A few days ago a news article ran on the front page of Yahoo which reported on a recent scientific study. The research claims to show that mice – and by extension humans – naturally take pleasure in violence. Researchers taught a mouse to press a button if he wanted another male mouse to be released into his cage. They found that the mouse would consistently call for the intruder and then fight him, suggesting that the violence is viewed as a reward. The conclusion that is drawn is that humans, whose brains are “analogous” to the brains of mice, are built to crave violence like they crave sex. A desire for violence is a natural, although no longer “beneficial” aspect of our physiological make-up.
There are a few observations I’d like to make about this news report and the study it was based on.
First, I am deeply concerned about the way news outlets report scientific studies. While I continue to have some measure of faith in the objectivity of the scientific method, I have little or no faith in the objectivity of the media. It is in the media’s best interest to report scientific stories which are sensational and/or appeal to our most base desires. Because of the nature of scientific research, and the population’s general ignorance of it, the media has many studies from various journals to choose from in order to cater to their audience’s tastes. There is almost always some study released somewhere which can be reported on to improve readership, but only if the reporter is willing to ignore the very nature of research.
No research is done in a vacuum or considered exhaustively conclusive. When a study is published other researchers might try to duplicate the experiment to test its veracity, alternative hypotheses are tested, and the original study is often modified to adjust to new information. All studies are tentative in this way, especially when they have just been released and do not have the benefit of extensive academic scrutiny. When the media reports on a study, however, there is rarely any indication that there might be disagreement within the scientific community. Research is presented with the illusion of unanimous agreement. The effect of such irresponsible reporting is that the understanding readers’ have of the world and their own lives can be significantly altered.
This article on violence in mice is an example of reporting a tentative (although promising) study as if it was conclusive. Note the use of language and the relative lack of qualifiers, “might, seem, could, suggest, perhaps, etc…” Also notice that there is no indication that the research has been contested or challenged. For all we know, the research has conclusively shown that a desire for violence is natural. Many readers might have understood the article like this: “Scientists have determined that it is natural for humans to desire violence,” when they should have read, “One study has shown that a particular mouse has been taught to push a button if he wants to fight. Since the mouse chose to fight a lot and since there is some connection to fighting and the reward center of his brain, it seems to mean that mice find violence rewarding, and if the human mind is similar enough to the mind of a mouse, this might mean that humans also find violence rewarding due to their physiological make-up, but further research is still needed.”
The second observation I would like to make is that a misunderstanding of the importance and validity of this study could lead some readers to condone violence, or at least violent entertainment. I don’t mean this observation to sound alarmist, but I do want to point out that such articles do have an impact on the way people view the world. If the reader (erroneously) believes that taking pleasure in violence is a part of our natural, physiological make-up, how can we harshly judge violent criminals? Is acting out a natural impulse wrong? As believers we can say that man is made in the image of God and therefore to harm a human, unless it is necessary to protect others, is unjust. Although it might be “natural” for our flesh to desire violence, it is not morally just for us to be violent.
My third observation is that the article ends with an evocation of utilitarianism:
“Even though it served a purpose for other animals, in modern human societies. . .a propensity toward aggression is not beneficial and can be a problem.” -Study team member Craig Kennedy, professor of special education and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
“Benefit,” particularly when it is spoken by a respected researcher, appears to resolve any moral problems we might have with treating a desire for violence as natural, but the word lacks any meaningful explanatory force: Benefits who? How? How do we know it benefits them? According to what scale? The fundamental problem of utilitarianism is that “benefit” is always arbitrarily defined–a fact we should not allow ourselves or others to shrink from, even when they are respected scientists. We are not released from the moral implications of this study with the mere mention of “benefit” without any reference to who will benefit and how such benefit could be defined. The question remains: if it is a part of our physiology to desire violence as we desire sex, how can we harshly punish those who are violent and how can we censor any violent entertainment outside of a biblical belief in the image-of-God-ness of man?
By pointing out that a study will cause people to wrestle with difficult moral problems I am in no way suggesting that the scientific research is flawed or wrong; I merely hope to point out that the ethical solution which is presented in the article (“benefit”) is not a solution at all, but instead opens a door to many other problems which are no less difficult to resolve.
Ultimately, the burden of guilt falls on the media for distorting and misrepresenting both particular research and the scientific method as a whole. Practically however, it is our obligation as believers to be discerning. It is important that we seek to have a proper understanding of science and its processes–one that is neither overly suspicious nor blindly trusting. In addition, we should act in such a way as to support and allude to man’s made-in-the-image-of-God-ness, which in this case means rejecting the idea that violence is justified because of a natural physiological desire. Finally, we must be vigilant to guard against and identify linguistic slight-of-hand. The use of ethical and moral terminology, like “benefit,” does not mean that these terms have any explanatory power or definition.
It should be no surprise to us that humans desire to shed blood (ref. the Fall), but I would like to suggest that another “natural” tendency is revealed in this article: the willingness to mislead for profit.