Fwd: [evol-psych] Charles Murray: Deeper into the Brain

From: Robin Hanson (rhanson@gmu.edu)
Date: Fri Jan 21 2000 - 14:11:22 MST

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>Subject: [evol-psych] Charles Murray: Deeper into the Brain
>Deeper into the Brain
>by Charles Murray
>Mr. Murray is the Bradley Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute..
>National Review
>January 24, 2000
>We, Homo sapiens, are about to learn how to alter human nature at roughly
>the same time that we finally learn for sure what that nature is.
>Our ignorance about the underlying truth of human nature has not been for
>want of trying. Philosophers took up the question as one of the very first
>that human beings systematically asked about themselves. But philosophers
>produced answers as various as Aristotle’s and Rousseau’s. Since the late
>1900s, behavioral and social scientists too have tried to understand human
>nature. But while they have illuminated many useful bits and pieces, they
>have failed as system-builders. What is left of Freud, out of the beliefs
>that were so intellectually pervasive in mid century? Psychotherapy remains,
>in profuse variety, but only remnants of Freudianism. What is left of B. F.
>Skinner? Behaviorism is still a productive branch of psychology, but the
>Skinnerian vision of human nature that once seemed so compelling is dead. As
>for Marx, does anything at all survive? For more than a century, Marxism was
>throughout continental Europe the leading intellectual framework for thinking
>about how political institutions can realize the nature of man. That edifice
>has collapsed utterly.
>How can we have expended so much of our collective genius on understanding
>human nature and still know so little for certain? Because up until now, we
>have been able to observe only behavior. People can hold very different views
>of human nature—man is by nature altruistic or by nature selfish; by nature
>amoral or by nature endowed with a moral sense—because we observe in the
>human animal, in abundance, every sort of behavior. Or to put it
>statistically, human nature does not consist of universal human
>characteristics but of distributions. Is mankind altruistic or selfish? From
>everyday experience, we know that some people behave selfishly and some
>behave altruistically. When one says that human beings are by nature
>altruistic or selfish, one is actually saying that a distribution of the
>human population on the characteristic of "underlying biological propensity
>to altruism" will have a certain shape and median. The implications of a
>distribution in which, for example, the average value is "fairly selfish" has
>very different implications from a bell curve in which the average value is
>"fairly altruistic." The implications of a curve that is narrow and steep
>(meaning that almost all human beings are very close to the median value) are
>very different from those of a shape that is wide and short (meaning that
>human nature for this characteristic is all over the map).
>The problem is that, while scientists can measure the observed shape of
>these behaviors, they have been stymied by the nature/nurture problem. This
>is not to say that we know nothing. Just as geologists know a lot about the
>probability of finding oil based on rock formations on the surface,
>psychologists have learned to infer a lot about the heritability of observed
>traits. But in both cases, the observer is dealing with outcroppings and
>probabilities, while the exact, inarguable truth lies hidden.
>This situation is about to change. No one can tell how rapidly and how
>completely the story will unfold. A few brave souls—brave indeed to buck the
>consistent lesson of the last five hundred years of science—still argue that
>the mysteries of the human mind will forever be mysteries. But E. O. Wilson’s
>reading of the situation in his 1998 book, Consilience, seems much more
>plausible. The neuroscientists, increasingly understanding how the brain
>works, and the molecular biologists, increasingly understanding which genes
>do what, are about to link up with the social sciences, according to Wilson,
>in a "webwork of causal explanation" that brings human behavior within the
>realm of rigorous investigation previously reserved for physical phenomena.
>And not just individual behavior. "The explanatory network now touches on the
>edge of culture itself," in Wilson’s words—or to put it another way, we are
>on the edge of understanding how human nature in individuals produces social
>and political institutions.
>What we know now is fragmentary. But the speed with which that knowledge is
>expanding is so fast, and accelerating, that it is reasonable to expect that
>we are going to know a great deal about many, many aspects of human nature
>and their social implications within just a few more decades. By the end of
>the 21st century, we will be approaching biological truth about these topics.
>It will be a winding road, with many false pronouncements that will be
>revised a year later, as new data come to light. Even those new findings that
>are solidly based will seldom be exciting individually. We will not find an
>aggression gene or a marriage gene or an IQ gene. Instead, we will learn
>about complex combinations of genes and their alleles that affect a behavior,
>and about how they interact with the unimaginably complicated neural and
>hormonal processes that affect behavior. We will learn about the interaction
>between biology and environment.
>The practical importance of these impending discoveries lies in this: The
>great conflicts of the last two centuries have in large part been the story
>of differing views of human nature translated into political codes.
>Communism’s use of Marxism was the paradigmatic example, explicitly and
>aggressively asserting that human nature is soft plastic that can be molded
>into any configuration by society’s political and economic institutions. But
>the debates over social policy within the democratic West have also been
>underlain by conflicting understandings of human nature. Are mothers
>peculiarly suited to raising small children or can fathers do it just as
>well? Should women be in combat? The positions one takes are based on
>assumptions about the innate differences between men and women. The welfare
>state makes sense, or doesn’t, depending on underlying beliefs about how
>human beings respond to economic incentives and, more profoundly, about how
>human beings achieve satisfaction in life. Should we try to deal with crime
>by attacking root causes? Depending on your definition of "root causes,"
>attacking them could mean an anti-poverty program or more prisons—and your
>definition can ultimately be traced back to your beliefs about human nature.
>It will be a cumulative process, but, as time goes on, our increasingly
>certain knowledge of human nature is going to shrink the wiggle-room for
>certain political positions. Think of the process as a scientific version of
>the Alger Hiss case. As of 2000, we have, analogously, already discovered the
>Pumpkin Papers. The scientific literature already in hand, not to mention
>common sense, gives us a pretty good idea of where this story is leading,
>just as dispassionate observers in 1948 had a pretty good idea that Hiss was
>guilty. Hiss’s advocates defended his innocence for decades after the Papers
>were found, but those advocates dwindled as new evidence periodically came to
>light. Finally the Venona intercepts were revealed, and the debate
>effectively ended. So it will be with the uncovering of human nature.
>The choice of analogy betrays my own expectations of the unfolding story.
>What we already know leads me to believe that the story of human nature as
>revealed by genetics and neuroscience will be Aristotelian in its
>philosophical shape and conservative in its political one. We will learn for
>certain such things as that women innately make better nurturers of small
>children than do men and that men innately make better soldiers than do
>women. Regarding these and many other human characteristics impinging on
>marriage, the upbringing of children, and the enforcement of social order, I
>am predicting that the adages of the Right will usually prove to be closer to
>the mark than the adages of the Left, and that many of the causes of the Left
>will be revealed as incompatible with the way human beings are wired.
>To put it in terms of Left versus Right, however, understates the magnitude
>of what is likely to happen. Of all the casualties of our growing knowledge
>of human nature, the most politically far-reaching will be the 20th century’s
>curious attachment to literal human equality. Let me draw on the response to
>The Bell Curve to illustrate what uncharted territory we are sailing into. As
>authors of the book, Richard Herrnstein and I thought that The Bell Curve
>contained powerful ammunition for the political Left. If IQ is important in
>determining life’s outcomes and IQ is not acquired by merit, then one
>legitimate line of argument is that the government should intervene to make
>up for the unfairnesses of nature and capitalism. What we did not realize was
>how important the egalitarian premise is to the worldview of the Left. It is
>not enough that governments guarantee equal rights to all; it is not even
>enough that governments intervene to equalize outcomes. It must also be true
>that inequalities in individuals are the result of the social, economic, and
>political system, rather than of inherent differences in ability. I am still
>not sure why this premise is so important—the intellectual case for
>redistributionist policies does not depend on it—but it is.
>In their own way, politicians of the Right are equally in thrall to the
>egalitarian premise. For example, no major Republican politician is willing
>to say in public that some of the social problems we most deplore are rooted
>to some degree in personal deficiencies. Try to imagine a GOP presidential
>candidate saying in front of the cameras, "One reason that we still have
>poverty in the United States is that a lot of poor people are born lazy." You
>cannot imagine it because that kind of thing cannot be said. And yet this
>unimaginable statement merely implies that when we know the complete genetic
>story, it will turn out that the population below the poverty line in the
>United States has a configuration of the relevant genetic makeup that is
>significantly different from the configuration of the population above the
>poverty line. This is not unimaginable. It is almost certainly true. It is
>also almost certainly true that statistically significant distributions of
>biological makeup separate just about any other groups that show
>substantially different patterns of behavior.
>The group differences that people obsess about have to do with race and sex,
>but let me try to reach past that reflexive response to make a broader point:
>Statistically significant genetic differences beyond the self-evident ones
>probably separate men from women, and people who call themselves "white" from
>people who call themselves "black" or "Asian," but they also probably
>distinguish the English from the French, employed Swedes from unemployed
>Swedes, observant Christians from lapsed ones, and people who collect stamps
>from people who backpack.
>None of this should be earthshaking. Often we will be talking of group
>differences so subtle that they can be teased out only with the most
>sophisticated methods. Often these differences will have nothing to do with
>"better" or "worse," but just vive la différence. Even when the differences
>are substantial, the variation between two groups will almost always be
>dwarfed by the variation within groups—meaning that the overlap between two
>groups will be great. In a free society where people are treated as
>individuals, "So what?" is to me the appropriate response to genetic group
>differences. The only political implication of group differences is that we
>must work hard to ensure that our society is in fact free and that people are
>in fact treated as individuals. And yet I can tell you from personal
>experience that "So what?" is not a response that many others share. Today,
>to suggest that genetically based group differences are even probable
>provokes a reaction that resembles hysteria.
>·Now imagine a world a few decades hence in which it has been demonstrated
>that biologically based differences separate individuals and groups, and that
>some of these differences involve characteristics that are important to
>success in life. What will happen when a position that is taboo in public
>discourse is proved to be scientifically accurate?
>··Nothing will happen, it might be argued. Even now, hardly anyone really
>believes in his heart of hearts that the strictly egalitarian line is true,
>so what difference will scientific proof make? But history suggests
>otherwise. Thomas Kuhn taught us in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
>that first the old scientific paradigm begins to show cracks, then those
>cracks spread, and then, with remarkable speed, Kuhn’s famous "paradigm
>shift" occurs. In just a few years, there are no more Ptolemaic astronomers,
>only Copernican ones; no more Aristotelian physicists, only Newtonian ones.
>Today we are at the stage of the spreading cracks, even if the egalitarian
>premise seems more politically impregnable than ever. But when the scientific
>debate eventually ends, it will not be merely a matter of scientists on the
>wrong side saying, "Oh, well," while the rest of our intellectual perspective
>continues unchanged; with the displacement of the old paradigm comes a new
>way of looking, not just at isolated bits of scientific truth, but at the way
>the world works. Think of the Newtonian revolution and the Enlightenment.
>Closer to our own time, the Darwinian and Einsteinian revolutions were
>central to the development of the nonscientific intellectual world of the
>20th century. So too will it be with the consequences of the neurogenetic
>revolution that is about to unfold. It will have transforming effects that
>spill over into our conceptions of politics, religion, and social
>A chief characteristic of a paradigm shift is that its consequences are
>unexpected. But I can illustrate the nature of the spillover with one of the
>few obvious possibilities—that eugenics will become a cause of the Left. Why
>obvious? After all, eugenics is not only in disrepute everywhere,
>"eugenicist" is one of the Left’s cursewords for people engaged in
>neurogenetic research. But eugenics is in disrepute because of Nazism, which
>has led us to forget that before Nazism it referred to a movement centered in
>Britain that was respectable and especially popular among intellectuals. To
>put it simply, the eugenicists made an assertion and drew from it a policy
>implication. Their assertion was that social problems would be greatly
>reduced if the lower classes had fewer children and the better classes had
>more. The policy implication they drew was that government policies should
>encourage that result.
>As the biological basis for personal qualities statistically associated with
>social problems—low IQ, impulsiveness, short time-horizons, sociopathy,
>indolence—is understood, the old arguments about causality (e.g., "It’s
>poverty and disadvantage that create the low IQ, not the other way around")
>will be resolved. There will still be a large role for environmental causes
>and solutions to social problems, but understanding the portion that is
>biological will permit analysts of the future to make fairly precise
>forecasts about the extent to which changes in fertility patterns may be
>expected to affect crime and poverty. The only difference will be that the
>old eugenicists had to rely on a rough statement ("the lower classes"),
>whereas eugenicists of the future will be able to be more precise ("people
>with the following genetic profiles").
>Now turn to the eugenicists’ political conclusion, that government should
>act to shape fertility patterns. It is not something that today’s Left likes
>to recall, but eugenicism was predominantly a movement of the British Fabian
>and socialist Left, not of Tories or the old Liberals. This political
>affinity was no accident, for a reason expressed by Sidney Webb, one of the
>brightest lights of British socialism. "No consistent eugenicist can be a
>‘Laisser Faire’ individualist," he wrote, "unless he throws up the game in
>despair. He must interfere, interfere, interfere!" Sidney and his wife
>Beatrice were joined in their enthusiasm for eugenics by the likes of George
>Bernard Shaw, Emma Goldman, and H. G. Wells.
>As genetic engineering matures, a new, more insidious brand of eugenics will
>become possible—one that does not require the lower classes to stop having
>children, only to start having better children. This will be eugenics
>tailor-made for a Left constituted of people who are more squeamish about
>being repressive than their forebears, but who are just as ready to
>interfere, interfere, interfere, in a good cause. Will the Right stand firm
>against this ultimate intrusion of government? I pray so. But don’t bet on
>it. In the face of temptation, mainstream Republican politicians cannot be
>relied upon to say It’s None of the Government’s Business—an unhappy fact
>that may have reverberations when eugenics with a smiling face is upon us.
>I have no idea how the new eugenicism will play out, only a general
>expectation that eugenics, anathema today, will be a spinoff of the
>neurogenetic revolution tomorrow. My main point is that many such effects
>will be triggered, that most of them are now unforeseeable, and that this
>will turn the intellectual and political landscape topsy-turvy.
>What of the broader manipulation of human nature? Putting aside government
>intervention and confining ourselves to the voluntary choices of individuals,
>should we expect that Homo sapiens will take it into its collective head to
>redesign itself? I confess to a certain optimism. I suppose that sex
>selection will be common, and that some parents will, if they can, opt to
>make their babies more compassionate, or more competitive, or "more" of some
>other personality trait that they favor. Some parents may want to grow
>seven-foot-tall basketball players. But one of the main reasons that couples
>have babies is to produce their baby, the product of their combined genes.
>Motivations don’t get much more basic than that, and I think it unlikely that
>the typical parent will want to distort the process too much. The popular
>voluntary uses of gene manipulation are likely to be ones that avoid birth
>defects and ones that lead to improved overall physical and mental abilities.
>I find it hard to get upset about that prospect.
>One may hypothesize a variety of darker sides to the ability to manipulate
>human tendencies. There are the unforeseeable effects of homogenization, for
>example. A world in which all the children are above average might be duller
>than we suppose. I am not confident in our ability to tweak the human sense
>of the rhythm of life to correspond with the extensions in lifespan that may
>occur. More broadly, our ability to affect the physical aspect of the human
>animal may run ahead of our ability to accommodate those changes to the ways
>in which the human psyche achieves happiness.
>But these specific worries are the ruminations of a 20th-century man,
>destined to look as myopic a century from now as the predictions of
>19th-century men about the 20th. I am confident of just one thing: Many of
>the people reading these words will live to see one of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm
>shifts—one as broad and deep, as demoralizing and inspiriting, as destructive
>and creative, as any that has taken place before.
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Robin Hanson rhanson@gmu.edu http://hanson.gmu.edu
Asst. Prof. Economics, George Mason University
MSN 1D3, Carow Hall, Fairfax VA 22030
703-993-2326 FAX: 703-993-2323

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