This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 202, Spring 2005
First Web Papers
On Serendip

What and Where is Evil?

Elizabeth Rickenbacher

The gradual process we call evolution in which one thing changes into a more complex and usually better form is a concept that I usually do not associate with personality. Yes, brain size, capacity, and the ability to comprehend are all derivatives of the millions of years humans have evolved. Personalities and traits that accompany them are a different concept. Throughout history there has always been documented cases of the good versus the bad or evil. Dating from first human societies to the our present, this concept has not changed. If evolution has done its job, why are there those among us that make up the evil side of this ancient battle? Or has evolution actually done its job by making the evil among us more complex and better at being evil through time? Where do the evil differ from the socially accepted good? What deviates? It is important to examine these differences and understand where our differences originate.

As a society, we try to offer explanations to why people behave as they do, however, once a heinous act is committed by an individual beyond a fathomable degree, instead of being called evil, the person is pronounced psychologically unfit, of an unsound mind, or horrible. Deeming someone as evil is not an option in any DSM manual or court, but the trait and concept are real and alive in society. The intentional wrongdoing that evil is (1) an act that the individual finds joy in and yearns to complete. Why do some of us yearn to do such things? To understand, both environmental and biological factors must be investigated further, but before we do this, examples to which we can refer to must be established. Perhaps the most obvious evil mastermind to our current western world thought process would be Osama Bin Laden (9), the man behind thousands of untimely deaths. Another might be Ted Bundy (2) who raped and killed innocent women. Finally we will take the case of John Wayne Gacy (3), who raped and killed over thirty boys. What made these individuals do what they did?

According to psychiatrist Robert I. Simon, "The capacity for evil is a human universal" (10). He concludes that there is a continuum of evil from lesser evils, stealing or cutting in line, to greater evils such as prejudices, and finally massive evils that encompass serial sexual killings. The motivation and drive to the extreme may be a biological or environmental factor or both. If we all possess certain evil traits, factors that could coax the evil in us to be proactive could be a variety of things. If one is abused emotionally or physically in any way, ones motivation and feelings change. As a child, one models their environment trying to find the best way to coexist with the immediate surroundings. If these surroundings are of a threatening nature, we learn early on how to defend ourselves and what we wish could be. To many of us these behaviors are far from consistent normal behavior, but for those individuals whom act in accordance with how they feel, their actions appear and feel completely normal.

As scientific methods concerning neural functioning and genetic traits progress, mysteries behind human behavior have become more evident and explainable. Frontal lobe dysfunction (8), among other neural abnormalities, has been blamed for violent and criminal behavior. In research done by Dr. B H Price (8), a correlation was found between frontal lobe dysfunction and increased aggressive behavior. Individuals with frontal lobe dysfunction have limited impulse inhibition, are trivially motivated, and are habitual aggression. Individuals also suffer from poor abstract conceptual thinking, the inability understand other's subjective experience, and extreme immature moral reasoning. Individuals examined, especially murderers, having frontal lobe dysfunction showed a significant decrease in cortical blood flow, these abnormalities to the brain are associated with repetitive and purposeless violent behavior.

Further research concerning the role of the amygdala has rendered interesting ideas behind certain behavioral tendencies. It is thought that through the interaction between the posterior cortex and subcortical (4) regions of the brain that conscious experiences and self identity are created and carried. Further research concludes that if the amygdala (5), which is responsible for impulse control, does not agree with prefrontal cortex it can override any decision. So are we constantly at the will of a tiny structure in our brain that if in a bad mood can make us pretty much anything it wants? This scares me.

The role of neurotransmitters (7) and their role in behavior is extremely important to examine where behaviors might originate. If for some reason reuptake is slow or does not exist at all, our mood can fluctuate and cause us to act in a way that inconsistent. Could there be a combination of neurotransmitters that could cause certain behaviors such as evil? This would thus allow pharmaceutical companies to invent a drug correcting neurotransmitter flow better known as the anti evil drug. If this drug were given to Bundy (3), Osama (9), or Gacy (2), would the past have been different?

I think both situational and biological factors can explain Osama Bin Laden's (9) behavior. Through his religious and spiritual beliefs, the acts he has committed are looked upon in favor and even praised. What strikes me as interesting is the ability to ignore the subjective experiences of others. Does this mean that frontal lobe dysfunction (8) is to blame for everything? Is it that easy? I do not think so. I would be willing to bet if all of al-qaeda were examined, the percentage of those with any kind of dysfunction would be extremely low. There is something to say about moral reasoning and their influence on ones actions.

In contrast, let us examine John Wayne Gacy (2), a former Chicago businessman convicted of raping and killing young boys. At his murder trial, his soul defense was that he was insane and no longer in control of his actions. The crimes and deaths he committed were extremely intricate and well planned something had to be in charge and thinking. Was it his amygdala that ordered him to do the things he did? Maybe, but to a jury this defense did not explain or excuse anything. Finally we examine the case of Ted Bundy(3), responsible for vicious sexual attacks and killings to young wome. As a child he was teased and became extremely shy. Were his later actions in retaliation to his childhood trauma? Was neurotransmitter activity upset? No matter the case, like Gacy (2), Bundy (3) was extremely careful and precise. Something was in charge.

Are these and other men like them evil? According to Dr. Michael Stone's 22-level hierarchy (11) of evil behavior they are. The hierarchy is based on the behavior of the 500 most violent criminals. Bundy and Gacy (2) are at the top of the hierarchy! To be diagnosed using this hierarchy individuals must take a 20 question personality test. From this test, Dr. Stone is able to deduce whether evil is the factor in control. Where does this hierarchy fit into Dr. Simon's continuum (10)? Where should one sit on the continuum to be able to claim the title of evil? Australian courts have concluded that invoking the concept of evil would risk adding moral and religious dimensions to judicial tradition and have opted to use the term of antisocial personality disorder in place of evil. I feel that separation of church and state is important, but I feel that hugely immoral acts should have a name that captivates the degree of its actions.

"The capacity for evil is a human universal" might be a little harsh, but I do believe that a little bit of evil exists in all of us. What provokes our actions, whether biological or environmental, is different in all of us. The battle for good and evil will never be won because we are constantly switching sides and playing for both teams, it is not evolution at work, but our own human nature. How evil are you (6)?












| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Thursday, 19-Jul-2012 20:33:38 EDT