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Trust me – there
is a connection
Wednesday I spend the morning in a kind of salon where a bunch of us get
together to discuss various aspects of science. One is a retired physicist, another a geologist, another a
physician, another a molecular biologist, and so on. I am an outlier, as a social scientist. It’s a wonderful and very irreverent
conversation took on a life of its own, and ventured into areas where I had
more to offer (usually I listen).
We were discussing how science evolved out of scientists doing science
rather than out of some philosopher’s speculations about what constituted
knowledge. I suggested that when
Louis Leakey asked Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, to study the great apes he revolutionized more than the study of primates. Women brought a very different
sensibility to field studies than did the masculine norm of the time. This
difference is best captured in the story of her first published paper. In her account, Goodall describes the prevailing attitude from the perspective
of an outsider:
I did not realize that animals were not supposed to have
personalities, or to think, or to feel emotions or pain. I had no idea that it
would have been more appropriate–once I got to know him or her–to assign each
of the chimpanzees a number rather than a name. I did not realize that it was
unscientific to discuss behavior in terms of motivation or purpose. It was not
respectable, in scientific circles, to talk about animal personality. That was
something reserved for humans. Nor did animals have minds, so they were not
capable of rational thought. And to talk about their emotions was to be guilty
of the worst kind of anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to
The editor asked
that she remove “him” and “her” and replace these terms with “it.” Goodall
refused and she prevailed.
(I hope many of you will read this link to Goodall’s article. It goes in a different direction than this post, but is brilliant and wonderful.)
work, supplemented and strengthened by Fossey’s and Galdikas’s, enabled science
gradually to bridge the gap between humans and animals in practice that
Darwin had eliminated in theory long ago. These women’s work opened the door to wonderful research
science is producing today, research powerfully indicating that what we term
moral behavior extends rather deeply into the natural world. (See my post on animal morality.)
I suggested that
much science education of the time (and not just in the past, either) distanced
scientists from the living beings they studied in a way disturbingly similar to
how Nazi and other despotic regimes enabled normal people working as
concentration camp guards to commit horrible atrocities on the inmates – a
practice we have also seen with US citizens and Abu Gharib.
In all these cases
normal human empathy was deliberately undermined. Inmates like animals are identified impersonally, often with
numbers. The humans were dressed
in clothes that are standardized and completely different from the guards,
accentuating their separation.
They were treated as “its.”
The same happened with animals as a matter of course. They were studied in cages, inside
labs, far removed from anything like their natural habitat. In both cases people in positions of
power simply became unable to relate with those of lesser power as being
anything other than objects.
in mice, monkeys, or human beings, is the source of what we call morality. Empathy is a quality natural to many
animals. But it can be encouraged
What then do we
make of people who seem to have no empathy? Of sociopaths?
They are like human corporations in a sense. A corporation is designed to treat everything as an it, to
be used, discarded, destroyed, or ignored, depending on its contribution to the
firm’s bottom line. A sociopath relates to others in the same way. Whether from environmental causes, from
biological abnormalities, or from some combination of the two, they cannot
appreciate or care about others’ interiority. They relate to us as scientists
related to their objects of study.
How can such a
defective person persist and perhaps even flourish. In older face to face societies they would likely often be
quickly identified and marginalized.
But in large impersonal organizations and mass societies, where personal
knowledge is replaced by public relations flacks promoting whatever image they
are paid to create, this protection breaks down.
Looked at from an
evolutionary perspective, sociopaths seem to me somewhat akin to parasites –
entities who prey on others but have made themselves invisible to them in order
to sneak beneath natural defenses of recognition at the organismic or cellular
level. They do damage, sometimes serious
damage, but invisibly, so their victims are rarely killed outright even if
their demise is hastened.
Using this analogy
of sociopath as parasite, a successful one will appear normal, rise to a
position of prominence and respect, and abuse that position, enriching him or
her self while weakening the host.
He or she will give the impression of caring for others, for their
country, for some noble purpose, while actually not caring at all.
If this analysis is
at all accurate, then all big organizations will attract sociopathic parasites
the way that honey draws flies.
People within organizations usually identify with them against the
outside, and so if leadership positions can be parasitized, the sociopath’s
influence and ability to enrich him or her self is expanded enormously. In the long run they will damage the
organization and in the short run corrupt many normal people within it, often
encouraging them to sacrifice those outside to the organization’s goals. But they will flourish.
My point is not
that all organizational leaders are
sociopaths. They aren’t. It is that they will disproportionately be sociopaths.
Additionally, the longer an organization exists and the more powerful it
is, I would suggest the greater the likelihood it will be parasitized by
I think a lot of
contemporary news takes on an interesting gloss if I am at all on target. What prompted me to write this post was
Christopher Hitchens’ disturbing new column, one that takes us to a new look at
Henry Kissinger, Nobel Laureate, Harvard professor, confidant of many Presidents,
and Secretary of State. Hitchens
is not my favorite guy, and I have often disagreed with him (on the Iraq war
and on spirituality for example), but he is very bright, a wonderful writer,
I urge you to read
it. Then ask yourself whether you think any American at the time had any idea of what a monster Kissinger really is. I can answer that question, I think. Even those of us who opposed his views most vigorously would have been amazed and appalled.
I wonder how many contemporary persons of power are the same?