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TV Review: Horizon - Are You Good or Evil?

19 September 2011
Appeared in BioNews 625

Horizon: Are You Good or Evil?

BBC2, Monday 22 August 2011

'Horizon: Are You Good or Evil?', BBC2, Wednesday 7 September 2011

Good and evil have always been moral perspectives, but this edition of BBC One's science programme Horizon has pulled them firmly into the scientific realm, with an analysis of the science behind good and evil.

'Are you good or evil?' opened with a couple of studies that look at our innate morality – a virtual reality test where people have to decide whether to save a group of five people or an individual from a person with a gun, and a study of the ability of babies to choose a 'good' puppet (around 70 percent chose the puppet that did not run away with the ball). Therefore, it appears that morality is something that we are born with. However, suppressing this moral instinct can be harmful – soldiers who are trained to kill while ignoring this natural sense of morality can become damaged and lose respect for all life, including friends and family. So how is it that some people do not seem to have any sense of revulsion or regret for harm that they do – the psychopaths?

Robert Hare, based at the University of British Columbia, analysed brain PET, positron emission tomography scans (which produce 3D images of the inside of the body, or in this case, the brain) taken to test the responses to emotional words. Comparing those of healthy people and people with schizophrenia or depression, and murderers, he saw a pattern of damage in the orbital cortex and the amygdale, the areas that control impulsivity and emotion. This seems to link with the presence of the so-called 'warrior gene', the shorter allele of the gene expressing the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO-A), which has been associated with violence and impulsivity.

In a dramatic section, Professor Jim Fallon, a neuroscientist at University of California Irvine, discovered a family link with the murderer Lizzie Borden and decided to analyse the brains and genomes of his close family. Startlingly, his brain PET scan and genetic profile tied in with the profile of the psychopath. But how had he become a successful researcher and family man, not a charming killer? He puts this down to his happy and contented childhood – it seems that it is not enough just to have the gene and the brain patterns; you also need a history of child abuse. The number of people with psychopathic tendencies in big business (as many as four times the number in the general population) who have successful careers supports this. These individuals are charismatic and succeed at a high level, but are often thrill seekers and are easily bored, and may not work well within teams.

The science of behavioural genomics – described as 'neurolaw' – has been used in the defence of Bradley Waldroup, who murdered his wife's friend and injured his wife. Forensic psychiatrist William Bernet of Vanderbilt University arranged for Waldroup's blood to be tested for the warrior gene, and argued that the combination of the high-risk allele and Waldroup's history of abuse as a child should be taken into account. Waldroup was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and attempted second-degree murder – he was imprisoned for 32 years but avoided the death penalty.

The programme closed stating that the science is undermining the certainties of our moral code. Our morals are influenced by our genes and our environment, neither of which are of our choosing, so does that mean that we are not free to choose at all? This rather dramatic statement goes against the measured words of Waldroup's forensic psychiatrist, who believes that while the presence of the so-called warrior gene can reduce free will, it does not take it away.

As often happens in popular science programmes, the science is stated as definites rather than as possibilities, and the whole scientific process is tidied up and compressed. However, I think that is inevitable in order to tell the story.

Overall, an excellent episode of Horizon; raising interesting moral, ethical and scientific issues, and one that has left me wondering about a few managers I have worked with in the past. But not me, of course…

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