Psychopathy, biology, and Jesus

Recently, Science News published a story on the scientific study of psychopathy (which I encourage everyone to read). Psychopaths, which may account for 1% of the population, lack a conscience and the capability to experience empathy, guilt, or loyalty. Obviously when such pathology is coupled with a sadistic streak, the result is disastrous.

The pathology of psychopathy is fascinating, precisely because it inversely mirrors the characteristics of the Savior. This is especially true in the uniquely Mormon atonement theories (e.g., empathy theory), in which Jesus suffered the atonement, in some measure to acquire perfect empathy, or to “know according to the flesh how to succor his people.” Mormon theology also champions the idea that the “Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil.” Christ is perfectly empathetic, completely sensitive to what is right and wrong and, one could argue, perfectly loyal. The psychopath is, in many ways, the anti-Christ.

Psycopathy is different than sociopathy. The sociopath still recognizes right and wrong, but due to socialization has conceptions of right and wrong that are skewed (no shortage of sociopaths around, it would seem). Recent research suggests that there is a biological basis for psychopathy with its inability to empathize or comprehend right and wrong.

Biological bases for evil force us to conceive of biological bases for good. However one considers 19th century beliefs in “believing blood,” it would seem that there is a biological propensity to Christ-like attributes. This isn’t to negate the effects of the atonement, but I think we sometimes underestimate the significance of the resurrection in our redemption. Christ will give us a new body; one which, I presume, will be biologically predisposed to empathy, guilt (or the ability to know right from wrong) and loyalty.

It is true that not everyone with psychopathic characteristics turn into serial killers or corporate criminals. Agency has some ability to curb evil, and research shows that good parenting can alleviate some psychopathic tendencies. Still, my heart breaks for the parents in the Science News story that have children with the pathology.


  1. Thanks for this, it is a great example of our fallen natures and that the natural man equates to determinism.

  2. I believe there is some truth to this. While we still have the option to choose for some it is more difficult than others. Our chore on this earth is to overcome the natural man with it’s imperfectness. There is also a thin line where Satan wishes us to despise and hate our mortal bodies, because of his lack thereof. In the resurrection our bodies will be made perfect and not a hair on the head lost, (i am excited about that one…) There is much debate as to how will the perfect body be, what will it look like etc.
    I am not convinced we will all be the perfect Nordic descendents blonde and blue eyed 5’11” for men and 5’7″ for female…
    But there is some glue to this theory. I would be interested in reading more about this subject.

  3. I am not convinced we will all be the perfect Nordic descendents blonde and blue eyed 5′11″ for men and 5′7″ for female

    I sure hope not…not just because there is no evidence anywhere for it.

  4. Quasi related is my current favorite Joseph Smith Quote:

    Joseph said that before foundation of the Earth in the Grand Counsel that the Spirits of all Men were subject to oppression & the express purpose of God in giving it a tabernacle was to arm it against the power of Darkness.

    -McIntire Minute Book, Lyceum at Nauvoo, Ill., January 19, 1841

    While our Physical bodies (along with the determinism that goes with them) are our greatest struggle in mortality (because we all have our genetic problems, it would seem), there is hope for a greater future state.

  5. I am a bit baffled by references to the “natural man” in this context. It would appear that there is no single natural man. Some are naturally psychopaths, and some are naturally compassionate. And to the extent that these traits are biologically determined and altered in the resurrection, overcoming the natural man is not a spiritual process which comes as the result of faith, but is a biological process which comes as a result of God fixing what is nothing more than a biological defect.

  6. J.Stapley,

    That was my point exactly. It sure is hard typing emotion. I know we should form our words carefully but i do enjoy using sarcasm so. I just am curious as to how we all will be in the everafter…..

  7. jothegrill says:

    From the title, I didn’t expect this to be as helpful to me as it was. Thank you for your insights.

  8. “Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil”

    This article kinda proves that wrong, doesn’t it?

  9. This article kinda proves that wrong, doesn’t it?

    It is an interesting paradox. I’m not sure that I know what resolution is, but there is no question that the details of mortality get all kinds of sticky.

  10. “Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil”

    Actually, I don’t see a problem with this… our bodies are physical, and things go wrong. In no way does that discount the intent of God for all to have the opportunity… but living in a fallen world in physical bodies that sometimes malfunction, well, it’s part and parcel of the deal.

  11. I agree with Tracy, what it potentially does do is lump the Psychopath with the group of other people already doctrinally specified as not accountable, like children under the age of 8, children with severe autism or other mental handicaps. Of course, it is hard to tell (for me) who is a psychopath, a sociopath, or a psychotic.

    And does this mean Charles Manson will be in the Celestial Kingdom?

  12. Darrell Wyatt says:

    And does this mean Charles Manson will be in the Celestial Kingdom?
    I am sure that many of us will be surprised at some of those who eventually end up there.

  13. Steve Evans says:

    …and who don’t.

  14. Popular topic: My post on The Sociopath Next Door still gets Google hits every day. But I don’t see anything Satanic or supernatural about sociopathy. It stems from the same sort of physical, physiological, and mental disorders that cause other diseases, illnesses, or conditions. Sociopaths may be hell to live with, but that’s really just a metaphor. Life isn’t a grade-B horror flick.

  15. That was a great post, Dave. I forgot about it or I would have linked to it…I aught to start using the Archipelago search feature more :)

  16. Gary: I’ve been thinking about what you said. I would agree not every choice can be boiled down to determinism. However, as other commetors have touched, there is a reason the Lord said he will forgive whom he will, but we must forgive everyone.

  17. Brandon B. says:

    I really enjoyed this post. It enriched my understanding of the resurrection and sparked a number of thoughts about the influence of biological factors on the ability of individuals to use their agency in a virtuous manner. While biology alone cannot account for human behavior, we must be very slow to judge others because we are not familiar with the biological conditions that influence their decisions. I would be interested in understanding more about the intersection between the biological and the spiritual. Specifically, to what extent can the human spirit overcome negative biological conditioning in this life before the resurrection takes place?

  18. Brandon: I think negative biological conditioning is different per individual, so the extent the spirit can work with that conditioning is different per individual as well.

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