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Is is rational to Do No Harm? September 23, 2007

Posted by Johan in Abnormal Psychology, Behavioural Genetics, Emotion, Social Neuroscience.
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From the left: Josef Mengele, Rudolf Hoess, Josef Kramer, and unknown.

The picture above comes from a set recently added to the US Holocaust museum. The pictures have caused a stir since they depict staff at the Auschwitz concentration camp on what might in modern terms be described as corporate kick-offs and the like. I’m not sure why it’s surprising that the prison guards liked to relax and have fun now and then – clearly, they would not have taken up the position if they were not at least acceptant of the task at hand. There is little evidence that the third reich forced or ordered anyone to commit these atrocities, after all.

Mengele is an interesting character. As a leading physician in the camp, he (along with the other physicians) decided who would be sent to work and who would be sent to the gas chambers, as the captives disembarked their trains. He is also infamous for his cruel experiments on inmates. In particular, he collected twins, which were separated from the other inmates, and used to study the heredity of racial traits under much the same principles employed by modern-day twin studies in behavioural genetics, but without ethics committees or indeed basic human decency.

I came across an old NY Times article on Mengele, written by what I assume must be a psychoanalyst. Yes, the usual speculative attempts to explain the man’s behaviour as a function of repressed anxiety appear, but for the most part the article sticks to the story, re-telling the life and work of Mengele through witnesses.

Although this is probably not news to historians, I am struck by the contradictions and inexactness of the accounts, even though this is very recent history. Within the NY Times article, witness accounts frequently contradict eachother: Mengele is described as being an aloof person with no emotions, next he is playful, friendly (even in his role in deciding life and death on the ramp), and entertains his young twin subjects. When comparing the NY Times article to the Wikipedia entry or his entry at the Holocaust History Project, further discrepancies arise.

Yet, a clear picture emerges, and it is one of supreme rationalism and dedication to science (albeit science that turned out to be fundamentally flawed). These are terms that are usually considered positive in our society, so you may be excused if you think me a Nazi apologist for saying so. It’s quite the contrary, however. I think Mengele’s case highlights how the idealised image of the objective Academic, struggling only to further knowledge, can be a road straight to hell.

From a rationalist standpoint, it is relatively easy to understand Mengele’s decisions. As an anthropologist with an interest in heredity, he must have recognised that Auschwitz offered an unprecedented opportunity for all kinds of forbidden experiments. The NY Times article implies that this research opportunity may have been the very reason why he actively sought a position at the camp. From a moral standpoint, the prisoners at Auschwitz were going to suffer terrible suffering or immediate death regardless – one could then argue that Mengele only tries to make the best of the situation by adding to human knowledge, while killing and maiming. For Mengele, the suffering of the prisoners was likely a non-issue in any case, since the man was a rabid anti-semite, and considered his subjects less than human. In this sense, the work may have presented no more of a dilemma to Mengele than the dilemma a contemporary researcher faces in killing a macaque monkey after the conclusion of a single-cell recording study, in order to verify that the electrodes were placed in the right cortical location.

My point here is not to defend Mengele – he was clearly an appalling person who, apart from all other damage done, sullied the name of science. Still today, Mengele is the original template for the evil scientist, who seeks knowledge at any (human) cost. But it is unsatisfying to merely state that Mengele was “evil”, and thus did what he did. The NY Times article finally lets loose the full-on psychoanalysis towards the end, and this explanation proves no more satisfying:

His impulse toward omnipotence and total control of the world around him were means of fending off anxiety and doubt, fears of falling apart – ultimately, fear of death. That fear also activated his sadism and extreme psychic numbing.

I would prefer to invoke the behaviour of patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC -the bit of brain just above and between the eyes). These patients display, among other symptoms, what can best be described as a lack of conscience. They are well aware of the conventions of society, but as the post linked above describes, their reasoning is defective. The defects do not appear in the expected, irrational direction, but rather in a rationality that is so extreme that is leads to horrendous decisions. These patients do advocate killing a crying baby in order to avoid the group’s capture and certain death at the hands of enemies. This is the most rational, utilitarian path to take – better the death of one than the death of all.

So did Mengele have an undetected lesion to the VMPFC? I don’t think so, and there is absolutely no way of finding out. Such an account would be as speculative as the psychoanalytic drivel cited above. I only wish to raise the possibility that sometimes, a behaviour as complex as immorality or a lack of conscience may arise from relatively simple lesions. Repressed traumas and anxiety may well cause such cruel behaviour too (who knows?), but a blow to the head strikes me as the more parsimonious explanation, if we’re going to speculate about it anyway

I don’t think Mengele was mad, evil, or suffered from repressed anxiety. He was a dedicated and supremely rational scientist. This is why he caused so much harm.

Comments»

1. Old School Hacker - October 19, 2007

Dangerous Logic

“I think Mengele‚Äôs case highlights how the idealised image of the objective Academic, struggling only to further knowledge, can be a road straight to hell.” A quote from this poston the Phineas Gage Fan Club blog. It’s a grand post,


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