Saturday, June 5, 2010

Brutality and the Brain

On Thursday evening we went to a panel discussion sponsored by the World Science Festival (the big science event for ordinary people organized by the physicist Brian Greene) about what is known regarding the links between brain chemistry and the inclination to be violent and the implications for law in society. In sessions like these, we expect to hear about how violent humans are, but these commentators were quite cautious about this. At least one urged us to consider how peaceful we are. He noted "New York City works most of the time in a context that is impossible." Or, as he elaborated, if you subjected any other species to the conditions New Yorkers face every day, you would have chaos and mayhem. So maybe we're doing pretty well. Well, no, not necessarily, another commentator pointed out, as the amount of violence between human subgroups is far greater than with any other species. That is, the human tendency toward mass death and genocide, usually inflicted by the members of an "in-group" on an "out-group," is unheard of anywhere else in the animal world.

One of the themes of this discussion was the tendency of humans to dehumanize other humans, primarily by treating them as lower animals or as objects. When we dehumanize we make it easier to inflict violence on other humans because we come to regard them as "less than human." Even this tendency to dehumanize, however, as one commentator noted, can have an adaptive function. The doctor who must maintain a distance to perform surgery competently, or the military commander who must put aside his affection for his troops and send them into battle knowing that some of them must die are both plausible cases of "constructive dehumanization" (my phrase).

The other issue that was brought up from this discussion was the adaptive function of violence itself - in self-defense, to protect scarce resources, perhaps even to create a balance between population and the means needed to support that population. I understand and appreciate this point, but for me, it should not dominate the conversation about brutality and violence. Trying to understand where unwanted and unwarranted violence comes from (by far, the majority of violence) and what can be done to limit its practice is primary. Unfortunately, surprisingly little was said to shed light on these issues. Perhaps next year.

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