it still serves as a useful descriptor for the outcome of despicable behavior.  No matter what you call it, it is 100 % human.