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Smart Library on Globalization > Genocide > Topic 2: Approaches to Studying Genocide > Overview: Approaches to Studying Genocide
Human Brains Are Hard-Wired for Good and Evil
The possibility for genocide is hard-wired into the human brain. In other words, some of the fundamental characteristics of the human brain that have developed to help us survive both as individuals and as groups can give rise, under certain conditions, to extraordinary evil—that is, genocide and mass murder. These processes can make mass murderers out of ordinary people.
How do ordinary people become killers? Genocides and mass murders may be directed by evil regimes, but when it comes down to the actual killing, it is generally ordinary folk who are recruited. How can people who normally live quiet, average, peaceful and productive lives become killers?
Social psychologist James Waller studies this question from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Basically, his tack (and that of other psychologists like him) is to examine how humans think—how our brains work—and then try to understand why our brains would have evolved in this way. Waller's belief is that the ultimate source of both human good and evil rests in these universal human ways of thinking and feeling. It is these reasoning “circuits” that underly the processes by which ordinary people can commit extraordinary evil.
Brain Circuits and Natural Selection
Social psychological research has identified many different apparently universal principles and processes for how humans think and relate to each other. Each of these different processes (for instance, how we react to authority, or how we react to people who are not part of the groups we belong to, etc.) developed as an adaptation for survival during the course of human evolution.
Social psychologists refer to these processes as “universal reasoning circuits” meaning that:
From an evolutionary perspective, the reason that these different “circuits” developed as they did was because they were adaptive. In other words, individuals and groups that had these characteristics tended to survive (protect themselves, obtain resources, procreate effectively).
The context of these developments and adaptations, however, was much different than the current setting. During most of human history people lived in small hunting-gathering groups. So, the adaptations worked in this type of situation. However, the modern world is dramatically different and evolution is a very slow process. In many ways, individuals and groups are trying to operate in a modern setting with hunter-gatherer brains. What were adaptations at one point in time are not necessarily adaptive any longer.
This is what is at the root of both outstanding good and extraordinary evil. The same basic adaptations that give rise to the most moving acts of charity and altruism can also give rise, under certain circumstances, to genocide, torture and rape.
While the ultimate source of extraordinary evil may lie in basic brain and group processes, they are not enough to explain why some groups kill and others do not. James Waller identifies a set of “proximate influences” or triggers that can shunt these universal human characteristics down a dark path (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Ultimate and Proximate Influences on Genocide and Mass Murder
Note: click on any of the gray boxes in order to jump to the keytext describing the proximate influence.
Waller canvasses social psychological research to identify three types of influences that can channel universal evolutionary characteristics toward evil and make killers out of ordinary people:
The possibility for genocide is hard-wired into the human brain. Or, another way of looking at it is that some of the fundamental characteristics of the human brain that have developed to help us survive both as individuals and as groups can give rise, under certain conditions, to what Waller calls “extraordinary evil”--that is, genocide and mass murder.
Data and Methods:
Analysis of social psychological research and historical research on genocide and mass murder.
Waller, James E. 2007. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. London: Oxford University Press.
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