From Little Acorns Twisted Trees Grow

January 21, 2008


As David Rochester recently pointed out in an excellent (though very sad) post about two of his cousins, the process by which human character is formed is mysterious. As they grow up, children sometimes turn out to be very different people than their genetics or their upbringing lead us to expect.

However, most of the time, most children turn out not much different than we would expect. In horse racing, sometimes a favorite ends up back at the end of the field and sometimes a “dark horse” wins and returns $100 on a $1 bet.

But not very often. You can’t pick individual winners consistently, but when you look at statistics of groups, the odds hold up pretty well. That’s why casinos don’t go broke. That’s why you can’t predict the result of one coin toss very well, but you can guess with some assurance how many heads and tails you will get after 100 coin tosses. (Unless the coin has been rigged with the same symbol on both sides.)

So I suggest a thought experiment. I will warn you it is a very disturbing one. If you are in a good mood and want to stay that way, go read another blog.

There is no way to prove or disprove the following assertion. It’s just something I imagine. That’s the best reassurance I can give you.

Suppose I had fairly massive resources at my disposal, say those of Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, or those of a small country, say Finland or Singapore for example. A small country under my absolute control would be handy. A fairly quiet one that doesn’t draw attention to itself would be very convenient for my fell purposes.

I would start with 300 infants, selected at random.

The children would then be divided into three groups, again at random. Surrogate parents under my control would raise the children as I direct.

In group 1, I would use techniques developed over the years in such societies as Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler, and various Communist societies under leaders such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and the Kims of Korea.

I would also draw techniques from various religions at their worst, including the Catholic Inquisition and the Protestant persecution of witches in England and Scotland. Islam has similar human rights abuses on its record in areas such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan.

A study of ancient Sparta would provide some useful techniques, as well of observation of present day criminal gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips.

Using such techniques I would set out to raise a generation of sociopaths who would be quite willing to murder, torture, and steal at my command.

My prediction is that I would be successful at least 80% of the time in reliably producing monsters.

In group 2, using techniques of education developed over the years by wholesome religious leaders and sensible psychologists, educators, and anthropologists and frequently (though not universally) observed in a variety of societies throughout the world, I would set out to produce decent citizens. They would not be perfect; most would make mistakes, and some would flunk out of school, get fired, get divorced, engage in arguments, and cause and experience a variety of mishaps of life. But they would not kill or intentionally hurt people. If they found your wallet, they would return it to you. If they found you injured, they would assist you and get aid for you. They would be reasonably polite and sensible. I predict I would be successful about 60% of the time in producing people who could reasonably be described as “good citizens.”

Group 3 would be a control group, so I could feel I was being very scientific.

I predict a lower success rate for the good group than the bad group because I suspect it is easier to get people to be evil (if you start at a young enough age) than it is to get them to be good.

In any case, I don’t predict complete success for either group as some people are unpredictable and defy expectations. As David’s post eloquently illustrates, the formation of human character is mysterious. Stalinist Russia produced people such as Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn who resisted evil; in a like fashion Nazi Germany produced resistors such Bonhoeffer.

Reasonably good democratic societies all too often turn out sociopaths such as Ted Bundy.

As I said, I am discussing probabilities, not certainties.

There is no way to test this hypothesis in the way I describe it. One, I am unlikely to acquire the power and resources necessary to carry it out. Second, the idea of trying it is revolting, to put it mildly.

Is there any scientific evidence to support my hypothesis?

First, I have not devoted my life to studying this hypothesis. I will list some random sources I have encountered over the years, mostly derived from history and anthropology and social psychology. I offer them as a starting place for people with morbid obsessions who want to explore this further.

(If you do start researching this topic, please do not contact me. In fact, I have a generic restraining order against John and Jane Doe, just to be on the safe side.)

Although history can not be considered a science, it does provide a lot of evidence worth considering. (I will talk about another history book I am currently reading in another post in my series for the morbid.)

There are some interesting anthropology studies on this topic, though most of them are considered dubious as guides for understanding troubled societies

Many years ago, I read a book about a supposedly peaceful, unspoiled tribe in the Philippines called the Tasaday. My wife and I were much impressed by this account. However, subsequent investigation provided very strong evidence that the Tasaday were a hoax: the anthropological equivalent of the Piltdown Man.

The eccentric British anthropologist Colin Turnbull wrote two very popular books: (among other works): The Forest People and The Mountain People. In The Forest People Turnbull portrayed the Mbuti Pygmies of Uganda as an idealized and largely unspoiled tribe. Later, in The Mountain People he described the Ik tribe of Uganda as a broken and corrupt society.

Both books are probably a little more grounded in reality than the hoax of the Tasaday, but contemporary anthropologists now consider Turnbull’s work seriously flawed and distorted by his idealistic fantasies and his personal demons.

Social psychologists have attempted to carry out experiments to demonstrate how easily people can be persuaded and tricked into engaging in unethical behavior. The most famous experiment was The Milgram Experiment

A similar experiment, the Stanford Prison experiment has been criticized as badly designed and controlled, but certainly produced disturbing results.

Comparisons have been drawn with Enron and with the American prison Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

Please don’t try this at home. Also, don’t let trained professionals try it either.


10 Responses to “From Little Acorns Twisted Trees Grow”

  1. Cameron Says:

    I agree with your premise and conclusions, from a general view.

    However, as one of those weird religious friends of yours, I have to slide in a comment about why the “evil” group would have a higher success rate, with which I know you’ll disagree: We are innately sinful. It is far easier to maintain or expand upon the status quo rather than reverse direction entirely, which we cannot do on our own.

    I recognize your right to delete at will. 🙂
    Miss you!

  2. I agree with Cameron, but I would phrase it differently: We are innately lazy. I think even casual observation will suggest that responsible, ethical behavior requires more deliberate intention, and often requires emotionally complexities such as deferral of one’s own pleasure or convenience for the sake of another.

    These things require effort that does not result in personal pleasure. Lazy people generally put forth effort that results only in personal pleasure or gratification. You have to teach people that returning a stolen wallet is an act resulting in personal gratification,as well as being a pleasure to the rightful owner …whereas a small child will readily demonstrate the immediate gratification inherent in taking something that belongs to someone else.

  3. Someone furnished me the word “co-morbid” the other day, and good citizen that I am, I pass it along. Good and bad are co-morbid, it is the human condition, imho.

  4. mommy Says:

    I’m with Cameron on this one, although would go so far as to say that your first group is really a subset of your second. That is, sinful behavior will automatically manifest itself and, given time (as the human race has been given), it will become institutionalized many times. And not everyone is going to return the found wallet, just because you say they will.

    I also miss your opinions (you-know-where) but am glad that you’ve limited your lengthy, unrelated posts to your own blog (where I always read and enjoy them!)

  5. amuirin Says:

    I think the nature of the experiment kind of betrays why, after so many generations, we don’t have a population of mostly ‘evil’ people.

    the wild card is love. most children are raised by parents who love them deeply. As opposed to your control groups that follow certain ‘rules’, many children are exposed early on to parenting that may be flawed, haphazard, even neglectful but full of that crazy warmth and affection: that willingness to sacrifice the better cookie, the last dollar, the remote control for no logical ‘survival driven’ reason. (yes, I know we’re hard-wired to love our children so we don’t throw them over a cliff the first time they have a crying jag, but human love for offspring far exceeds simple species survival needs in most examples)

    Do you ever watch reality t.v.? Hopefully not, but I do tune into some programs, and I find myself really rooting for the person who seems genuine, caring or empathetic when they’re talking privately to the camera. I don’t think I’m the only one who doesn’t want the back-stabbing, catty or selfish people not to win. It doesn’t take much to turn the tide of selfishness and brutality. Sometimes just one true loving example.

  6. amuirin Says:

    (who doesn’t want the catty selfish people to win… I added an extra ‘not’ there)

  7. pandemonic Says:

    Interesting perspective, and although I know you haven’t been studying this stuff, it’s probably close to the real thing. Scary, yes, indeed.

  8. pmousse Says:

    I have to agree with Amuirin. Whether it’s the influence of loving parents or some innate need to preserve social order by acting in socially acceptable ways, I think most people will be kind to at least some extent if not influenced to be otherwise. We may be innately lazy, but we aren’t innately sinful. And I don’t think laziness necessarily leads to bad behaviour… it isn’t hard to be generally pleasant.

  9. renaissanceguy Says:

    Well, the other side of the coin for evangelicals is that we human beings bear the image of God and we have a conscience and a moral sense. On top of all that is a will–we are not bound by any outside influences if we choose not to be.

  10. […] 13, 2008 A while back, I wrote a post in which I said that most people seem to be very malleable. As a “thought exper… I (unhappily) suggest this undermines our idea of individual responsibility for our actions, an […]

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