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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Evil, empathy and the evolution of morality

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal, with added links:

It's presumably neither ethical nor practical, but supposing that somebody could sequence Osama bin Laden's genome, which genes would you want to examine to try to understand his violent desires?

I put this question to the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the author of a new book called "The Science of Evil" (and a cousin of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen). He replied that there is no evidence that bin Laden's crimes came from his nature, rather than from his experiences, so you might find nothing.

But, Prof. Baron-Cohen went on, it would at least be interesting to take a look at bin Laden's MAOA gene (linked to aggression), his AVPR1A and CNR1 genes (linked to emotional expression) and his CYP11B1, NTRK1, and GABRB3 genes, which show some association with how individuals score on a scale called the "Empathy Quotient." He discovered these linkages in the course of testing his hypothesis that cruelty is generally enabled by a failure of empathy.

In most cruel people, Prof. Baron-Cohen argues, the "empathy circuit," which runs through 10 different regions of the brain, goes down either temporarily or permanently, leaving the person with "zero empathy." The reasons may be partly innate, partly a function of early experiences such as birth trauma or parental neglect, or an interaction of the two.

Not all zero-empathy people are cruel. There is a category of "zero-positive" people, with autism or severe Asperger's, who lack empathy but show no tendency to unkindness. And not all cruel people lack empathy (bin Laden may be among the exceptions). But if Prof. Baron-Cohen is right, a combination of a brain scan, a genotyping and a case history could "diagnose" many or even most cruel personalities, perhaps even before they commit crimes.

This would raise all sorts of ethical dilemmas and goes to the heart of morality itself. The eminent "neurophilosopher" Patricia Churchland, in her new book "Braintrust," sets out to understand good rather than evil, but she reaches much the same conclusion as Prof. Baron-Cohen. She, too, finds that morality is all about empathy. (Both authors note in passing the startling discovery that it seems to be possible to raise people's empathy by squirting the hormone oxytocin up their noses.)

Prof. Churchland is also "biological" about morality, seeing it as an adaptation that our brains have evolved in order to cement social ties. With a series of examples, she rejects the idea that morality is a set of rules and codes handed down from on high, without which we would all behave badly. "Morality seems to me to be a natural phenomenon," she concludes, "constrained by the forces of natural selection, rooted in neurobiology, shaped by the local ecology and modified by cultural developments."

Where does this new bio-morality leave the "naturalistic fallacy," the idea that you cannot derive moral lessons from scientific facts-that "is" does not determine "ought"? This venerable shibboleth has been useful to generations of biologists ever since it was formally "proved" by the philosopher G.E. Moore in 1903. It absolves them of moral consequences from determining how the world actually works: "I'm just telling you how it is, not how it should be."

Prof. Churchland says the naturalistic fallacy is itself a fallacy, based on a logical mistake. We are going to have to get used to the idea that science will tell us things about the biological causes of our moral sense that themselves have moral implications. Moore, for example, concluded that we should use our intuition, rather than our discoveries, to decide whether something is right or wrong.

But the more we find out about the evolutionary origin of our intuitions, says Prof. Churchland, the less promising they look as "miraculous channels to the truth," rather than as rules of thumb chosen by natural selection to achieve certain social goals.

Admitting that morality is partly an instinct need not lead to less morality. It could make us wiser about encouraging good. But it is a challenge.