Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose you are an aid agency providing food for children in a refugee camp. You have limited resources and could either feed all the hungry children inadequately, in which case they will soon starve, or feed a few adequately so they will survive but the others will all die. It’s a moral choice between equity and efficiency. What do you do – especially if your head is in an fMRI brain imager when you are confronted with the dilemma? According to the authors of this neuroscientific quandary, who claim to be measuring the brain correlates of distributive justice, one brain region, the insula, encodes inequity while the putamen region encodes efficiency.[i]
This typifies the beliefs of the new discipline of neuroethics that absolute moral values are inscribed in the brain. But how did we get here? For as long as oral traditions or written records have been available, moral injunctions have been laid down as representing the word of God, the wisdom of philosophers or the command of kings. Think of the Bible’s Ten Commandments, the teachings of Confucius or Ashoka, or the Code of Hammurabi. Precepts, rules of conduct and penalties for disobedience follow, engraved on tablets and enshrined in ancient texts, interpreted and reinterpreted by scholars and theologians as central pillars of society.
No longer. Ever since Darwin, but with increasing insistence over the last half century, the life sciences of evolution, genetics and neuroscience have claimed their rights as arbiters of morality. A key moment came in 1975 with the publication of EO Wilson’s Sociobiology. Wilson, a Harvard-based biologist, defined sociobiology as ‘the systematic study of all social behaviour,’ a branch of evolutionary biology encompassing all human societies. The book offered a biological - genetic and evolutionary - explanation of human cultural manifestations such as religion, ethics, tribalism, warfare, genocide, cooperation, competition, conformity and many others. Wilson argued that sociobiology would provide the basis for a complete code of evolution-based ethics. The book’s apparent justification of the inevitability of racism, sexism and class sparked a major controversy, spilling from academia into political activism, both from the radical left[ii] and the neo-Nazi right[iii].
By the 1990s, sociobiology had been ‘rebranded’[iv] as evolutionary psychology (EP). The claim was now that a universal ‘human nature’ had been genetically fixed at the very origins of Homo sapiens in the Pleistocene and there had not been enough evolutionary time for change to occur; thus we modern humans still have ‘stone age minds’ and a residual stone age morality not dissimilar from Wilson’s earlier list. EP was called upon to ‘explain’ patriarchy, nepotism, male preference for sex with younger women and young womens’ for older, richer men, even rape and, allegedly, stepfathers killing their stepchildren. Its adherents argued firmly that ‘explain’ did not mean justify, it was merely that this was the way evolution had made us behave. It was ‘Mother Nature’ who was sexist, claimed one prominent evolutionary psychologist, ‘so don’t blame her sons.’[v]
"Brain activity does not cause moral judgement."
There is, of course, an interesting paradox here. EP’s protagonists simultaneously claim to be able to separate fact from value and to argue that, as a fact, our values are laid down in our genetics. To its critics, EP’s view of human nature merely projected back into the Pleistocene the lifestyle and values of middle-class Californian family life in the 1950s. It came to be known as Flintstone morality, even though not much can be inferred about the social life of our Pleistocene ancestors from the few skulls, shards of bone and artefacts available.
Underpinning EP is a ‘selfish gene’ view of living systems, that humans are mere vehicles for the propagation of our genes. As we share some of our genes with our siblings, it ‘pays’ to behave altruistically towards our kin: we should be prepared to sacrifice our lives for two siblings or eight cousins. Hence morality begins with the family. Called upon to explain the observation that people will frequently act to help other unrelated individuals, EP invented the concept of ‘reciprocal altruism,’ – you would save a drowning person in the belief that if you in your turn were drowning, they would save you – a proposal soon laughed out of court. A more sophisticated argument is that humans, even in the Pleistocene, have been and are social animals, living in gatherer-hunter groups wider than mere genetic kin. Group survival depends on cooperation, including the rearing of infants. And co-operativity could be regarded as an essential first step towards agreeing a code of moral behaviour.
Two decades on, following the sequencing of the human genome, which revealed just how few genes it contained (about the same number as a tiny nematode worm) and the rise of epigenetics, EP’s crudities have, with embarrassment, been consigned to history amongst evolutionary biologists and geneticists, although they persist in popular culture. Instead, there has been a recognition that, far from having been laid down immutably in the Pleistocene, ‘human nature’ – whatever is understood by that term - has been transformed through a runaway process of gene-culture coevolution in which cultural change (including changes in agriculture and technology) feeds back into genetic change and genetic change in turn enables new cultural forms.[vi]
Thus despite the claims of evolutionary ethics, whilst all human societies may have required moral principles to function, those moral principles are not immutably determined by human biology but are culturally shaped. Take one of the most ringing statements of ethical principle, the opening words of the US Declaration of Independence:
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’
But the drafters of that document did not read it as we might today. When they said ‘men,’ they did not mean ‘men and women.’ And when they said ‘all men,’ they did not include Black men, still less Black women. Morally acceptable practices in Western Europe today, such as homosexuality or abortion, are not those of our Victorian forebears, nor those current in many other parts of the globe. Rape in marriage is no longer morally or legally permissible. And as the persistent struggles over these moral norms reveal, they are not immutable. I need not labour the point. Moral principles are culturally relative, even if such principles are part of our biological heritage as social, group-living animals. They are sufficiently independent of biology as to render the latter of little significance as we make moral judgements each day.
So what of neuroethics? From my perspective as a neuroscientist, it would seem obvious that our actions, behaviours, thoughts and intentions engage brain processes and that, with appropriate techniques, it might be possible to observe these processes on the wing, so to say. Wondrous as the false colour brain images generated by fMRI are, they are misleading and claims that they indicate a ‘site’ in the brain for – as in this instance – efficiency and inequity, suggest a fixity that misrepresents the dynamic nature of brain processes. More relevant here is that even were such an association to be found, it is at best correlative – there is no direction of causation implied. The brain activity does not cause the moral judgement. Finally, one may question the relevance of these toy problems beloved of moral philosophers, and now embraced by neuroethicists, to real life situations where ethical judgements are not made in the asocial and ahistorical conditions of an imaging laboratory but in the normal confusion of everyday life.
Read more from this issue of IAI News here: Morality and Prejudice
[i] M Hsu, M Anen and SR Quartz The right and the good: distributive justice and neural encoding of equity and efficiency, Science 330 1092-1095, 2008
[ii] See for instance Steven Rose, Leo Kamin and Richard Lewontin Not in our Genes Penguin, 1984.
[iii] ‘Sociobiology says that racism is in our selfish genes’ claimed a headline in the now defunct magazine of the equally defunct National Front.
[iv] Richard Dawkins’ term
[v] For a critique of EP see Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (eds)Alas Poor Darwin: arguments against evolutionary psychology, Cape, 2000
[vi] For an excellent account fully within the Darwinist canon, see Kevin Laland: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: how culture made the human mind, Princeton, 2017