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Unread June 29th, 2005, 08:16 AM
James Brody James Brody is offline
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Default Brothers Under the Skin: Buss on Murder and Peck on Exorcism.

Peck talks about demonic possession, Buss about murder. Their works are similar in delightful ways but everyone knows, and will protest, they are also very different. (Buss will be aghast at the possibility of similarities; Peck probably flattered.) First, as to differences: Buss claims that murder is more common than reported and suggests that it is one of those adaptation things: in Geoffrey Miller's terms, easy to learn, fun to do, acquired by every normal human, and often related to matters of reproduction. And like other quirky gifts from sexual selection, it is more conspicuous in males than in females. Peck argues that possession is extremely rare, indirectly observed, and difficult to measure. It takes a different form in every case.

Buss argues from FBI crime statistics, cross cultural comparisons, and several dozen case histories; Peck might have taken the same approach but ignores our historical record, universal terror elicited in susceptible individuals by thoughts of evil, and the crime data for cult and ritual killings. Peck restricts himself to two case studies and his role as the exorcist for each of them. Each of these guys calls himself a scientist, each has his religion and followers although they have different ones.

Funny Moments:
There are none in Buss. When he tires of statistics and theory, he delivers sanctimony about mismatch and the evil that persists in us despite technology's gifts. However, he preaches less in "Murderer" than he did in the second edition of "Desire." (Thank you!) Peck's humor is sometimes intentional, sometimes not. For example, he reports that a half-dozen participants in an exorcism saw and felt the young woman become a serpent while they physically restrained her although the videotape didn't pick up the change. Another example: after several meetings, Peck invited Canon Brewster, a top lieutenant for the Bishop of New York, to participate in an exorcism. The reply: "This seemingly mild-mannered man suddenly screamed at me over the phone. 'Are you crazy? Are you really going ahead with this? You must be out of your damned mind!'" (Ironically, Peck spent $4000 in telephone costs in his search for a theologian, Catholic or not, to be the exorcist on the first of his two cases. Peck finally assumed the role himself.) A third example when Peck refers to evolution: he notes that "Beccah" was Jewish and when she became a snake, it was an old one, perhaps two million years old instead of a younger one that Christian fundamentalists might favor, a snake perhaps more responsive to Old Testament directives than to New! (I can't make this stuff up!)

Similarities in Our Puppeteer:
Whether we examine the work of an evolutionist or a healer-theologian, statistical physics and evolution provide not only their bones but also their ambitions and targeting systems. Kauffman (2000) commented that emergent networks pursue self interest when they accrue resources. Thorndike called it the Law of Effect. In either case, ideas, perhaps seeded by natural selection, collect resources, build sequences of behavior, and suppress competing ideas. My own thoughts about getting a motorcycle spun a web of yearnings for leather jackets, helmets, boots, oscillator lights, saddle bags, CB radios, biker magazines, and a mannequin in a short leather skirt to ride over the rear wheel! The "bike" idea didn't care if I bought cat food, called my son, paid the mortgage, wrote progress notes, or bought health insurance. In a phrase, obsessions can be as selfish as any gene and Buss and Peck, thinking of killers or devils, have them. Further, as Stu Kauffman might predict, Peck became a Believer, Buss was already an Adaptationist.

There are other similarities:
1) Both men are teachers, Buss leads us to evolution, Peck to Christianity.
2) "Sync" occurs when people move into parallel behaviors although Peck calls it "community." A small group of individuals, like a small group of neurons or termites, monitor similar events and each other, achieve extraordinary focus on a tiny set of phenomena, and compensate for each other's mistakes. (Skinner did the same thing when he steered missiles with three pigeons instead of one!) Buss collaborates with many small teams, one of Peck's local clusters had nine participants who kept Beccah in restraints: all nine sensed that she became a snake.
3) Snakes are one of our familiars from very early in our EEA. No surprise that we might see them, or bugs, during times of illness or high stress.
4) Richard Lewontin noted that "Organisms are extremely internally heterogeneous. Their states and motions are consequences of many intersecting causal pathways, and it is unusual that normal variation in any one of these pathways has a strong effect on the outcome. To be ill is precisely to be dominated by a single causal chain. To be obsessed by an idee fixe which motivates all one's actions, or to be convinced that all behavior on the part of others, without distinction, is hostile, is a form of mental illness...Indeed, we may define 'normality' as the condition in which no single pathway controls the organism." Whether murder or in possession, a finite set of ideas takes control of their carrier and suppresses the competition. The obsession lives even though contributing to its carrier's death (Brody, 2004).
5) Peck is all for Free Will but notices one of his dilemmas: individuals have a genuine choice (whatever that is!) to align with the sky god rather than with Number Two. But if the sky-god is not embraced, the also-ran automatically takes control. Buss has a similar hard time: if we have psychological adaptations, then by definition, we are apt to run our automatic sequences when jealous or cheated. Buss doesn't want adaptationism to get killers slack when sentenced. In regard to legal defenses, however, "the devil made me do it" could be more useful than blaming Chuck Darwin.
6) Both writers are concerned about "nasty guys," probably another adaptation thing but one that each writer attempts to mask by gender correctness. That is, Peck swears that demons have no gender although God and Satan are usually cast as males; Buss devotes equal space to the killer women and to killer males but finds their motives to differ.

Bottom Lines:
Buss does his usual fine job and his book is valuable for its data and its organization extending the evolutionary framework even if he gives us no surprises and no jokes. Indeed, the biggest surprise in "Murder" was publicist John Brockman's getting it out of "Nature" and into the "Crime" section at Barnes. As for Peck, save your $26 unless you want him as one more case study...

Brody, J. (2004) Bipolar disorder: self-interested networks, cycling, and their management. In M. Brown (Ed.) Progress in Bipolar Disorder Research. Hauppage, NY: Nova Science Biomedical Series, pp. 33-64.
Buss, D. (2005) The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill. NY: Penguin.
Kauffman, S. (2000) Investigations. NY: Oxford.
Lewontin, R. (1998/2000) Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, Environment. Cambridge, MA, Harvard, pp. 93-94.
Peck, S. (2005) Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist's Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, & Redemption. NY: Free Press.

Copyright, James Brody, 2005, all rights reserved.
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