“Sin”, genes and human nature

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by Neil Godfrey

Some brilliant programs have been broadcast recently on ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind program.

I’ve learned far more about why “good people do bad things”, why some people are more prone to violence or sex crimes in just one or two of Natasha Mitchell’s programs than anyone can ever hope to understand from all the holy books and revelations that have ever existed. And even better, what science has learned gives good reason to be hopeful for future treatment and preventive programs — if only primeval ignorance about human nature can give way in enough of society to make room for the facts.

Four of my favourites linked below — (recent programs still have podcasts available)

When Good People Turn Bad – Philip Zimbardo in Conversation (28 July 2007)

“In 1971, 23 American college students’ lives were changed by the now notorious Stanford Prison Experiment. For the eminent psychologist responsible, Philip Zimbardo, the parallels to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib are palpable. In an exclusive Australian interview, he joins Natasha Mitchell, to reflect on the capacity in all of us to commit evil. It’s a case of good apples put in bad barrels.”

Nature? Nurture? What Makes Us Human? (14 July 2007)

“Genes aren’t Gods, [Matt Ridley] argues, they’re cogs. As agents of nurture, genes get switched on and off by our experiences”

Mind Reading (Part 1 of 2): Neuroscience in the Witness Stand (23 June 2007)

“‘But officer, my brain made me do it!’ Brain scans are becoming commonplace as evidence in US courts, in the bid to convict offenders or free them. But is the technology half-baked? Can we biologically categorise people as criminals — mad, bad and dangerous to know? Free will, privacy and personal responsibility are all up for grabs in the collision between science and the law.”


Professor James Fallon
College of Medicine,Anatomy and Neurobiology
University of California Irvine

Dr Emily Murphy
Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics

Professor John Allen
Distinguished Professor,
Department of Psychology,
University of Arizona

Associate Professor Clark Miller
Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes
Arizona State University

Professor Gary Marchant
Executive Director,
Center for the Study of Law, Science, and Technology
Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

Neuroscience and the Law (7 July 2002)

“Brain scanning indicates that certain frontal lobe abnormalities might be linked to certain forms of antisocial or criminal behaviour. But what are the legal implications of this?”


Henry Marsh
Consultant neurosurgeon, Atkinson Morley’s Hospital, London

Nigel Eastman
Barrister and forensic psychiatrist at St George’s Hospital, South London

Helena Kennedy
Criminal barrister

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14 thoughts on ““Sin”, genes and human nature”

  1. The legal implications are that our entire justice system is undermined. This has already happened, but we’re just beginning to notice the effect. If man is machine then how can anything be wrong. Anything can actually be justified. Interestingly enough though, we then must also throw out love, choice, freedom, will etc… Humanism already did this, it’s just that we chose to live inconsistently with our beliefs. Intellectually we believe there is no such thing as love or justice but we cannot live (in reality) like this. We irrationally choose to believe in love. It’s tragic but it is all we are left with.

    Our head and heart tell us evil is evil but our “intellectual belief” says there is only the machine.

    I don’t think it reflects reality to say we have no choices….

    As you know I don’t believe we are machines.

  2. Hoo boy! No-one says that because rape and murder have natural origins they are therefore right. Who says this? No-one except those who are misrepresenting the science. Understanding people and behaviours doesn’t make them moral and no-one says they do. But it is a way to help cure and prevent those behaviours. Even animals have social codes and do not justify those members of their group that step out of line, but punish those who break their codes.

    And no one is saying we don’t have choices, but can you or anyone always “choose” what you do or want to do? Many pedophiles, for instance, torment themselves over their uncontrollable urges. They choose to get help. But it’s like hunger or sex. Some urges become impossible to control at times no matter how much we “choose” to do otherwise. Science is simply showing that there are more things than hunger and sex that can fall under this umbrella.

    Do you always “choose” to live consistently with your beliefs? If not, why not? Do you expect to be condemned and punished when you fail through “the weakness of your flesh”? Of course not. You want understanding. Why not extend the same to others who are wired in more serious ways than you are to commit certain crimes under certain circumstances? And why not seek humane ways to treat them. Maybe one day science will even find a way to cure a psychopath — but that day will never come if we keep on executing them. Imagine a society where even psychopathic tendencies could be detected at an early stage and treated? Why keep killing them while we wait another few thousand years for Jesus to come again?

  3. I didn’t say they were right. I’m saying you don’t have grounds to say that rape and murder are right OR wrong. Your definition of Science takes this away from the question. What gives you the right to say that ‘those behaviours’ are any different to eating, sleeping or walking? You have no grounds to say pedophilia or psychopathic tendencies are in fact immoral/serious/crimes. You can say they offend you, or that they inconvenience you but you have no grounds to say they are wrong.

  4. Every society has rules against murder. You don’t need a bible or god to tell you murder or rape or stealing or a whole lot of other stuff is wrong. There are standards we all have in common that define our humanity. You only need a bible or koran to tell you stuff like working on the sabbath or cutting your beard or eating this animal but not that one is wrong.

    I have every grounds to say what’s wrong — it is on the grounds of what does harm or hurts or is cruel. Everyone recognizes these things, and condemns actions that cause them. You do too (I hope) — you no longer think slavery is moral, even though the bible tells you it is perfectly natural and god-approved.

  5. “Everyone recognizes these things, and condemns actions that cause them.”

    So you’re saying there is an absolute standard for these things? Of course you believe these things are wrong. You’re right to say everyone does. I’m just saying you don’t have a basis for saying they are wrong. You’re taking a leap of faith here.

    “I have every grounds to say what’s wrong — it is on the grounds of what does harm or hurts or is cruel.”

    So we can sum this up as “It’s wrong, because it’s harmful.” Or even “Its wrong because its evil”. Or perhaps better yet: “its wrong because it’s wrong”.

    What gives you the grounds to say it is wrong, harmful, cruel? I think you’re taking a leap of faith that your science doesn’t justify.

  6. Where is the “leap of faith” in being human and acknowledging what I have in common with the rest of humanity? It is no leap of faith to know it is wrong to take advantage of an elderly person’s frailty by stealing easily from or defrauding them; faith has nothing to do with knowing it is wrong to kill you because you think differently from me; nor has faith to do with knowing it is good to do what I can to assist an elderly person where they cannot help themselves as they once could, etc etc etc.

    I do have an authority for my ethics. It is my humanity. And scientific studies demonstrate that there is a core human morality that is a constant across all cultures. Moderns can relate to the literature of the ancient pagans because they also share the same essential ethical values of the moderns. A Christian can relate to the literature of communists and Moslems because the essential core values they hold in common are those that humanity itself holds in common.

    But when people give over their innate consciences to some external authority, then they will rationalize that to be “good” they must believe whatever that authority says is good. Look at the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s when so many sold their souls to an external authority. Look at the religions that have claimed the authority of God to commit genocide; to allow their loved ones, even children and infants, to die by refusing them medical attention; to leave and cut themselves off from the families who love them, etc etc etc.

    When people follow external authorities and rationalize, against their most fundamental impulses, some alien dictate of what some human or divine dictator says is right and wrong, then they have lost their humanity.

    Only then can they call it good to commit genocide, to kill people who think differently, to watch their children die because they believe (on authority!) that medical care is wrong, and cut themselves off emotionally from those who love them the most, etc etc etc etc

    My grounds for saying that doing harm to you (or anyone) is wrong or harmful or cruel are our shared humanity.

    Even pagans — and atheists such as myself — can agree that the first rule of anyone (who has some competence in medical knowledge) when confronting an ill person is: Do no harm. There is no leap of faith to know what that means or to justify the claim. The aphorism comes from the highest and ultimate authority for all human ethics — humanity itself. That (humanity!), at least according to current scientific research, expresses a constant in what is right and wrong, unlike the many gods and human authorities that have beguiled and seduced too many minds for far too long.

  7. Lest I am not quite clear: My basis for knowing it is wrong to misrepresent and tell lies about you, for example, is that I acknowledge you are a person with conscious feelings like myself, and I know it would be wrong if I were treated the same way. The principle or value of reciprocity is one of the most basic and instinctual in us — it develops in early childhood. One does not need to be taught it. It is a biologically or psychologically rooted human characteristic that can be appealed to and used as a basis for further education, but it is not arbitrary or “believed” in like there was some choice in the matter. It is part of what we are. It is part of what it means to be human.

    I know it is wrong for me to cause you to unjustly suffer because I know it is wrong for you to cause me to unjustly suffer. My authority is my humanity coupled with my recognition of your humanity.

    We all believe (well probably 95% of us), on the basis of our knowledge of ourselves and what it means to suffer, that it is wrong to cause suffering in others.

    I suspect this fact, this basis of morality, upsets religious fundamentalists because they believe in ethical standards that have nothing to do with causing or refraining from harming others, that therefore cannot be justified by appeals to reason or basic gut feelings common to us all. Yet they do cause harm, either to others or themselves, by strictly and fearfully sacrificing their inner humanity to their external (nonhuman) authority and its arbitrary rules.

  8. “I know it is wrong for me to cause you to unjustly suffer because I know it is wrong for you to cause me to unjustly suffer. My authority is my humanity coupled with my recognition of your humanity.”

    Or to paraphrase ” I know it’s wrong because I know it’s wrong”. By what authority can you say that to suffer is wrong?

    Inner humanity, shared humanity, conscience: I agree. My point is though that you don’t have grounds to say this if you believe that man is a biological machine, like any other animal.

    “We all believe (well probably 95% of us), on the basis of our knowledge of ourselves and what it means to suffer, that it is wrong to cause suffering in others.”

    So it’s to be majority rule?

    or reciprocity?

    From an early age we do learn reciprocity… actually we instinctively learn revenge and have to be taught kindness to others. Reciprocity is at it’s heart selfishness and not enough to motivate actual good.

    You can come up with all kind of reasons to say we understand good and evil. You can observe it in the world. You can feel the struggle in your mind/heart/soul/gut. But you haven’t given a valid reason why there is right and wrong at all.

    The ‘leap of faith’ comes when you say it’s all about biology but then say: “oh, but there are some things that aren’t negotiable, like murder.” The model doesn’t offer explanatory power for the existence of right and wrong, good and evil, suffering or non-suffering.

    Perhaps you believe there is something transcendent about humanity that allows us to judge the world, to decide on what is good is and what is evil. That me killing another person is different from an animal killing another animal.

  9. Your paraphrases are in fact misrepresentations — or probably misunderstandings — of what I say. The essence of morality is not an intellectual choice. I don’t need an external authority to tell me suffering is wrong. To suggest we do is simply nonsense.

    The fact that studies show that most people feel the same way about ethics demonstrates it is not majority rule at all. It is innate human nature.

    I’m not coming up with “all sorts of reasons to say we understand good and evil” — I’m appealing to what every human being instinctively knows.

    I don’t feel any struggle in me to know suffering is wrong. That’s a nonsense accusation. Nor do I feel any struggle in me to know stealing or murder or cheating is wrong. Where I might have a struggle is in whether I want to DO what is right or wrong. But not over WHAT is right and wrong. (We are talking about the general and obvious cases, not the fringe exceptions that involve medical conditions and finer points of law and artificial cultural nuances.)

    The explanatory power is still being researched, though evolutionary psychology and biology do seem to be coming up with a few plausible theories. We don’t know the source of the force of gravity but we have some theories we are attempting to test. Just because we still have questions about origins doesn’t invalidate the evidence we see before us.

    You seem to be hooked on the idea that our ethics are intellectual choices we make like choosing what food to eat today. And you seem to be saying we can’t make the right choice without consulting our authority — some book that says, say, On Wednesdays we must choose to eat cabbage.

    Or more directly: Mmm…. I see someone’s wallet half falling out of his back pocket. I wonder if it is wrong or right to take it as mine. Let’s consult the bible — nope, it says that stealing is wrong, and I better not take it. Mmm.. but I’m broke and I want to take it — oh damn…. Now I must struggle with my own desire and what the book says I must do.

    That might be a good model of what Paul was talking about, but it is simply a nonsense model. No-one has to read a book to know stealing is wrong, or consult an authority. And they don’t need laws of the State either. The law of the state is there to enable a punishment if I do steal the wallet.

    But most people simply don’t want to steal the wallet and most people will probably even warn the person that his wallet is about to fall out of his pocket. I mean most people — whether Christians, atheists, Moslems, Buddhists, whatever. My wallet once fell out of my pocket at a music festival where I can assure you most people were not Christians, and some kind young strangers behind me alerted me to my loss. I am an atheist and I recently saw something similar — I went over to the stranger to return him his wallet — simply because I wanted to. I don’t like to see people lose things like that. When the 2006 tsunami hit thousands at our musical festival flocked to donate money — and as I said, I can assure you Christians at this music festival would be few and far between.

    In my other related posts on this topic I have referred to studies that demonstrate quite conclusively that ethics are not thought out intellectual choices or authority-based. They are innate across all cultures — something common to humanity. When people are asked those questions like: Should you pull a lever to redirect a fast moving train to a siding where there is a worker on the tracks, knowing he will be killed if you do, — but if you fail to pull the lever, the train will continue on and kill more people. Everyone gives the same answer to that. But what if you are standing on a bridge and see below you a train heading for half a dozen children playing on the track who will surely be killed; and there is a big man on the bridge, who if you push off on to the track, will stop the train and so you’ll save the children. Everyone also agrees that it is wrong to push the man off the bridge to his death to save the others, but they all agree it is right to pull the lever that will be responsible for the death of one man to save others. How is that common choice found among all cultures and thousands of subjects to be explained if not by some appeal to something innate wired in our human nature?

    And the questions get more complex and subtle, and just about everybody gives the same answers? Why? Obviously its not from some authority — nor is it random “what do I arbitrarily think?” — because no authorities address such complex situations, and the studies are done across all cultures and wide samples. The evidence is undeniable: people have essentially the same core ethical values that can only be explained as something innate to our nature, the way we/our brains are biologically wired.

    Ethical choices are NOT like deciding if we prefer chocolate icecream but not rasberry flavour. That’s a silly myth that some do teach, but it is an entirely abstract notion that is completely out of touch with what we really are like as people.

    You and some people (too many) DO attempt to deny their inner feelings and suppress them in preference for an external authority to tell them to live contrary to how they would normally live, and that is a shame.

    I also suspect that part of a reason the religious need to appeal to external authorities for moral choices is because there is no other reason (apart from an arbitrary external command) to forbid certain sexual behaviours. That, I suspect, is where the bottom line often is.

    (Maybe also abortion is another for some.)

  10. People don’t innately believe stealing is wrong. You have to teach children to be kind. You have to teach them not to steal, lie, hit etc.. I write as one having a small child. It is my choice whether I impose these rules and nurture my child this way.

    To say that people innately believe in right or wrong doesn’t speak to the ‘source’ of right and wrong. You go back to the ‘biologically wired’ argument again and this undercuts what you have said. If one person is wired one way (don’t steal) and the other another way (stealing is ok) then what gives anyone the right to judge between them. After all what they believe about right and wrong is subject to whatever chemicals their brain has that day, or whatever chemicals they were born with.

    People also innately believe in God but you would disagree with the majority here.

  11. Updated 7.30 pm

    Are you telling me that you need an authority to tell you it is wrong to hurt people? Are you really saying that without God you would see nothing at all wrong in murder, theft and cheating others? Without God would you really not care if these things happened to others?

    On another more prosaic level, you ignore the studies I have addressed that show there is a common standard of what is moral across all cultures.

    Show me a culture that teaches and believes that murdering each other and stealing from each other and cheating each other is right ethical behaviour. There is none.

    Why do all cultures teach that these things are wrong? If it is simply a matter of choice then we should find at least a few that belie these rules but we don’t.

    People do have to teach the young — just as they have to teach the young to speak. Because we are at a far end of the social spectrum as a species. We have to teach the young that one plus one equals two. Does that mean that basic arithmetic is an arbitrary choice without any “authority” in nature?

    We all have an innate language ability but we still all teach different languages. Why don’t we all teach a different standard of the most basic ethics in the same way we teach different languages to each other? Because the most basic standards are innate. Even the Bible admits as much: Romans 2:14-15.

    No-one is wired to think stealing is okay, except an extreme minority with what we would call some sort of pathology. But we are not talking about the exceptions. Nor does Romans 2:14-15 address these exceptions to the general rule. Even your own bible says that people do by nature what is right, and know right from wrong, excusing and judging one another. So why not accept the testimony of your own authority?

    Why do I need an external authority to know right from wrong? — I can’t think why unless you want to tell me that certain types of victimless behaviours are also wrong.

    Why can’t you accept that I know hurting people is wrong and that I don’t want to hurt people? And that most people in the world regardless of beliefs and culture are the same? And that none of us needs any “authority” to tell us hurting others is wrong. That people really do find within themselves a basic sense of what is right and wrong?

    Is it because accepting all this as a fact would undermine your faith in or need for your authority? Would you no longer have a basis for deciding which victimless behaviours are sin?

    I do not believe you need an authority to tell you hurting others is wrong, but you do need your authority — accompanied with a fear of hell — to judge certain harmless acts to be wrong. Now its in the area of those HARMLESS behaviours that we have our cultural variations — and that gets into sociology, psychology and anthropology.

    Yes, some societies do not have any stigma attached to extra-marital or same-sex sexual relations. And I think that is the real problem that underlies all the attempts to try to convict the nonbeliever that they need some sort of authority to tell them right from wrong and to teach them the fear of hell — to make them behave more like the believers! The technical term for that is narcissism. But I’ve addressed that one already here.

  12. “I do not believe you need an authority to tell you hurting others is wrong,”

    Yes you do. You believe that your feelings (and the feelings of other people) are the authority, which is fine. You seem to suggest that your nature and the nature of those that might agree with you is the standard for behaviour. Since you feel that suicide bombing is wrong, cannibalism, pedophilia is wrong, then this is the standard by which they are judged. We’ll just ignore that the fact people that believe these are in fact ok. We can throw out their, agreeably, wrong ideas because we just don’t like it.

    How do we make decisions about euthenasia, abortion, child pornography, listening to rock’n’roll, whatever…. do we just ask Neil to arbitrate?

    On the cheating thing: Some Muslims believe it is perfectly ok to cheat and lie to infidels if it advances their faith.

  13. Ah ha, now we are getting to the nub of your concerns. You are no longer arguing the case as it has been presented up till now, but now find it necessary to bring in such issues as listening to rock music, pornography, suicide bombing and your view of “some Muslims”.

    And it is necessary that you do so, because your argument simply does not hold water when applied, as I have been at pains to stress throughout my comments, to the most basic standards all peoples have in common — even “some Muslims”.

    Once again you express the following point: “We’ll just ignore that the fact people that believe these are in fact ok. We can throw out their, agreeably, wrong ideas because we just don’t like it.”

    I have addressed this point repeatedly. There ARE NO societes who believe those things “are in fact ok”. The fundamentals of ethics that we have been discussing (hurting others) are NOT a matter of “ideas” that are subject to the options of what we “like”. That is simply nonsense and I know of no society where this is the case. Do you?

    There is not one society that believes that murdering and hurting and cheating one another is right and good ethical behaviour. And even the Bible says as much. And the same holds true in Muslim societies too! Are you suggesting that Romans 2:14-15 wrong about societies, including “some Muslim” ones?

    Show me any people or society where people believe that eating each other and killing each other are not wrong. I don’t know of a single one. Do you?

    As for suicide bombing, I have published here links to statistics that demonstrate that most people — Muslims included — believe that suicide bombing is wrong. The significant exceptions are found among peoples who are most directly involved in liberation struggles against foreign occupying powers. And that is no surprise. National liberation and resistance movements have always believed certain murder is justified. Peoples who see themselves at war invariably justify murder, even the killing of innocents for their cause. This applies to all groups, Christian and Muslim alike, at every level from the nation to the family groups.

    You wrote: “How do we make decisions about euthenasia, abortion, child pornography, listening to rock’n’roll, whatever…. do we just ask Neil to arbitrate?”

    Why on earth would anyone need to ask anyone else, let alone “an authority”, to find out if hurting others is wrong? If anything does not hurt others, then why should it be wrong? Is this your main worry? Do you fear that some things you call sin are not harmful at all, so can only be judged as sin by an authority who arbitrarily declares then to be wrong? Or is the disagreement about what things are harmful and what are not harmful? Now that is another question altogether.

    If people want to base their ethics on the “do not kill” command, for example, they will need an authority to tell them all the exception clauses that tell them when killing is okay after all, to whom and in what situations killing is bad, and when it is lawful. Life gets quite complex and irrational and even mean and cruel when people base it on a code that derives from a taliban like authority such as the Old Testament. They may feel secure, like children, in being told what to do.

  14. You wrote: “We’ll just ignore that the fact people that believe these are in fact ok. We can throw out their, agreeably, wrong ideas because we just don’t like it.” ……..

    …… forgetting that even scientific surveys and tests have established that all peoples are wired with the same sense of moral values.

    It is a straw man argument to say that there are societies that believe murder is okay. It is also a blind confusion of concepts to single out exceptions to the rule (e.g. war situations) when those very same exceptions exist in ALL societies.

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