Nature or nurture: The Cases of Magnus Carlsen and Anders Behring Breivik

No single factor, genetic or otherwise, can explain why one young Norwegian becomes world master in chess, whereas another becomes a mass murderer. But perhaps a combination of factors can.

Why are human beings geniuses, while others end up as sadistic murderers? Were they born that way, or were they shaped that way through their social environment and upbringing?

This is the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture. My personal view on this is that biology matters a great deal. People can be born with a specific genetic profile and brain that will make them predisposed towards a certain type of mentality and behavior. However, while you can be born with a certain potential, to what extent that potential is realized depends upon your social environment. There are plenty of people throughout history whose talent was either never recognized or in some ways wasted.


It is instructive to look at this debate of nature vs. nurture through the cases of two young Norwegian men who have both made international headlines in recent years. One is Magnus Carlsen, currently the reigning World Chess Champion. The other is the mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.

Magnus Carlsen became a chess grandmaster at the age of 13, one of the youngest players ever to do so. In November 2013, he beat Viswanathan Anand in India in the World Chess Championship. At the time of writing, Carlsen is the number one ranked chess player in the world, having achieved the highest peak rating in history and beaten the previous record set by the great Russian chess player Garry Kasparov.

His parents are both engineers by profession. At the age of two, Carlsen had already shown an aptitude for jigsaw puzzles and other intellectual challenges. He further displayed a phenomenal memory as a child. His father figured that Magnus might be good at chess and introduced the game to his son, but he never set out to carefully groom him for this.


Magnus Carlsen has been dubbed the Mozart of chess. This is partly referring to the fact that he is a genius and a child prodigy, as was the famous composer. However, there are differences between them. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may well have been born with a unique talent, but his father Leopold Mozart also carefully cultivated Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl in various musical disciplines from a very tender age.

Henrik Carlsen warns that people get this wrong. They think we asked him to play. But we never asked him. It came from inside.   When he was around five, he was trying to teach Magnus chess. He did not seem too interested. His father therefore made no attempt to push his son further in this regard, until Magnus returned to the game on his own a little later.  When he came back to it again, he was around seven and I could see he had a deep passion for it. It had to be that way for him to stay motivated and enjoy it. The chess is his. It is not mine, says Henrik Carlsen.

Perhaps Magnus Carlsen was literally born with a special talent. Yet at least his supportive parents recognized this talent and helped him cultivate it further. The boy was also fortunate enough to receive competent aid and training between the age of 10 and 19 from people such as grandmaster Simen Agdestein, who was for years Norways best chess player. However, Agdestein stresses that although Carlsen received support and encouragement, he eventually managed to move beyond his teachers due to his unique talent.

Magnus Carlsen probably had a positive genetic profile that was cultivated further through a positive upbringing. It is quite possible that Anders Behring Breivik is the exact opposite of this. He had a negative genetic profile that was further cultivated in a negative and in some ways damaging upbringing.

In 2005, the American neuroscientist James Fallon was looking at brain scans of serial killers. As part of a research project, he was sifting through thousands of PET scans to find anatomical patterns in the brain that might correlate with psychopathic tendencies in the real world. By chance, he also had scans from himself and his family lying on his desk. He happened to see this scan of a brain that looked pathological. It showed low activity in certain areas of the frontal and temporal lobes linked to empathy, morality and self-control. When he looked it up, he discovered that this psychopathic brain was his own.

Fallon has gone public with this information and seeks to reconcile how he a happily married family man could display the same anatomical patterns that characterize the brains of serial killers. Ive never killed anybody, or raped anyone, he says. Yet when he underwent a series of genetic tests, he got more bad news. His genetic profile showed a high risk of aggression, violence and low empathy.


Eventually, he decided that he is indeed a psychopath just a non-violent one, someone who has difficulty feeling true empathy for others but still keeps his behavior roughly within socially acceptable bounds. Hed always been aware that he was someone especially motivated by power and manipulating others, he says. Additionally, his family line included several murderers. Nevertheless, the fact that a person with the genes and brain of a psychopath could end up a stable and successful scientist made Fallon reconsider his ideas.

While hes obnoxiously competitive and kind of an asshole, his aggression tends to remain non-violent. Why has Fallon been able to temper his behavior, while others with similar genetics and brains become violent criminals? Fallon was once a genetic determinist, but he now believes that his childhood helped prevent him from heading down a violent and criminal path. I was loved, and that protected me, he says. He was given a lots of attention from his parents and thinks this played a key role in saving him.


As stated before, perhaps people are born with a specific genetic profile. However, this only indicates potential. To what extent that potential is realized depends upon your childhood and social environment. Unfortunately for Breivik, he also grew up in a bad home with a very unstable mother. If he had grown up in a stable and loving environment, perhaps he might have been able to keep his dangerous genetic profile in check the way James Fallon did. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Theres been a lot of debate in Norway as to how a mass murderer like Anders Behring Breivik came into being. Fingers were immediately pointed at alleged Islamophobic hate on the Internet. The problem with this theory is that hundreds of thousands of people have read my essays or Robert Spencers comments at Jihad Watch without hurting a fly because of this.

Others have highlighted the violent computer games that Breivik played nearly as a full-time occupation for years. Yet again, there are millions of people who play the same computer games without harming anybody. That being said, it is conceivable that a person who already has a weaker grasp of reality than others and a great fascination with violence might be more affected by such violent games than normal people would be.

Finally, there is Breiviks troubled childhood, where he was stuck between a mentally unstable and possibly abusive mother and a distant father who was not much interested in having contact with him. Again, even this factor is insufficient to explain how Breivik became a mass murderer. Plenty of people have had equally bad or worse childhoods without becoming murderers. They may live with deep wounds as adults, but they still manage to muddle through somehow.


In short, there was probably no single factor that caused Breivik to become a terrorist on July 22, 2011. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that his difficult childhood is the single most important factor in explaining his damaged psychology, possibly combined with genetics.

Although I cannot prove this, I will postulate that Anders Behring Breivik is probably the exact opposite of Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen was born with a positive genetic profile that was enhanced through his stable upbringing and supportive parents. Breivik was born with a potentially dangerous genetic profile that was made even worse through his unstable upbringing and flawed parents, especially his unstable and abusive mother.

If Breivik had been afflicted with only one of those components, either a difficult childhood or a potentially risky genetic profile, he might have been semi-functioning and non-criminal as an adult. The combination of these two negative factors, however, was toxic and produced a very dangerous individual.


The medical doctor Lasse Pihlstrøm, who is engaged in research into neurogenetics at the Oslo University Hospital, highlights the complex interrelationship between genetics, upbringing and social environment. In Pihlstrøms view, the image of a boy with an inborn genetic vulnerability who was subjected to external stress factors at inopportune moments in his childhood and ultimately ending up with a dramatically aberrant psychological development is gradually becoming a part of our collective understanding of the July 22 events.
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