Nature, nurture and liberal values (snippets)

By Roger Scruton JANUARY 25, 2012

Biology determines our behaviour more than it suits many to acknowledge. But people—and politics and morality—cannot be described just by neural impulses
Human Nature by Jesse Prinz (Allen Lane, £22)
Incognito by David Eagleman (Canongate, £20)
You and Me: the Neuroscience of Identity by Susan Greenfield (Notting Hill Editions, £10)

The answer given by evolutionary psychologists is that culture is an adaptation, which exists because it conferred a reproductive advantage on our hunter-gatherer ancestors. According to this view many of the diverse customs that the standard social science model attributes to nurture are local variations of attributes acquired 70 or more millennia ago, during the Pleistocene age, and now (like other evolutionary adaptations) “hard-wired in the brain.” But if this is so, cultural characteristics may not be as plastic as the social scientists suggest. There are features of the human condition, such as gender roles, that people have believed to be cultural and therefore changeable. But if culture is an aspect of nature, “cultural” does not mean “changeable.” Maybe these controversial features of human culture are part of the genetic endowment of human kind.

...“Altruism” begins to look like a genetic “strategy,” which confers a reproductive advantage on the genes that produce it. In the competition for scarce resources, the genetically altruistic are able to call others to their aid, through networks of co-operation that are withheld from the genetically selfish, who are thereby eliminated from the game.
...If we follow the evolutionary biologists, therefore, we may find ourselves pushed towards accepting that traits often attributed to culture may be part of our genetic inheritance, and therefore not as changeable as many might have hoped: gender differences, intelligence, belligerence, and so on through all the characteristics that people have wished, for whatever reason, to rescue from destiny and refashion as choice. But to speculate freely about such matters is dangerous
...Consider, for example, the division of roles everywhere to be observed between men and women. There is a powerful reason to think that this is rooted in a deeper division of biological labour, selected in the harsh conditions that threatened our ancestors with extinction. For human beings manifest neoteny, the trait of giving birth to helpless large-brained offspring, who can look after themselves only after ten years of nurture and nowadays not even then. Neoteny is a huge evolutionary advantage; but it is purchased at an equally huge biological cost. A species whose young are as vulnerable as human children needs both organised defence and serious home building if it is to reproduce itself. And on those granite foundations has been built the romantic castle of sexual difference.
...Susan Greenfield refers to recent brain-imaging research by Ryota Kanai and others at UCL which purportedly suggests that students with conservative political attitudes tend to have larger than normal amygdalae, while among those of liberal persuasion it is the anterior cingulate cortex that stands out. Could this be the proof of WS Gilbert’s proposition, that “Every child who is born alive / Is either a little liberal / Or a little conservative”?
...David Eagleman argues that we should revise our sense of legal and moral responsibility, so as to recognise that most of what we do and feel arises from processes over which we have no control. The brain moves incognito beneath our conscious deliberations, like a great ocean liner on the deck of which we walk up and down, imagining that we move it with our feet. Offering his own version of the Freudian story, in the luminous prose for which he is rightly esteemed, Eagleman argues that most of what we do is more influenced by unconscious than by conscious processes, and that concepts like responsibility and freedom cannot survive intact from the advances of neuroscience. Whether it is nature or nurture that wired up the brain, the wiring is for the most part none of our doing, and nothing for which we can be praised or blamed.
...Greenfield’s argument suggests that there is a kind of human development that prepares us, at the neurological level, for the exercise of responsible choice. If we bring up our children correctly, not spoiling them or rewiring their brains through roomfuls of digital gadgetry, the sense of responsibility will emerge. They will enter fully into the world of I and You, become free agents and moral beings, and learn to live as they should, not as animals, but as persons.
... [T]here are two major issues with this debate. First, for whatever reason, biology is equated with “immutability”. That of course is far from the case. Across generations, genotypes and phenotypes change, and we have no reason to privilege behavioral continuity any more than physical continuity. That is, behaviors could potentially change (according to evolutionary principles) just as much as physical attributes. Beyond


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