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The Genetics and Neuroscience of Torture

Every book on torture that i have browsed is mainly devoted to methods of torture and then to three topics: Ethical arguments against torture, Utilitarian arguments against torture, and History of the rejection of torture. I cannot find a neuroscientist or psychologist who thought of writing about the exact opposite: What were the ethical justifications for torture?, What were the utilitarian arguments for torture? and What is the history of the widespread adoption of torture?

It is fascinating to read about torture because one realizes how much ordinary people were involved in it and enjoy watching it. Public punishment (that invariably involved terrible bodily torture until well into the 19th century in Western Europe and to this day in many other parts of the world) was probably originally conceived to deter people from committing crimes: "this is what will happen to you if you commit the same crime". But its continuing popularity over the centuries seems to have been due more to its value as entertainment than to its value as deterrent. It must have already been obvious many centuries ago torture's contribution to law and order (or to winning wars) was dubious at best. However, very few people spoke against it until the Enlightenment. My guess is that it was such a popular form of entertainment that it would have been unpopular to outlaw it. People loved to watch public torture even knowing that they could be next on the gallows. Torture invented to deter crime survived for so many centuries because it became public entertainment.

My guess is that in prehistory it was absolutely normal that you would torture someone. Therefore there must have been an implicit theory (both ethical and utilitarian) that it's ok, and in fact it is good, to torture people, but it sounds like nobody has done this study. All the books start with the fact that torture was widespread but nobody seems to have wondered "why was it widespread?"

This could be another case of male bias. Because most historians are men, they take torture from granted and move on. A female historian would asks the question "why was there torture in the first place?" (See A new History of Prehistory).

As many neuroscientists have shown (see for example Shane O'Mara's "Torturing the brain - On the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating enhancedand coercive interrogation techniques", 2009), torture is mostly counterproductive. Why then did humans engage in and enjoy torturing others? If its material benefits are dubious at best, what is the point of torturing?

Children (and some would say "only boys") love to torture animals. They don't do it for some material benefit. And children enjoy to torture other children too, even their own siblings, despite what their parents would like to believe. Children like to torture toys too, and they probably don't realize the difference between a toy, an animal and another child: the instinct is the same. They would like to torture anything that is weaker than them, anything that is helpless. Adults have to teach them for many years that torturing toys, animals and other children is not good. Which means that it's difficult to change that habit/instinct. When their violence is restrained by their family, children resort to psychological torture (like bullying); but the passion for torture is still evident. It is a popular belief that children may become "evil" if their parents don't spend enough time caring for them; but that's another admission that torture is a native instinct, and that only progressive brainwashing at tender age and throughout their teens can restrain it.

Why do children torture animals and, if allowed, even other children? It seems to make no Darwinian sense.

Historians tell us that torture was mainly used for severe punishment (or, more properly, to deter others from carrying out hostile actions) and as an interrogation device (to extort valuable information), which is the kind of state torture that survives today. The truth, however, is that people thoroughly enjoyed the spectacles of other people tortured in public, for whatever reason the torture took place. While the political and the religious establishment may have limited its official blessing only to torture directed to prevent heresy/rebellion and to extort confessions, there was popular support at a visceral level for torturing people. Torture for the sake of torture is now widely acknowledged to be sadistic sychopathic behavior, something that only the severely mentally ill would do; but we are lying to ourselves if we deny that the masses are genetically programmed to enjoy the spectacle of torture (films and videogames often prove this point beyond any doubt).

When a person falls, gets hurt, breaks an object or gets robbed, people around that person tend to laugh. Parents have to teach children not to laugh when something bad happens to someone else. Our instintive reaction to someone's misfortune is joy.

I'll advance my modest theory: for millennia men thought that torturing someone gave them extra power and maybe extended their lives, that one physically acquires some of John Smith's powers by torturing him and that this extrapower might contribute to live longer and healthier. As science slowly made that concept ridiculous, human societies slowly adopted the stance that torture can only be useful for punishment or interrogation, and probably not even that.

This idea that torture is good for your well-being might stem from a "malfunction" in the brain while it is not yet fully formed. As i written in A new History of Prehistory, we tend to neglect the fact that prehistoric societies were mainly societies of teenagers (life expectancy was 20-25 at best), who had the brain of a teenager. Neuroscience tells us that the male brain does not fully mature until the mid or even late 20s, and the female brain until the early 20s. While it is not "fully mature", the human brain lives in an unbalanced state: very strong stimuli from some parts of the brain overcome the still weak processes of other parts of the brain that are meant to "rationalize" them (and later in life do so).

When we teach children not to torture objects, animals or other children we mostly use materialistic arguments: "if you break that toy, you might hurt yourself"; "if you molest that animal, it might fight back and hurt you"; "if you harm that child, her brothers might come and take revenge on you or their parents will come to ask for you to be punished". Ultimately, we are telling children that torture is bad because it might backfire, but we do not know a convincing argument against doing it in the first place: if toys cannot hurt (the case of plastic toys), then it's ok to torture them; if animals cannot fight back (the case of ants, for example), it's ok to torture them; and the step to children who cannot retaliate is not too difficult. In all of these cases the worst punishment is: "i won't buy you another one", "i won't let you play with others anymore"; which translate into "you won't have anything to torture anymore".

In our times we "brainwash" children, teenagers and adults to believe that torture is bad; but the truth is that we never discovered the causes of torture to start with, which probably means that the practice simply went dormant and could be revived at any time, given the right conditions.

Imagine for a second a scenario in which neuroscience has discovered that one indeed becomes more powerful and healthier by torturing other people: it would be interesting to see what people start doing.

Note 1: I dismiss studies like Stanley Milgram' "Behavioral Study of Obedience" (1963) as irrelevant to this discussion because they tend to focus on torture as an abnormal state caused by some political/religious pressure against the ethical beliefs of the torturer. History tells the opposite story: torture was considered ethical, useful and even fun by ordinary people. Children tell us the same story.

Note 2: Human sacrifice was practiced throughout the world. So was cannibalism. I don't think cannibalism is related to torture (nor viceversa) but human sacrifice just might.

Some bibliography (but i never found any text that specifically deals with the source, origins and nature of torture):

  • Roy Baumeister: "Evil - Inside Human Violence and Cruelty" (1999)
  • Michel Foucault: "Discipline and Punish" (1975)
  • Edward Peters: "Torture" (1996)
  • Harold Schechter: "Savage Pastimes - A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment" (2005)
  • Pieter Spierenburg: "A History of Murder" (2008)

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