Mandy Kloppers

Are some people born evil?

There are many theories about why humans commit unspeakable evil, but none of them are particularly comforting. If the childhoods of serial killers are filled with abuse and hardship, then they can appear to be victims of painful circumstances. But if society isn’t to blame at all – if murderers have charming upbringings and little to complain about – then could they be born evil?

Genetic links to psychopathy

Essi Viding, professor of developmental psychopathology at University College London, says that nobody’s born a killer, but that there are individual differences that affect the likelihood of developing murderous traits.

Although most children become distressed when those around them are unhappy, some are less reactive to others’ emotions. “This is what psychologists call emotional contagion,” says Viding. “We think it’s one of the early markers of how readily you develop empathy.” A lack of empathy is one of the key signs of psychopathy, and increases the likelihood of committing harmful crimes.

A combination of nature and nurture

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of development psychopathology at Cambridge University and author of Zero Degrees of Empathy, says that human behaviour is never more than 50 per cent determined by genetics. Although one version of a MAOA gene increases the likelihood of committing anti-social behaviour, Baron-Cohen says no gene will inevitably lead to psychopathic behaviour.

Someone who commits murder doesn’t do so just because his parents treated him badly. A lot of peoples parents behave badly but the children don’t turn into killers. Is it because he lives in a violent society where it doesn’t seem to matter so much? No, because he has a capacity to be different, he can choose to go along with the violent society or fight against it. Is it because of a psychological disorder? No, that’s another excuse.

But if all these things are combined – if you’re badly treated as a child, if you grow up in a violent society, if you’ve got a psychological disorder – then you don’t stand a chance. Then the murderer is himself a victim. But that doesn’t mean you feel sorry for him. It means you have attempted to explain very wicked, abhorrent behaviour.

Consider the case of Gary Gilmore – the American murderer who killed a hotel clerk in Utah, then killed a student the following night, and was fatally shot himself a year later by a firing squad – which was chronicled by Norman Mailer in his 1979 book The Executioner’s Song.

Gilmore had a brother, Frank, who turned out to be as peaceable and inoffensive in character as Gary was violent and destructive.

Their mother, Bessie, was perplexed, for she brought them up together. ‘One son picked up the gun,’ she said. ‘The other did not pick up the gun. Why?’ Nobody has been able to offer her a fully-inclusive answer. Similarly, Jeffrey Dahmer in Milwaukee strangled and dismembered 17 men between 1978 and 1991. Much was made of his upbringing by a self- obsessed mother and largely absent father.

He inherited their lack of human warmth and inability to empathise and see the world through eyes other than their own. He was dangerously disconnected from humankind.

But he, too, had a brother, David, who never did anyone any harm and who now lives quietly under another name. David had the same parents, the same start in life and carried the same cartload of genes and DNA as his brother.

It is how the child learns to manage his inheritance that matters, how to shape it and restrict it when necessary.

Dahmer, paradoxically, did make an effort, and spent many years grappling with the murderous monster within, of which he was all too aware. But he lost the battle.

Others, like mass murderers Frederick West and Dennis Nilsen, never tried, because they did not realise that it mattered – they were, like the engineer of the Nazis’ Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann, morally blind.

Knowing the chemistry of morality gives us keen insights into why most of us are good most of the time, and why some people like Hans Reiser are evil. Let’s start with evil. Rodents that genetically lack receptors for oxytocin behave like psychopaths–they do whatever they want without regard for others’ safety or welfare. They are loners in permanent survival mode. These behaviors also occur for many victims of childhood abuse; the oxytocin circuit in the brain needs nurturing to develop properly. The abuse victims I have studied are also in survival mode and some have impaired social behaviors.

The human desire to connect not only with friends and family, but complete strangers is, I have found, what makes us moral. It is our social nature, our need to be around others, that makes us good most of the time. Oxytocin makes us feel what others feel and this not only motivates us to avoid doing things that hurt others, but actually makes us feel pleasure when we bring others joy. Sneaky evolution!

Studies comparing identical and non-identical twins suggest a relatively large genetic component for both narcissism and psychopathy, though Machiavellianism seems to be more due to the environment – you may learn to manipulate from others. Whatever we’ve inherited, we cannot take away our personal responsibility, though.

Mandy X