12 April 2012
Once again, this week brought a bumper crop of balderdash—this time involving the claim that our political proclivities are “hardwired” in the brain.
First, there was prominent science journalist Chris Mooney, writing for New Scientist: ”Political Divides Begin in the Brain.”
Then, there was this piece, published in New York magazine: ”Born this Way: The New Weird Science of Hardwired Political Identity.”
Here’s what Mooney has to say:
Roughly a decade ago, though, [political scientist John] Hibbing shifted to a new approach that is starting to revolutionise how we think about politics. He began to explore whether political preferences might be partly based in biology. The idea initially met with great scepticism from his peers. But Hibbing and his collaborators at the Political Physiology Lab at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln now have a stack of scientific publications backing the idea.
For example, when they measure the physical reactions of liberals and conservatives to aversive stimuli, they find major differences. Tough-on-crime, pro-military conservatives have a more pronounced startle reflex after hearing a sudden loud noise. They also show stronger skin responses when shown threatening images and look at them more rapidly and for longer.
It is conventional to think about political ideology as a set of ideas people consciously hold about the way society should be ordered. A tacit assumption is that we come to these beliefs rationally, by reading and thinking about the issues. If we differ, it is because we reason to different conclusions.
Hibbing’s results suggest otherwise. “One of the things we’re trying to get people to realise is that those who disagree with them politically really do experience the world in a different fashion,” he says.
So, let’s get this straight. According to both journalist Mooney and Professor Hibbing, people used to think politics is all about abstract reasoning. Human beings were thought to be these cool, calculating machines, and politics was nothing to get your pulse racing about. And now, thanks to the “Political Physiology Lab” and their “stack of publications,” we know better.
Good grief!, as Charlie Brown used to say when his patience was sorely taxed.
Just who in his right mind ever entertained for an instant the proposition that these experiments were designed to disprove?
Politics is emotional? Well, duh!
Did either Mooney or Hibbing ever hear of Homer? Did they ever read Julius Caesar, or Richard III (right, played by Laurence Olivier), or Macbeth?
Politics is quintessentially emotional, and the reason is not far to seek. It’s because politics engages both our personal interests and some of our most deeply felt convictions about what is right, what is wrong, and what constitutes better and worse forms of conduct. There’s nothing beyond our immediate private affairs that touches us nearer where we live.
Of course our emotions are involved, and of course they are physiologically measurable in the standard ways. Heck, I can feel my pulse rate rising right now, as I write about these inanities that I helped pay for with my tax dollars! And I have no doubt my galvanic skin response would reveal as much.
Admittedly, so far the article by Mooney has only shown the scientists to be guilty of stupidity and wasting taxpayer dollars. If that were all there was to it, it would not be worth noticing in this space. After all, the purpose of Human Nature Watch is to debunk, not garden-variety foolishness and extravagance, but rather that special brand of stupidity known as “scientism”—the claim that the human world of purpose, meaning, and value can be “reduced” to the activity of genes or low-level neurophysiology.
But it isn’t long before Mooney arrives at the materialist-reductionist talk. That’s something you can count on in this type of article.
Here’s what he writes next:
Most recently, and controversially, focus has shifted to differences in brain structures and functions. In one experiment, conservatives on average had a larger right amygdala, a region of the brain that processes responses to fear and threat. Liberals, in contrast, had more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, an error-detecting region that is thought to be involved in causing us to stop repeated patterns of behaviour and change course.
Now, we’re really getting somewhere!
So, here’s my question for Professor Hibbing:
But my political views sure have.
In my old age, I’ve become someone my younger self would have cheerfully sent to the scaffold, had the “revolution” he so fervently longed for succeeded.
So, does that mean my anterior cingulate cortex has been shrinking all these years?
What about my amygdala? Are my present reactionary views possibly the result of a tumor?
The fact that I now think human beings are persons, and not bits of brain tissue—is that idea itself the result of a malignant growth that has caused my amygdala to swell? How else am I to make sense out of Professor Hibbing’s experimental findings?
Actually, come to think of it, my case is not so unusual. In fact, I’ve heard it rumored that many people become more conservative politically as they grow older.
Who was it who said: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart; if you’re still a liberal when you’re old, you have no brains”? How does Professor Hibbing account for this sort of consistent change, not just in me, but in millions of people?
There are basically two ways of looking at this widespread correlation between advancing age and growing conservatism.
One is: Some of us manage to learn from experience.
The other is: There’s an epidemic of tumors of the amygdala out there, which explains why so many politically enlightened young people turn into troglodytes as they age.
The good news is, from Professor Hibbing’s and Mr. Mooney’s point of view: If the amygdala theory of conservatism is true, then all liberals have to do to finally win elections in this country is find a cure for this epidemic.
On the other hand, one might just as well argue that it’s the liberals’ pathetic, shrunken little amygdalas that need bulking up.
Either way, Mr. Mooney’s article implies that once medical science gets the size of the amygdala just right, liberals and conservatives will all see eye-to-eye at last. Neuroscience will bring about a Golden Age of political concord.
But even if it were true that political beliefs were reliably causally connected to neural gross anatomical structures—which is absurd, but just suppose—then why couldn’t we draw the opposite conclusion?
In that case, wouldn’t it be more sensible to infer that conservatives’ amygdalas grow because they have the opinions they do, and these opinions stimulate that part of the brain, rather than the other way around?
After all, it isn’t as if we’re born with big muscles, which makes us able to lift weights. Rather, those of us who lift weights eventually develop big muscles. That’s the way organisms generally work.
Therefore, maybe those of us who prefer to think realistically about the world, instead of indulging in wishful thinking and self-congratulation, just naturally develop bigger amygdalas.
That hypothesis would be far more in keeping with the way organisms work than the mechanistic-reductionist line that Messrs. Hibbing and Mooney are selling.
Of course, the most likely supposition of all is that the Nebraska experiments were simply bungled, and there is no causal connection between political views and gross brain anatomy in the first place.
* * *
What about the New York magazine article?
After a nod to Jonathan Haidt’s interesting—and decidedly non-reductionist—new book about the psychology of political affiliations, The Righteous Mind (Pantheon, 2012), the author, Sasha Issenberg, writes this:(1)
But the new science of primal politics goes quite a bit deeper than psychology. Over the past few years, researchers haven’t just tied basic character traits to liberalism and conservatism, they’ve begun to finger specific genes they say hard-wire those ideologies. If that work is to be believed, it would mean that an individual’s path to a political identity starts not with a series of choices but with long-ago genetic mutations, and that our collective experience of politics may be less a battle of ideas than a Darwinian contest in which we are all unwitting participants. After a team of geneticists claimed in a 2005 American Political Science Review article that they had evidence of DNA’s influence on politics, Duke political scientist Evan Charney rebutted that their findings “would require nothing less than a revision of our understanding of all of human history, much—if not most—of political science, sociology, anthropology, and psychology, as well as, perhaps, our understanding of what it means to be human.”
Is Mr. Issenberg brought up short by the prospect of such a sweeping revision of our understanding of the social sciences and human history itself?
Not a bit of it! Here is what he goes on the say:
In Man Is by Nature a Political Animal, published last year, the anthology’s editors argue that any open-minded pursuit of these questions will show that evolutionary impulses shape our political inner lives as much as our physical form. McDermott, one of the volume’s editors, predicts that within ten years saliva swabs will identify a genetic link explaining why some individuals welcome immigration while others respond violently to it. Citizens with “really strong immune systems are going to be all right with immigration,” McDermott ventures, because they’ll be less concerned with the pathogen threat that outsiders pose.
“It’s hard to find something we haven’t been able to say is significantly affected by the heritability of genes,” says James Fowler, a UC–San Diego social scientist. If genes can make someone more prone to depression or bad temper, why couldn’t they also explain his political views? And if genes were shaped over time by evolutionary pressures that drove people to protect their turf or successfully reproduce, why shouldn’t we see politics at least partly in the same terms?
“I know there’s a knee-jerk reaction that this can’t be right: ‘There’s no way there’s a gene that’s responsible for my politics,’ ” says Matthew C. Keller, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Colorado. “For me, this is a genetic IQ test. If they say that type of thing, it means they don’t understand genetics that well.”
So, as if Chris Mooney’s neuromania were not enough for us to swallow, we are now expected to choke down a big helping of Darwinitis as well, served up hot by Mr. Issenberg.(2)
But for anyone with a modicum of common sense, Darwinitis—especially in the form of evolutionary psychology that we see here—is a thoroughly indigestible intellectual meal. In fact, there are so many things wrong with this picture, it’s hard to know where to begin.
For one thing, why wait 10 years? Why not do the experiment now? Surely we can already evaluate the immune systems of people in various ways, and if so, what is stopping us from correlating their political views with the strength of their immune systems already?
The answer is obvious: Darwinitis is essentially a form of uncontrolled speculation, not science. It depends entirely for whatever shred of plausibility it has on promissory notes written against future experiments. If its hypotheses were required to be really tested, they would soon be revealed to be the absurdities they are.
Indeed, dreaming up inherently untestable “Just So Stories” is of the essence of Darwinian reasoning in all its forms. But as far as our science journalists are concerned, a neat story line is just as good as a real scientific experiment.
According to this journalistic methodology, evolutionary biologists are anointed as the authorities on human nature—and get to tell us why liberal politics are correct—even though they’ve never set foot in a genuine laboratory that does reproducible experiments.
As for the gibe about the public’s ignorance of genetics, Professor Keller ought to come clean that his is a field rife with internal dissent. It’s a little rich for a man in a field whose central concept—the “gene”—has come under serious question in recent years to take the arrogant line reported here.(3)
In this case—once again—what we have is a science journalist abjuring skepticism, blindly following authority, and fleeing from nuance like the plague.
Of course, everything that we think and feel has a physiological basis. Of course, physiology is mostly an inconceivably complex choreography of proteins. Of course, all proteins are produced with the help of DNA, among many other things.
It follows from these facts that the proper functioning of our genome is a necessary condition for the proper functioning of our minds and personalities.
It does not follow that genes provide a sufficient condition for what we are as human persons—that they determine what we think and feel.
To suppose otherwise is just to commit an elementary logical mistake.
Well, this much I will allow—maybe some of these scientists and their votaries in the press do suffer from a genetic predisposition to group think and incorrect reasoning.
After all, simple-mindedness and following the leader were surely the best survival strategies under Pleistocene conditions. Group solidarity and quick reflexes must have been the order of the day when faced with saber-toothed tigers. And no doubt independent thinking and logical scruple ne’er won fair maiden way back then (or now, either, as far as that goes).
So, that’s one Just So Story that seems plausible to me—because it explains so beautifully the popularity of both neuromania and Darwinitis.(4)
(1) This book will be the focus of a column in this space in the near future.
(2) I borrow the terms “neuromania” and “Darwinitis” from Raymond Tallis’s indispensable Aping Mankind (Acumen, 2011).
(3) See, for example, Peter J. Beurton, et al., eds., The Concept of the Gene in Development and Evolution (Cambridge UP, 2000) and James A. Shapiro, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (FT Press, 2011).
(4) Though the sort of drivel examined in this column is by far the loudest voice in the media nowadays on the subject of human nature, I’m happy to say that the news on that front is not all bad. For a sensible discussion of some of these same issues, see George Walden’s recent article for Standpoint, entitled ”Beware the Fausts of Neuroscience.”