British criminologists have come up with a suggestion. Brain scans help detect violent tendencies in children and treatment can arrest potential criminal conduct. Can science indeed remove violence from the face of the earth?
Charles Whitman was a student of the University of Texas. He was quite an ordinary student, fairly intelligent and reasonable. The divorce of his parents caused him a lot of psychological stress. In the summer of 1966, Whitman wrote the following lines:
“After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder. I have had some tremendous headaches in the past and have consumed two large bottles of Excedrin in the past three months.”
Later that night, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother, both of whom were lovingly supportive of him. The next morning he carried a high-powered hunting rifle to the top of a 307-foot tower on the busy University of Texas campus and opened fire on all those passing by below. Within 90 horrifying minutes, he killed 16 people and wounded others before he himself was killed by police. [Source: Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour by Passer & Smith]
Whitman was an admired person. He was an accomplished pianist, and a former US Marine who had been awarded a Good Conduct Medal and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal. He married the woman of his dreams and the two were seen as an ideal couple. He joined the University on a scholarship from the Marines.
A post-mortem examination of Whitman’s brain detected a fast-growing tumour in the hypothalamus, an area that includes some of the aggression circuitry in the brain. But the medical authorities did not think that the tumour played a role in his violent acts. The tumour could have been a predisposing factor that lowered his inhibitions against violent behaviour. It was also found out that Whitman’s father had a penchant for violent behaviour. Whitman could have inherited some of those aggressive genes.
At any rate, medical science did not have conclusive answers.
It is true that medical science has a lot of knowledge about the areas of the human brain that control certain functions and faculties related to aggression. Accordingly, it can detect, with the help of scans, the impairments or deficiencies in the brain. But will it be able to control those impairments or deficiencies successfully?
This discussion reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World. The novel is about a possible future world society created scientifically. Human beings are ‘manufactured’ (rather than born biologically) by science according to the needs of the society. The creatures are conditioned to accept their state in the society, whether it is of an intellectual or a manual labourer. It seems to be an amazing world of admirable peace and scientific orderliness. Then comes a Savage into that world, a Savage who is not a product of the neat science. The Savage is initially enchanted by the ‘brave new world,’ only to be revolted soon. His argument with the World Controller of the Brave New World demonstrates the incompatibility of individual freedom and a scientifically contrived trouble-free society.
The suggestion of the British criminologists implies many problems.
- Can science guarantee that its interference will produce only beneficial results? The human brain is such a complex entity that any small error can produce drastic consequences. Who can say with certainty that medical/scientific interference with the brain will give us human beings without malice?
- Who can guarantee that the medical system won’t be misused? We know how unscrupulous medical practitioners driven by greed misuse the medical technology? After all, since the intervention is recommended for removing aggressive tendencies, won’t the other human evils such as greed continue to exist and exert their influence on the docs?
- Won’t the parents misuse the technology for begetting children who are prodigies/geniuses or whatever they want?
- Is aggression/violence the chief evil that plagues mankind? Isn’t jealousy, for example, a worse evil?
- There are a lot of environmental factors that make people aggressive. Can science really liberate the social environment from all those factors?
- There are certain psychological factors that have nothing to do directly with aggression but can lead to aggressive behaviour eventually as a result of the degradation of the personality. For example, drunkenness and idleness can relax a person’s family ties, lead him to promiscuity and progressive loss of honest feelings, and eventually dump him in such emotional depravity that violence may ensue. How will science deal with such problems in the childhood of the person?
It is possible and even tempting to see evil as a psychological disorder just as we see illness as a physical disorder. It is also equally tempting to attempt remedies. But the question is: Is science mature enough to take up such a challenge?
Or will science, in the process of trying to create human beings who fit neatly into its theoretical frameworks, run the risk of distorting whatever is best in us?
PS. These are some thoughts that came to my mind as I read the debate in The Times of India today [24 Feb, op-ed page].