Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Evolution and Brain science shaping public discourse

I want to mention and pass on two recent Op-Ed columns of David Brooks in the New York Times. He has done a commendable job of learning the basic ideas in evolution and brain science and passing them on in a clear and palatable way.

Here are some clips from the first, titled "The Age of Darwin" (PDF here).
Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere... Scarcely a month goes by when Time or Newsweek doesn’t have a cover article on how our genes shape everything from our exercise habits to our moods. Science sections are filled with articles on how brain structure influences things like lust and learning. Neuroscientists debate the existence of God on the best-seller lists, while evolutionary theory reshapes psychology, dieting and literary criticism. Confident and exhilarated, evolutionary theorists believe they have a universal framework to explain human behavior...Creationists reject the whole business, but they’re like the Greeks who still worshiped Athena while Plato and Aristotle practiced philosophy. The people who set the cultural tone today have coalesced around a shared understanding of humanity and its history that would have astonished people in earlier epochs....According to this view, human beings, like all other creatures, are machines for passing along genetic code. We are driven primarily by a desire to perpetuate ourselves and our species.

The logic of evolution explains why people vie for status, form groups, fall in love and cherish their young. It holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must also provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don’t enhance the chance of survival...Human beings, in our current understanding, are jerry-built creatures, in which new, sophisticated faculties are piled on top of primitive earlier ones. Our genes were formed during the vast stretches when people were hunters and gatherers, and we are now only semi-adapted to the age of nuclear weapons and fast food. Furthermore, reason is not separate from emotion and the soul cannot be detached from the electrical and chemical pulses of the body. There isn’t even a single seat of authority in the brain. The mind emerges (somehow) from a complex light show of neural firings without a center or executive. We are tools of mental processes we are not even aware of.
The second essay, "The Morality Line," (PDF here) comments on the rush to assign responsibility for the recent killings at Virginia Tech by Cho Seung-Hui.
...over the past few decades, neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists and social scientists have made huge strides in understanding why people — even murderers — do the things they do...It’s important knowledge, but it’s had the effect of reducing the scope of the human self...in the realm of the new science, the individual is like a cork bobbing on the currents of giant forces: evolution, brain chemistry, stress and upbringing. Human consciousness is merely an epiphenomena of the deep and controlling mental processes that lie within...the killings at Virginia Tech happen at a moment when we are renegotiating what you might call the Morality Line, the spot where background forces stop and individual choice — and individual responsibility — begins. The killings happen at a moment when the people who explain behavior by talking about biology, chemistry and social science are assertive and on the march, while the people who explain behavior by talking about individual character are confused and losing ground...And it’s true. We’re never going back. We’re not going to put our knowledge of brain chemistry or evolutionary psychology back in the bottle. It would be madness to think Cho Seung-Hui could have been saved from his demons with better sermons...There still seems to be such things as selves, which are capable of making decisions and controlling destiny. It’s just that these selves can’t be seen on a brain-mapping diagram, and we no longer have any agreement about what they are.

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