The September 27th issue of Science contains a review by Ruud Abma, a social scientist, of the above book, subtitled, The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments.[stextbox id=”custom” color=”000033″ bcolor=”adff2f” bgcolor=”dcdcdc” image=”null”] It is August, 1961. While the “learner” in the next room is begging him to stop, the person filling the role of “teacher” is urged by a stern-looking scientist to keep testing and, if the answer is wrong, administering electric shocks. The teacher had been told that the experiment addressed the effect of punishment on learning, but, in reality it was about obedience: with each wrong answer, on the memory test, teachers [the real subjects] were to increase the voltage. How far would people go? Far, it appeared: 65% of the teachers continued to the possibly deadly level of 450 volts. (In reality, of course, no shocks were given.) [/stextbox]The real scientist was Stanley Milgram who claimed that he had discovered a “universal truth about human nature that explained the obedience to Nazi officials and Adolph Hitlier: in the face of authority, human conscience is frail.” The book documents that Milgram had deliberately designed the experiment to prove his point, initially finding that the subjects complied in direct relation to the degree of pressure placed on them, that many of them assumed that the whole thing was a pretense (with that comically overdone faux shock machine), and that Milgram himself privately admitted that the experiments were “merely effective theater.”
Nevertheless, I believe that obedience to the authority of groups is indeed at the center of human nature. For two million years, the brains of our pre-human ancestral species expanded in order to synchronize the behavior of 20-30 individuals for-the-good-of-their-groups. This is how selection at the level of groups works. There are two factors, however, that were intrinsic to the obedience of these ancestors to the authority residing in the spiritual sphere of their groups. The first is that these groups were naturally selected not in competition with one another, but according to their relative productivity. Secondly, these ancestral groups were non-hierarchical: their authority was very simply the-good-of-their-groups, and so, intrinsic to this authority, which we have inherited, was and is morality and justice.
The fate of our Homo sapiens species is that the authority for-the-good-of-the-group has been usurped by evil individuals like Adolph Hitler and P.T.Barnum want-to-be’s like Stanley Milgram. However, it is our special destiny to live out the true meaning of our deepest nature: in the absence of morality and justice, authority is preordained to fall by the wayside due, if for no other reason, to the failure of its productivity. I cannot refrain from, once again, repeating President Lincoln’s assessment of the source of authority that was afield in our own Civil War.
[stextbox id=”custom” color=”000000″ bcolor=”dc143c” bgcolor=”fdf5e6″ image=”null”]If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”