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?
Scientists in Sweden have analysed criminals who commit the most serious crimes, and believe they have identified the genes that contribute towards violence. The discovery suggests that acts of evil aren’t terrifyingly inhumane, but all too human.
We could all commit evil
Brian Masters, who has written biographies of several mass murderers including Rosemary West and Dennis Nilsen, says that every human being has the capacity to commit wicked acts. The purpose of society is to curtail evil and without that influence – such as in Nazi Germany, where mass murder was encouraged – every human could commit terrible deeds.
“It’s one of the most terrifying thoughts I’ve ever encountered and I think about it year after year,” says Masters. “Whereas I am an equitable soul and would never raise my fist in anger or try to do something that is harmful to another person, I have to admit in total sanity and intellectual honesty that I could. I’m so grateful to live in a country where that is unlikely.”
Masters insists that evil is an adjective, not a noun, and that when we describe someone as completely evil, we’re surrendering our intellectual responsibility to analyse their actions.
The early signs of murderous intent
But although all of us could do terrible things under the right circumstances, some are more likely to do so than others. Masters says that those who are likely to commit murder usually show early symptoms in their childhood.
“The man who is addicted to murder didn’t wake up before breakfast and think, ‘ooh, I’m going to start murdering people’. The frustrations in his personality were there all his life and they grow and fester,” says Masters. Whether or not you’re going to do something dreadful is usually apparent before the age of five. Long before he kills somebody, he will exhibit behaviours that show he’s capable of it.”
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.
But Viding, who focuses on the neurobiological basis of psychopathy, says parents and teachers have a strong effect on a child’s mental trajectory. Growing up in a cold, mercenary environment is likely to make a child less empathetic, while a positive teacher who rewards good behaviour can help a child react appropriately to others’ suffering.
“Even juvenile delinquents who have high levels of these traits can benefit from therapeutic interventions so it doesn’t mean that if you have these traits that you’re somehow predestined to become a psychopath,” she says. “I really believe that there’s no such thing as someone born evil. At the same time it would be unrealistic to say there aren’t individual differences in how prone someone is to becoming evil.”
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.
“If you look at the history of people committing anti-social acts, breaking the law and hurting other people, there are strong environmental factors that predict that,” says Baron-Cohen. “Growing up in an environment of criminality is one big factor, as is early neglect and abuse – those purely emotional factors.”
Most people shy away from trying to understand those who commit evil, and worry that comprehension can lead to empathy for those who are guilty of terrible crime. But Masters stresses that, while understanding evil is important, we should never start to pity the psychopathic murderers among us.
QuoteSomeone 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."
Whether men are motivated by nature or nurture, we cannot ignore the evil that exists in the world. We may flinch from understanding evil, but it’s our moral duty to do so.