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Even worse, biology may show that we are all blameless. Evolutionary theory says that the ultimate rationale for our motives is that they perpetuated our ancestors’ genes in the environment in which we evolved. Since none of us are aware of that rationale, none of us can be blamed for pursuing it, any more than we blame the mental patient who thinks he is subduing a mad dog but really is attacking a nurse. We scratch our heads when we learn of ancient customs that punished the soulless: the Hebrew rule of stoning an ox to death if it killed a man, the Athenian practice of putting an ax on trial if it injured a man (and hurling it over the city wall if found guilty), a medieval French case in which a sow was sentenced to be mangled for having mauled a child, and the whipping and burial of a church bell in 1685 for having assisted French heretics. But evolutionary biologists insist we are not fundamentally different from animals, and molecular geneticists and neuroscientists insist we are not fundamentally different from inanimate matter. If people are soulless, why is it not just as silly to punish people? Shouldn’t we heed the creationists, who say that if you teach children they are animals they will behave like animals? Should we go even farther than the National Rifle Association bumper sticker—GUNS DON’T KILL; PEOPLE KILL—and say that not even people kill, because people are just as mechanical as guns?
These concerns are by no means academic. Cognitive neuroscientists are sometimes approached by criminal defense lawyers hoping that a wayward pixel on a brain scan might exonerate their client (a scenario that is wittily played out in Richard Dooling’s novel Brain Storm). When a team of geneticists found a rare gene that predisposed the men in one family to violent outbursts, a lawyer for an unrelated murder defendant argued that his client might have such a gene too. If so, the lawyer argued, “his actions may not have been a product of total free will.” When Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer argued that rape is a consequence of male reproductive strategies, another lawyer contemplated using their theory to defend rape suspects. (Insert your favorite lawyer joke here.) Biologically sophisticated legal scholars, such as Owen Jones, have argued that a “rape gene” defense would almost certainly fail, but the general threat remains that biological explanations will be used to exonerate wrongdoers. Is this the bright future promised by the sciences of human nature—it wasn’t me, it was my amygdala? Darwin made me do it? The genes ate my homework?