National Geographic Explorer’s “Science of Evil” Considers Situational & Neurological Factors in Stories of Research, Wartime Abuses & a Serial Killer’s Baptism
Our last post was about an episode of the documentary series National Geographic Explorer called “Born to Rage,” which focused on a topic very germane to ponerology, namely “the Warrior Gene,” a genetic variant that predisposes many men to aggression and violence.
Little did I know that, in the course of researching for that post, I would come across an episode of Explorer seemingly even more precisely relevant to ponerology than that. But that is just what happened.
Ponerology is defined as “the science of evil.” And, to my surprise, I came across a 2008 episode of Explorer actually entitled “Science of Evil.”
Just as in “Born to Rage,” the main framework for this episode’s exploration is established by the narrator early on. This time the guiding quote is this:
“Evil. It is blamed for cruelty beyond our mind’s comprehension. Is it a dark force outside of us that we are all vulnerable to, that we must work to resist? Is it inside of us, a stain on the soul, a dysfunction of the brain? Or just a word used to distance ourselves from inherently human behavior?”
“Science of Evil” focuses on four stories:
- One of the “usual suspects” when discussing evil, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, gives a detailed chronology of the development of sadistic events in his famous Stanford prison experiment and discusses its relationship to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, after which he was called as an expert defense witness in the court martial of one of the accused American officers.
- We get a look at notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer through the eyes of Reverend Roy Ratcliff, a minister who met with Dahmer at a maximum security prison in Wisconsin in 1994 to discuss the Bible and ultimately help fulfill Dahmer’s request to be baptized.
- Joshua Greene, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard, speaks about what defines evil and – along with colleague Jonathan Cohen of Princeton’s Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior – introduces us to their fMRI research, imaging people’s brains during moral decision-making to determine the sometimes conflicting neurological processes involved in our sense of right and wrong.
- We follow Aya Schneerson of the United Nations’ World Food Program as she reveals through her work some of the atrocities she has witnessed in the course of distributing food in war-torn Eastern Congo that she considers evil.
As these stories play out, we are led to consider how situational and neurological factors can both play roles in the development of behavior often deemed evil and the implications of what we may discover as we continue teasing apart their relative contributions to the harm and suffering in our world.
National Geographic Explorer’s “Science of Evil” provides a rather cursory overview of some of the questions involved in ponerology. It doesn’t do nearly as much to provide answers to those questions as some of the other resources featured on this site do. But it may, nonetheless, inspire curiosity in a newcomer to these issues.
I write frequently about the fact that, despite the increased level of attention to it that we document here, this topic, the science regarding malicious and neglectful activity – a.k.a. the “science of evil” – is vastly under-discussed and under-promoted in our society. The fact that even I, having researched and written about this topic for years, was unaware until now that this episode of Explorer even existed offers just one more illustration of that. But hopefully, sharing it here will enable it to reach a few more people who will share it with those they know and so on.
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Categories: Television Shows
Tags: abu ghraib, aya schneerson, born to rage, brain imaging, congo, fmri, jeffrey dahmer, jonathan cohen, joshua greene, national geographic explorer, neuroscience, philip zimbardo, roy ratcliff, sadism, science of evil, situational factors, stanford prison experiment
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