Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Yesterday and Today: Jared Diamond on Traditional Societies

Jared Diamond. The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? New York: Viking, 2012. Hardcover $36 U.S. ISBN: 978-0670024810

There is a long history, dating at least back to Tacitus’ Germania, of authors examining more traditional societies and detailing laudable traits from them that their own more technologically advanced societies should emulate. As its title suggests, Jared Diamond’s The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? fits squarely within this tradition. It highlights differences between traditional and modern societies in areas ranging from conflict resolution and what Diamond terms “constructive paranoia” to child rearing and nutrition. In the process, it details—with varying levels of success—aspects of traditional societies that people living in the industrialized world should incorporate into our own lives and suggests ways that society as a whole should change.

Diamond, the winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for his earlier book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, is well placed to discuss traditional societies. Although currently a professor of geography at UCLA, his original training and PhD are in physiology, and he has also conducted extensive ornithological research. He indeed refers to himself as an “evolutionary biologist” in the book. Like in his previous works, Diamond calls upon his wide-ranging knowledge in the natural and social sciences in writing The World until Yesterday.

Over the past fifty years, Diamond’s ornithological research has frequently brought him to New Guinea, an island containing a large percentage of the world’s remaining traditional societies. Many of the book’s insights and anecdotes are gleaned from Diamond’s personal interactions with these groups. In fact, it occasionally reads like a memoir of his most memorable experiences in New Guinea. The book also examines a large number of traditional societies with which Diamond has no first-hand experience such as the North Slope Inuit and Great Basin Shoshone in North America and the !Kung and Pygmies of Africa.

The World until Yesterday is not the first time that Diamond has compared traditional and modern societies. In Guns, Germs, and Steel he argued that environmental factors explain why some human groups have evolved into more complex state societies while others have not. Developments such as political centralization were the result of increased population density, which was in turn caused by the intensification of food production due to the domestication of various crops and animals. In order for this process to occur, humans needed plants and animals suitable for domestication, but such species are concentrated in only a few places around the world. Human groups living in areas with these species developed larger, more complex societies. Those who did not continued to live in societies virtually unchanged from those in which their ancestors had lived for countless millennia.

Diamond continues to discuss environmental factors in The World until Yesterday. Indeed, he convincingly argues that the environment plays an important, albeit not exclusive, role in differences between traditional societies. For example, a group of people living in an environment that forces them to constantly be on the move in order to feed themselves is much more likely to euthanize its elderly than a group that leads a more settled existence. The amount of language diversity in an area is also primarily caused by environmental factors such as climate and the productivity of the land in which various groups live. But in his new book Diamond’s emphasis has changed from the evolution of societies to a study of those societies whose environment kept them from developing into more complex state societies, and what people living in modern societies can learn from them.

According to Diamond, the answer is a lot. People have, after all, lived in traditional societies until “yesterday” in the overall lifespan of the human race. As a result, studying traditional societies both helps us understand our past and elucidates what elements from these societies remain with us still. Studying traditional societies also emphasizes the diversity of human nature and moves researchers away from basing their findings just on the “narrow and atypical slice of human diversity” of modern industrialized societies (8). Diamond seems rightly disturbed that 96% of psychological research conducted in 2008 was from such societies. (Around 80% of research was on an even smaller grouping: college undergraduates enrolled in psychology courses!)  Finally, he believes that both individuals and modern society as a whole could benefit from adopting certain traits found in many traditional groups. This final lesson is by far the most emphasized in The World until Yesterday. In almost every section of the book, Diamond’s focus is on how we can better our lives by adopting aspects of traditional societies into them.

Diamond’s emphasis on what his readers can learn from traditional societies does not mean that he idolizes them. He recognizes that people living in traditional societies usually adopt the trappings of modern ones when given the opportunity—and for good reason. As he puts it, “Many traditional practices are ones that we can consider ourselves blessed to have discarded—such as infanticide, abandoning or killing elderly people, facing periodic risk of starvation, being at heightened risk from environmental dangers and infectious diseases, often seeing one’s children die, and living in constant fear of being attacked” (9). Diamond’s emphasis on the violence present in traditional societies has even led him to be attacked by some supporters of traditional peoples for supposedly portraying them as savages (The Observer, 2/2/13)—an accusation that is not supported by the contents of the book. Diamond, however, argues that even traditional groups’ negative traits can teach us the important lesson of appreciating elements of our own society that we might otherwise take for granted.

Diamond’s writing is on the whole engaging, and his definitions and explanations are easy to follow. His clear prose is sometimes marred, however, by the overly complex and often unnecessary tables that he includes. Rather than assisting the reader like they should, tables, for instance, listing examples of gluttony in traditional societies when food is abundant, providing sixteen scholarly definitions of religion, and describing in excruciating detail objects traded by a large number of traditional societies instead bog the reader down. The book includes an excellent array of relevant photographs, divided into separate sections of color and black and white plates. But these, too, are marred by poor organization. For example, why did Diamond and the editors at Viking choose to make an image of Ishi, the last Yahi Indian, the first black and white plate when he is not first mentioned until page 398?

The World until Yesterday examines the differences between modern and traditional societies in eight different areas: peaceful dispute resolution, war, raising children, treatment of the elderly, “constructive paranoia,” religion, multilingualism, and diet. Diamond admits that he has left out a large number of topics that have been studied by social scientists, but he argues that his goal is not to paint a comprehensive portrait of all aspects of human society. That is his right, of course, although one wonders how he chose to include the above topics while leaving out equally important ones such as gender relations. Each section usually begins with an anecdote relevant to the subject, often drawn from Diamond’s experiences in New Guinea, then gives an overview of various traditional societies’ norms in this area, and concludes with the lessons that can be gleaned from traditional practices.

The first two topics that Diamond covers are peaceful conflict resolution and war, which in traditional societies are the two ways that individuals handle disputes. Unlike in modern societies where disputes are usually between two or more strangers and the government’s overarching goal is to maintain social stability, the goal of peaceful dispute resolution in traditional, small-scale societies is to restore relationships between two individuals who either know each other or at least know of each other. Diamond is careful not to overemphasize the potential advantages of this traditional system of conflict resolution as failed efforts at reconciliation frequently deteriorate into cycles of violence and war, something that does not typically happen in state societies. Indeed, studies show that traditional societies’ frequent conflicts result in an average death rate from war that is three times higher than even the most war-torn countries of the twentieth century. But Diamond does believe that modern societies can learn a few lessons from traditional groups’ emphasis on restoring relationships. One suggested change is to provide more mediation in conflicts where the two sides do know each other such as divorce and inheritance disputes. Diamond argues that even strangers should be given the option to choose mediation to resolve disputes.

Diamond next discusses how traditional societies raise children and treat the elderly. While traditional societies’ behavior towards the elderly varies, Diamond argues that they are remarkably similar when it comes to the basic elements of raising children. For example, the average age of weaning in traditional societies is three, and many hunter-gatherer groups practice continual nursing in which an infant nurses in brief spurts every 15 minutes or so, a practice that they share with our closest primate relatives. Diamond huffs that “modern human mothers have acquired the suckling habits of rabbits, while retaining the lactational physiology of chimpanzees and monkeys” (183). In climates that allow it, most hunter gatherers also retain constant skin-to-skin with their babies, and every traditional society surveyed engages in co-sleeping. Most traditional societies also deal with crying children immediately, give their children more autonomy, encourage creative play rather than bombarding them with toys, and practice allo-parenting in which individuals beyond the family assist in raising a child. Diamond believes that parents in modern societies should consider adopting all these practices, observing that “other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children” (208). While traditional societies’ treatment of the elderly vary greatly, Diamond argues that many rely on the elderly for historical memory and tasks such as childcare—areas in which modern societies should utilize their aged population more as well.

The most important lesson that Diamond learned from his time among traditional groups in New Guinea is “constructive paranoia,” an oxymoron that reflects the importance of being aware of one’s environment and the potential dangers within it. Diamond believes that one close correlation to this lesson that his readers can learn is to think more clearly about the dangers we face in state societies. As such we should not focus our fears on something such as genetic modification, which has an extremely low chance of killing us, and focus instead on driving safely and wearing a helmet while biking both of which would save many lives a day.

Diamond’s interesting discussion on religion does not really fit with the rest of the book, as he does not really attempt to describe what his readers can learn from traditional religions. Diamond instead offers a learned exposition about how religion possibly originated among humans in order to explain the world around them and make predictions about it. He also explains how the functions of religious belief differ between traditional and modern societies. For instance, religion’s role in defusing anxiety was greater in traditional societies where the threat of violence and other dangers were much higher than in modern societies. On the other hand, religion’s function in larger states of providing people with codes of behavior when interacting with strangers was much less necessary in smaller traditional societies where you knew everyone.

The section on multilingualism begins by making an impassioned plea for the preservation of traditional languages, sadly noting that a language disappears every 9 days. Diamond believes that this trend is tragic as “each language is the vehicle for a unique way of thinking and talking, a unique literature, and a unique view of the world. Hence looming over us today is the tragedy of the impending loss of most of our cultural heritage” (370). Diamond then notes that multilingualism is widespread among small-scale societies that will frequently come into contact with groups speaking a language different than their own. The section ends with Diamond forcibly arguing that people living in mostly monolingual societies such as the United States need to strive to learn other languages. Besides its cross-cultural benefits, studies show that learning a different language results in more flexible minds and can even stave off the effects of Alzheimer’s for a time.

The book’s last section details how the study of traditional societies provides guidelines to reduce hypertension and diabetes in today’s industrialized societies. In it, Diamond points out that the rates of non-communicable diseases are extremely low in traditional societies and correctly argues that many of these diseases can usually be staved off by lifestyle changes. The section ends with Diamond’s prescription for leading a healthy lifestyle.

As it details what people living in modern states can learn from traditional societies, The World until Yesterday often reads as some sort of weird self-help book filled with insights that range from the useful and interesting to the unoriginal and humdrum. The conclusions that Diamond draws from traditional societies about how to lead a healthy lifestyle definitely fall into the latter category. After giving the standard advice about limiting one’s intake of calories, exercising more, not smoking, and eating more fruits and vegetables, Diamond admits: “This advice is so banally familiar that it’s embarrassing to repeat it.”  Although he then goes on to justify his conclusions by stating that “it’s worth repeating the truth,” this reviewer at least was left thinking: “Yes, your prescriptions in this area are quite banal, aren’t they?” (451).

One wonders how the average reader of Diamond’s book could implement some of his other most worthwhile suggestions. Many readers will agree that bilingualism is important, but immersing children in multiple languages early in life is extremely difficult in countries with one dominant language unless a family has the money to hire caregivers who speak a foreign language and/or send their children to a special school. Much of Diamond’s advice for childrearing is equally difficult to follow. Although a large percentage of his readership could presumably implement allo-parenting to some extent, few harried parents are in a situation where they can engage in continuous nursing or have constant skin-to-skin contact with their child. Diamond himself acknowledges that at least one of the lessons taught by traditional societies, the methods that many of them use to resolve conflict peacefully, is a change that should be adopted more at the societal rather than the individual level.

The World until Yesterday does a good job of providing an overview of differences between traditional and state societies in the areas that Diamond chooses to highlight. But the lessons that he argues modern individuals and societies should glean from traditional groups are often either trite or too difficult for the average person to implement.

- Eric Platt

Copyright – All Rights Reserved

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Neurophilosophy Challenges the Strategic Use of Moral Reasoning: A Review of Churchland's Braintrust

Patricia Churchland. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. 288 pgs. $24.95 US Hardcover.  ISBN: 978-0691156347.
Questions at issue: 1. Where do moral sentiments come from?  2. Are the biological origins of moral sentiments relevant in evaluating moral norms and the motivated reasoning of moral authorities?
“We need a critique of moral values, the value of these values themselves must first be called in question—and for that there is needed a knowledge of the conditions and circumstances in which they grew, under which they evolved and changed.” Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, ¶6.
Critical investigation into the disturbingly non-transcendent origins of morality is not new.  Evolutionary and neurological investigations have been trickling out of the academy and into the popular press for a couple of decades. However, these have so far produced more reaction than consideration, both in the general public and among academics. If anything, prevailing beliefs about the origins of morality have been wrapped in anti-scientific rhetorical defenses, most of which deny out-of-hand that science could make any contribution to the formulation of personal ethics or public policy.
No stranger to the bulwarks constructed to shield the humanities from empiricism, neurophilosophy pioneer and academic blockade-runner Patricia Churchland offers perhaps the strongest and most concise defense of the interdisciplinary study of human morality. Churchland’s 2012 book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality focuses on the deceptively simple question of where values come from. Though the question is not significantly different from that posed by Nietzsche, its 21st century incarnation cannot be answered by speculative aphorisms. To refine the question and establish a methodology for answering it, Churchland constructs two mutually-reinforcing arguments, one scientific and the other philosophical. In the scientific argument, Churchland proposes that our feelings about social responsibility, self-restraint, etc. may have emerged from the neurochemical reward system that ensures parent-child bonding in all mammals. The philosophical argument, equally important and skillfully interwoven with the scientific argument, is that rhetorical attempts to exorcise science from the discussion of moral norms and public policy are logically indefensible.
The second, third, and fourth chapters of Braintrust contain the groundwork for a hypothesis of brain-based pro-social behavior. Churchland points out the nontrivial point that morality is inherently social. While I may like to believe that I would act according to a particular ethos even if no one was watching, the fact that I want other people to applaud my integrity manifests its social utility. Living in a group is evolutionarily adaptive, but it requires a mechanism to constrain self-interest in order to ensure group cohesion. Churchland examines the evolutionary history of neural systems which extend the instincts for self-preservation, first to offspring and genetic relatives, and eventually to the social group composed of both genetic kin and non-kin on whom the individual depends for survival and reproduction. Churchland is particularly interested in the role of neurochemicals, especially oxytocin and arginine vasopressin, in constructing emotional bonds between parents and children, parents and parents, and even allo-parents caring for offspring that are not their own. Citing studies involving a range of animal species—rats, rhesus monkeys, even fruit flies—Churchland explores the powerful, if complex, influence of oxytocin and vasopressin on animal behavior. Her favorite exemplars of the social effects of neurochemistry are the monogamous prairie voles and their promiscuous cousins, the montane voles.  Not only do the two species seem to differ in little more than their brains’ stocks of oxytocin, but artificially increasing the oxytocin levels in the montane vole turns players into family men—just as reducing oxytocin in prairie voles brings on a seven-year-itch. While demonstrably influential in bonding behavior, such neuropeptides are not simple, one-cause-one-effect agents. Male rats who receive a shot of oxytocin become tender toward in-group members, but they simultaneously become hostile toward intruders. Oxytocin does not turn an individual into a universal altruist so much as it extends the individual’s self-promoting instincts (somatic effort) to family and, potentially, to immediate community. Just as parental affection may be expanded into care for others, the child’s feelings of attachment to the mother expand to create fears of social isolation in the adult—the origins of shame and approval-seeking. “Depending on ecological conditions and fitness considerations,” Churchland contends, “strong caring for the well-being of offspring has in some mammalian species extended further to encompass kin or mates or friends or even strangers, as the circle widens. This widening of other-caring in social behavior marks the emergence of what eventually flowers into morality”(14).
As the social circle expands to include non-genetic relatives, brains that evolved with greater social intelligence yielded an adaptive advantage.
Expanded memory capacities greatly enhanced the animal's ability to anticipate trouble and to plan more effectively. These modifications support the urge to be together, as well as the development of a ‘conscience’ tuned to local social practices; that is, a set of social responses, shaped by learning, that are strongly regulated by approval and disapproval, and by the emotions, more generally. More simply, mammals are motivated to learn social practices because the negative reward system, regulating pain, fear, and anxiety, responds to exclusion and disapproval, and the positive reward system responds to approval and affection. (15-16)
In other words, culture, like morality, emerges from brain systems that have adapted to form cooperative social units.  The norms as well as the individual’s receptivity to those norms both depend on a brain that is wired to care what other people think. In the fourth chapter, Churchland surveys the specifically human variables influencing or constraining social behavior, from market complexity to institutionalized religious identities, all of which depend on an interaction between internal (neural) and external (cultural) components. Churchland explores the impact of neurochemicals that influence the more reflective phenomenon of “theory-of-mind” in social cognition. The “human” social phenomena of cheating, punishment, hierarchy, cooperation, and philanthropic grand-standing have a surprising number of parallels in studies of animal behavior. In the sixth chapter, Churchland identifies brain areas (particularly the prefrontal cortex [PFC]) integral in the sort of predictive social thought needed to create and preserve extended networks of cooperation. While it is the seat of human reflective consciousness, the PFC is not an organ of perfect rationality. Churchland proposes that our focus on the moral or immoral actions of others (including essentialized cultural and religious identities) serves a primarily strategic purpose—shared morality is a means of predicting another’s behavior. As such, it is a heuristic engine. We distrust those who don’t share our moral prejudices, even when their beliefs can be shown to be more mutually beneficial than our own.
Qualified language
Any book that attempts to communicate the findings of cognitive science to the non-specialist is bound to trick some readers into making untenable over-generalizations about the scientific evidence or its implications. However, Churchland carefully separates what in the study of moral origins can be empirically studied from what cannot. She is reductionist in this sense, but not in the sense that the general public uses the word (meaning a sort of intrusive cynic who does violence to the transcendent object under study). She also inserts qualifying statements which discourage the reader from jumping to single-cause explanations (e.g. “oxytocin causes morality”). She reminds us that in even the simplest questions regarding the neural correlates of morality, “the answers are certainly going to be complex, even in voles, since the neurons affected are part of a wider system, meaning that what is going on elsewhere—in perception, memory, and so forth—will have an impact” (50). “Single genes seldom have big effects, but are part of multinode gene networks, and part of gene-brain-environment networks with recurrent loops”(53).  “[I]f a certain form of cooperation, such as making alarm calls when a predator appears, has a genetic basis, it is likely to be related to the expression of many genes, and their expression may be linked to events in the environment”(102). These statements are the dry, qualified, scientific versions of the humanists’ reminder of the roles of culture and experience in individual development. Churchland goes on to question the hypotheses of cognitive scientists such as Marc Hauser and Jonathan Haidt, whose propositions about human morality are based on empirical evidence but might exceed the parameters of the particular data. She even challenges claims by neuroscientists Marco Iacoboni and Giacomo Rizzolatti, whose research in mirror neurons has promoted a great deal of speculation about the nature of empathy and imitation. Whereas mirror neurons have been assumed to cause one individual to understand another by first understanding her/himself, Churchland argues that the causal order could actually be reversed—that mirror neurons function primarily to simulate another’s action to enable the individual to predict or imitate it. Rather than beginning as self-representations, mirror neurons may be necessary in creating self-representations from observed experience. While the reader might make the simplified observation that Churchland plays the proper role of philosopher by carefully analyzing logical inconsistencies in scientific hypotheses, the fact that her counter-arguments are equally grounded in empirical research should lead us to ask why we ever began to think that philosophy and science were different disciplines.
The Naturalistic fallacy fallacy
Framing her scientific argument, Churchland crafts a philosophical argument directly engaging the common claim that science has no place in the discussion of ethics or public policy. This claim takes various forms. Some forms are little more than tautological “semantic wrangles,” such as “only humans have human morality,” or the assumption that morality requires reasoning and reasoning requires language, therefore only humans are moral.  One common argument politely demonizes scientific approaches as “scientism,” a vaguely-defined crime that serves to do little more than distinguish “us” (humanists/theologians/policy-makers) from “them” (scientists and interdisciplinary traitors like Churchland).   Another tactic exploits a passage from David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature ( that has been decontextualized and over-simplified to say “you can’t get an ought from an is,” (i.e. moral conclusions are not based on factual premises). Such mixing of factual arguments with moral ones was dubbed the “naturalistic fallacy” by philosopher G. E. Moore. We may think of plenty of cases in which such a transition would, indeed, be fallacious. We commonly assume that something that is “natural” is, therefore, “good,” and “unnatural” is bad, until we come across obvious exceptions such as naturally-occurring influenza and its unnaturally manufactured vaccine. This is clearly an example of fallacious reasoning. But, as Churchland illustrates, there are plenty of cases in which moral arguments that are logically consistent but heedless of the facts of nature prove to be too presumptuous and abstract to find any consistent implementation in reality. Even the most popular rule-based morals fail in practice, not so much due to human frailty as to the frailty of rule-based reasoning, itself. As Churchland demonstrates, even the Golden Rule cannot function as a rule without a host of prior, unexamined assumptions to guide its interpretation. It also carries some unrecognized consequences. If a self-mutilator wants others to find the same salvation-through-pain that he does, is he morally obligated to torture them? The Golden Rule has a function, but not as an a priori rule.  According to Churchland, the Golden Rule primarily serves to activate empathetic, pro-social behavior already rooted in our evolved neuroanatomy, not in any set of rule-governed cultural norms. Proposed categorical imperatives by Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, John Rawls, and Peter Singer have similar problems. The idea of rules, like the idea of reason, is the problem. It creates an imagined antecedent that is not, ultimately, its origin. As philosophers from Aristotle and Mencius to Hume and Nietzsche recognized, our reflective rules are ad hoc generalizations. Churchland cites the now-famous interview of Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland by Stephen Colbert. Westmoreland vociferously advocated the inclusion of a graven image of the Biblical Ten Commandments in a Louisiana courthouse because, he insisted, those commandments are the origin of all morality. Despite this, the zealous congressman could only recall three commandments, and those in highly abbreviated form. Unsurprisingly, the three he recalled (“Don’t murder…don’t lie…don’t steal”) are featured in law codes predating the Bible, such as Hammurabi’s Code and the Laws of Manu, not to mention isolated cultures across the globe that have had scant contact with the West and none at all with Judaism or its offshoots. Churchland’s argument is that, instead of denying or lamenting the ad hoc nature of morality, we will achieve more substantive moral progress by admitting and systematically studying the evolved neurological structures that precede our discursive norms.
The Evolution of Bioethics
The relevance of Braintrust is not limited to the academy or the armchair. If the is/ought distinction is unduly exaggerated in moral philosophy, it becomes a weapon in the sphere of public policy—an excuse to defund or severely regulate research that does not reinforce popular prejudice. After all, what is at stake is the power to shape and regulate the behavior of others, and maintaining that power depends on popular appeal rather than empirical evidence. Churchland seems to have learned this political truth in 2008 when she presented a paper to George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics.
The council was already notorious as an ideological star chamber established to construct an intellectual façade for the administration’s war on stem cell research. With a few exceptions (including Michael Gazzaniga, who seems to have adopted a curious methodological relativism), the council was composed primarily of Right wing political pundits, such as Francis Fukuyama and Charles Krauthammer, rather than research scientists. The council was originally chaired by Leon Kass, who was appointed shortly after the publication of his anti-cloning essay, “The Wisdom of Repugnance” (The New Republic, June 2, 1997, 216.22). In this essay, Kass appeals to inarticulate emotional reactions, not only as a justification for banning scientific research, but as a justification for dismissing reasoned arguments which contradict those emotional reactions.
We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings […] because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. [… R]epugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.
Not only does Kass use a gut reaction to argue for the implementation of government policy, he uses it to divide the in-group from the out-group, the moral from the “shallow souls.” Kass’ argument exemplifies, perhaps deliberately, Hume’s claim that reason is the slave of the passions. At the same time, it abdicates any pretense of prioritizing reason over gut feeling.
As chair of the Council on Bioethics, Kass removed any “shallow souls” who would not ratify the Council’s foregone conclusions—most famously molecular biologist and Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, one of only 3 research scientists on the 18-member council. Though Kass was eventually replaced by Edmund Pellegrino, the council’s strategy remained dependent on ad hoc arguments and emotionalistic platitudes, particularly the malleable abstraction of “human dignity.” After bioethicist and council member Ruth Macklin publicly pointed out that the term “dignity” served only as a rhetorical red herring, the council, in an effort to salvage its own credibility, invited papers from philosophers, theologians, lawyers, physicians, and politicians, which were published as the report, Human Dignity and Bioethics. Though a handful of bioethicists, such as Churchland and Daniel Dennett, tried to explain the nature of Macklin’s argument, most of the articles (including one by Leon Kass, himself) aimed to ratchet up the emotional valence of the term rather than clarify precisely how it justified a government ban on life-saving research.
Churchland’s contribution to the report, “Human Dignity from a Neurophilosophical Perspective,” may have been the germ of Braintrust. Besides calling attention to the neural origins of moral sentiment, Churchland describes the tragic history of “misplaced moral certitude.” She points out that past advances in medical technology, including vaccination for smallpox, anesthesia for use in surgery and childbirth, dissection of corpses, organ donation, and blood transfusion were all initially prohibited by religious and political authorities with similar moral certitude (and “wisdom of repugnance”) at the cost of tens of thousands of preventable deaths. The loss of life in these historical examples bears its own emotional valence to those who see human suffering as a greater harm than rule-breaking. More importantly, they serve to undermine the is/ought dichotomy by juxtaposing moral norms with the measurable, real-world consequences disregarded by tautological, ought-ought moralizing.
In the council’s published report, Churchland’s essay is followed by a reply from council member and theologian Gilbert Meilaender. Rather than engaging the tenets of Churchland’s argument, Meileander simply launches an ad hominem attack on Churchland, herself, for “breath[ing] a spirit of condescension.” Rather than qualifying or refuting Churchland’s evidence, Meileander denies her right to cite it. Like Kass, Meileander appeals to sentiment as a power greater than reason and claims that if Churchland does not feel the same disgust a Catholic feels at HPV vaccinations or stem-cell research, she is therefore unfit to question them. “Unless and until one is capable of that,” Meileander demands, “the most dignified thing to do would be to remain silent.” In other words, only those who share the same foregone conclusion are allowed to question its logic or implications. Conspicuously, Meileander invokes the term “dignity” in an attempt to silence Churchland, proving her (and Macklin’s) original point—“dignity” like “wise disgust” is not a reason but a rejection of reason and testable evidence in moral arguments. What Meileander forgets to mention is that this emotionalistic certainty which is immune to rational criticism drafts public policy and impacts the lives of thousands, if not millions of people with Parkinson’s disease, cervical cancer, and other potentially preventable diseases. Neither Meileander nor Kass inquire into the gut feelings of those crippled by these diseases, nor do they invoke “human dignity” in their defense.
By openly exhibiting and even prioritizing the same sorts of behavior observable in monkeys and rats, professional moralists like Kass and Meileander prove Churchland’s argument in the very tactics they use to attack it. Moral arguments begin with evolved, brain-based heuristics which precede and structure conscious reasoning. This does not make them bad or good, but it makes them deceptively convincing when they are at their most self-indulgent. The most highly educated modern human is all-too-capable of ignoring evidence and abandoning reason whenever he feels like it. More importantly, moralists don’t seem to regard these feelings, themselves, as needing explanation. This is as problematic in the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas (whose empathy-based morality famously failed to find real-world application in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) as it is in the theology of Gilbert Meileander or the punditry of Leon Kass. Since demands for “ethics in science” can be a smoke-screen for imposing irrational restrictions on scientific research and its ability to save and improve lives, we might at least counterbalance the ethics of science with a science of ethics. By investigating the cognitive and evolutionary origins of moral sentiment, we do not invalidate that sentiment in policy discussion. Sentiment is inextricable from human thought. Rather, the science of ethics imposes a burden of proof on those who would exploit isolated anecdotes to evoke irrational emotion and then leap to non sequitur generalizations which would regulate the lives of others. It requires us to factor in actual outcomes, such as the loss of life that follows from denial of treatment, instead of assuming that Providence will protect the righteous.
The introduction of these new criteria will require a reevaluation of those who have been designated as moral authorities. Recognizing the all-too-human (or mammalian) motivations of moralists naturally prompts a reevaluation of trust, and it is with the question of trust, particularly when it comes to the formation of institutions like the Bioethics Council, that Churchland concludes Braintrust.
[W]hat kind of regulations should govern stem cell research? To begin to make progress on that question, one has to know quite a lot of science—what stem cells are, what about them makes them suitable for medical research and therapy, what diseases might be addressed using stem cell research, and what objections might be raised against it. (204)
These are simple questions, but they illustrate the false dichotomy of is and ought. While these questions do not exclude moral philosophers, theologians, or arm-chair commentators, they do introduce new requirements for methodological rigor, predictive accuracy, and accountability in a discourse which has traditionally relied on ad hoc reasoning and sensationalist anecdotes.
As research into the structure of the brain progresses, questions about brain-based morality are going to become even more common and more heated. Recently, President Barack Obama introduced the BRAIN Initiative, a project akin to the Human Genome Project. Assisting him with this introduction was NIH Director Francis Collins, who is serving as de facto director of the BRAIN Initiative in its early stages. In the past, Collins has not been shy about his belief in the metaphysical origins of moral judgment. Explaining his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins explicitly bars moral cognition from scientific study, implying that some sort of social collapse will follow if we get too inquisitive:
After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house,’ the human brain with all of its neurological complexity, God gifted humanity with something special that makes us different from all the animals, the knowledge of good and evil, the Moral Law, with free will, which is not an illusion, and with a soul. ... If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as right or wrong, good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked by natural selection into thinking that there is such a thing. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview? (2008)
The answer to that last question would be equally well put to Collins, himself. A geneticist and professional administrator, he is new to neurobiology, and it remains to be seen if his stated beliefs will conform to the evidence or if he will follow in the footsteps of morally-certain policy makers like Kass and Meileander. For neurophilosophers, the short answer to Collins’ question is “Yes.” Collins may not like Churchland's thesis in Braintrust, but it is precisely because the people who hold the purse strings for scientific research frequently share his dichotomized view that Braintrust is a very timely and important argument.

- Eric Luttrell
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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Science Outside of the Academy

Our sister site, Editions Bibliotekos, wants to publish non-scholarly but academically-inspired science writing on its site. Guidelines can be found here.
Please feel free to share and cross-post.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

St. Francis College

The Mission of the Evolutionary Studies Collaborative (ESC) is to advance the study and discussion of evolution using an interdisciplinary approach. The Goals include working with students, faculty, and administrators to include clear and robust elements of evolution in courses, to foster an open conversation about evolution on campus (as well as in the classroom), and to promote a greater awareness and understanding of evolution in campus-wide (public) forums.

What we are doing now:

°        Collaborating with the ASEBL Journal / blog and Editions Bibliotekos website (ongoing)

°        Working on the second Moral Sense Conference

°        Independent Study (guided reading, particularly for non-science majors)

What we have planned:

°         Reading from Being Human: Call of the Wild [6 February, 4pm, Founders Hall]

°         Film/discussion: Are We Born Good? [TBA, April 2013]

°        Open Meeting/Discussion about ESC: [TBA, Fall 2013]

°         Evolutionary Presentation/Readings from Battle Runes: Writings on War [TBA, Fall 2013]

°         Artist/Science Collaborator Natalie Settles [TBA, Fall 2013]

°         Moral Sense Conference [TBA, Spring 2014]

°         Evolutionary Presentation/Readings from Puzzles of Faith and Patterns of Doubt [TBA, Fall 2014]

~ Senior Developers & Collaborators ~
Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D. (English), Irina Ellison, Ph.D. (Biology), Kristy Biolsi, Ph.D. (Psychology)

Faculty and students, feel free to contact any one of us (especially to collaborate)