sun 14/07/2024

Horizon: Are You Good or Evil?, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Horizon: Are You Good or Evil?, BBC Two

Horizon: Are You Good or Evil?, BBC Two

Nothing you didn’t know already, in an under-par instalment of the science strand

If you didn’t laugh you’d scream: neuroscientist Jim Fallon finds out he has the DNA profile of a serial killer

Scientists, eh? You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them: they cure life-threatening diseases and they threaten life with ever more powerful weapons. And in the instance of this documentary, they state the bloody obvious and then go to elaborate lengths to prove that their statements of the bloody obvious are objectively correct.

We all know from experience that the vast majority of people are intrinsically good rather than intrinsically evil just by the very fact that our increasingly godless society hasn’t descended into chaos, so how many times do we need to have this restated?

Even during the riots of a few weeks ago, most of those angry, jubilant or opportunistic individuals involved would have justified their actions to themselves. Even the organised criminals methodically emptying Currys were thinking of the holiday they’d be able to warm-heartedly give the wife and kids, weighed against the small dent they were making on the income of a huge corporation. The human animal is a moral animal because that’s what allows the human animal to survive and prosper - end of story. But as last night’s Horizon demonstrated; there are many inventive and elaborate ways scientists find to make absolutely certain that what we knew all along is the uncontrovertible truth.

So, Scientist One created a virtual reality scenario in which a group of volunteers were plunged into a situation in which they had to decide whether to save several people from a rogue gunman by sacrificing one person. Conclusion: people care about the wellbeing of other people, and try to do what’s best. Who’d have thought?

Then Scientist Two stuck some babies in front of a puppet show in which one of the puppets behaved badly. He then got the babies to (as best they could) point to the puppet they disliked the most. Conclusion: babies don’t like the bad guy… Although some of them did… And some of them didn’t really seem to know what was going on. But surely the bad guy can be seen as cool, more colourful and with more entertainment value? And even if the majority of the toddlers had gone for the bad puppet it wouldn’t have been evidence that they were likely to turn into Fred West when they grew up. My final conclusion: decidedly inconclusive.

Moving swiftly on, Scientist Three found that a group of rugby players needed to work together to succeed, Scientist Four found out that psychotic killers lacked empathy, didn’t have a conscience, could be charming and intelligent, and – surprise, surprise – don’t necessarily look like monsters. And so on. You can probably see a pattern emerging in this review: basically, I’ve been putting foward evidence that supports my initial thesis. It takes one to know one, I suppose. But to be fair, this wasn't all going over familiar ground; I hadn’t heard of the “moral molecule” before. And the idea that a brain scan can reveal which of us is a potential serial killer was chilling food for thought.

Which brings us to Scientist Five. By a quirk of fate, neuroscientist Jim Fallon found himself moving from being a specialist in standard clinical disorders to staring at the psychedelically hued brain scans of serial killers. Then one day his mother suggested he take a look at his own family history, as a cousin of his had murdered her parents. In a twist the poorest Hollywood scriptwriter would have blushed at coming up with, it turned out that Fallon had a cupboard bursting with literal family skeletons. There’d been at least 16 murders in his family history, his own brain scan had “serial killer” written all over it, and to top it all he also had all of the high-risk genes associated with the serial killer. We were told that the odds of having such a profile were millions to one.

But how much more unlikely was this blackly comic scenario in which Fallon had become the subject of his own highly specialised research? Amusingly, his family – on hearing the bad news - seemed to take some pleasure in talking to camera about how “scary”, “stand-offish” and “hot-headed” he could be. Fallon could only take solace in the fact that he was in late middle age and yet hadn’t got round to bludgeoning anyone to death. So why wasn’t this great big bear of a man a serial killer?

Well, once again your common sense will probably have given you the answer before you’re informed of the scenic route our friends in white lab coats took to get there: you can have the wrong genes, the wrong chemicals and bits of your brain scan the wrong colour, but unless you also had the wrong childhood, the wrong marriage or fought in the wrong war, things will probably turn out OK for you. Nature, nurture, free will, what side of the bed you got out of this morning - there’s just too much fuzzy greyness for black-and-white science to deal with in matters related to the mind and - for want of a better word – the soul than this week's Horizon could get to grips with.


Well. I rather liked this edition of Horizon and I have to say it's a huge improvement on the time the series was very definitely in the doldrums a few years back - I grew up on a diet of the program. Yes, yes, yes.. - much of social science involves stating the blindingly obvious. However, I for one rather like my science re-enforcing the blinding obvious because sometimes it turns out to contradict common sense. For me it re-enforced my understanding that: 1/ People are (mostly) born co-operative and moral for good evolutionary reasons. 2/ The environment plays an essential gene-modifying role in our development. 3/ Free-will is almost certainly an illusion (and an oxymoron ;-) ..& a lot more besides. Some of this isn't entirely obvious to the lay-public. The BBC has to balance its science output so as not to lose the majority of its target audience. In my view this episode was pitched at the right level - but I also enjoyed your very amusing review.

About the Virtual Reality experiment with adult human guinea pigs who had control of an elevator to an art gallery. Five (stick) people were on the top floor; One person on the ground floor. A red person with something in its hand is let up to the top by the guinea pig and then, all hell breaks loose! The red person starts shooting everyone on the top floor. The guinea pig's reaction is to freeze or thumble around with the control, trying to put the serial killer red man on the ground floor where only one would die instead of five. However the delay usually ends in tragedy with many stick people dead. Now,what would happen if a security guard was the guinea pig? I presume they'd react quicker and save lives because of their training. What if a psychopath were tested? Well, they would should no emotion and will not freeze under pressure with result that fewer lives would be taken. So, my question:Who is more dangerous to society in this situation? The average person who freezes or a psychopath? I'd choose the average person. We need some psychopaths in society I'm afraid....

Not necessarily. The logic is flawed since a psychopath wouldn't care about how many others would survive (unless he saw some personal gain in it). The reasoning might be valid for an autist, however.

I saw the puppet show on Horizon(BBC). A lady held her puppets up to a baby,shaking the right then the left hand.Which did the baby pick?Left of course,because it was the most Predominant in the childs mind. Lets assume all the babies had puppets demonstrated like this. How many of the experimenters are left or right handed?Maybe 70-30 Right to left?Should the result be 50-50 for the baby's choice like Freud said? Experimenter Handedness may introduce bias in the expeiment.

Hmm. I have a feeling this review is deliberately snarky. But in case it isn't, 1. Just because something seems obvious, that doesn't mean it is in fact correct. Scientific research is used to investigate if common sense IS correct. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't, and if it isn't 2. I somehow doubt that any of these experiments were originally conceived to see that "some people are good and some people are evil", although that may well be a corollary of the results. Far more likely that they are conceived to investigate more generally how behaviours arise/develop and what controls them controlled. 3. It is very difficult to design effective experiments, let alone to know exactly which factors are important etc, so taking a first step into the dark is often better than nothing. Simple experiments are used as a starting point for further research and to motivate future work. In the puppet show experiment for example, the researcher certainly did not claim that the results were conclusive. Actually, in my view the program explained quite well that the scientific results being produced really are quite black and white. For example, I took that genes+abusive upbringing that forms a significant factor in shaping adult behaviour. That this was strong enough evidence to use in court suggests that this is a strong result. I personally would have thought that genes alone would be the dominant factor that would easily be able to offset a happy childhood, but apparently it is this quite specific combination alone that results in the serial-killer personality.

Deliberately sarcy? No. Sceptical of the scientific rigour of some of the experiments, definitely yes. Of course science is a wonderful thing without which, etc etc, but with much of this program I just felt we’d already been here many times before. So perhaps it was previous science programs rather than common sense which led me to the conclusions that these scientists eventually reached?

Hi Howard. I see your entertaining review has certainly stimulated debate. I'd just like to add one other point: The program introduced (or re-visited) the idea that its possible for some individuals to be long-term partners or become highly successful in business and lack empathy for partner or colleagues whilst at the same time displaying deceitful amounts of outward charm and charisma. As the program stressed "They understand you intellectually, but don't feel your pain" Perhaps when we interact with people we often falsely assume that empathy is a universal quality shared by almost everyone - a dangerous assumption? Surely these personal qualities are worthy of a serious scientific dissection? If functional MRI or genetic sequencing can bring some scientific rigor to our investigations, then we will all have benefited. But I do agree that many will probably conclude that they knew it all anyway

Human motivation is as complex and richly varied as any of the things we witness in the physical world, it can not be understood purely - if at all - with brain scans and simplistic experiments. The greatest artists, writers, poets, musicians, philosophers and theologians have for centuries tussled with questions of the soul; so how absurd to watch a bunch of neuroscientists arrive on the scene with their thermal imaging, spooky music and crass reductivist ideas (a "moral molecule" is a terrible, gimmicky notion that most people with much insight will dismiss). It all distracts us from gaining a true understanding, while flattering the middle brow among us into thinking they have it all sussed. An absolute stinker.

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