September 27, 2012

Neuroscience And Genetics - Their Potential Impact On Human Cultural Evolution


The Marketplace In Your Brain: Neuroscientists have found brain cells that compute value.  Why are economists ignoring them? by Josh Fischman, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, September 24, 2012

Never mind the fallacious language about economic markets existing in your cranium and the neuron-machine comparison in the above linked title and leader.  The article has much that is useful to say about the relationship between neuroscience findings and how they are responded to within the social sciences, in particular, economics.

I have been skeptical for some time about how journalists, writers, reporters, as well as many neuroscientists, academics, and other professionals, too often exaggerate the findings of neuroscience research.  More disturbing is their insistence that the reductionistic and deterministic approaches of neuroscience research will surely give rise to a biology of all human behavior based on genetics and brain structures and functions.  This would be a sociobiology (Wilson) that trumps the social sciences and humanities and makes them obsolete, subordinate, or relatively weak in terms of their explanatory-predictive power regarding human behavior.  See Ray Tallis for an excellent treatment of such exaggerations and misplaced confidence.

Though extremely skeptical, I can't help but wonder what "new world" awaits Humankind if the natural science of human behavior many neuroscientists and geneticists seek is realized.  What will it mean to have a irrefutable sociobiological, neuro-genetic understanding of human nature expressed in terms of laws, theories, and models equivalent to those in physics, chemistry, and biology?

I hope I live long enough to see a synthesis of neuroscience and social science that produces reliably predictive laws and models of human behavior, if in fact such a natural science of Humankind is possible.  If such laws and models are produced an unprecedented upheaval in the cultural evolution of our species must surely ensue.

I have argued elsewhere in this blog that the greatest challenge facing Humankind is successfully making whatever efforts necessary to bring about a binding global morality and civilization, and an effective human stewardship of Earth - Cultural Evolution, Phase II - Establishing a Unified Worldview.  Will a natural science of human behavior as envisioned by many neuroscientists and geneticists, if it comes into being, enhance or hinder our on-going efforts to realize this vital second phase of Humankind's evolution?

Much if not all of what we accept as being our human nature and what we accept as moral behavior is founded on the principle of individual intentionality, agency, and rationality.  If neuroscience and genetics unequivocally establish that we have have no free will, intentionality, or agency, that our behavior is intuitive, instinctive, and pre-determined and/or otherwise controlled by our genes and brains, the life of the individual within a local and global community of minds will no longer be the reference point for what it means to be human.  The structures and functions of our genes and brain cells will become that which "contains" what it means to be human.

New beliefs and values regarding what we are and how we should relate to each other will need to be created. Our notions of the intentionality and agency of the self and person, our personal obligations and responsibilities to each other, our moral and legal culpability, our notions of human freedom and human rights, our humaneness, our understandings of just warfare, and all other personal, social, and global aspects of who and what we are must be changed.

My worry is who or what will make these changes - competing nation-state governments, religious leaders, scientists, global fora such as the UN, or our brains and genes themselves? How will they go about it? What will the new beliefs and values be? How will we use them?

I am skeptical that such predictive theories and models will ever materialize. If they do they will likely be more probabilistic than predictive. Still, such a future neuro-social science dominated paradigm would be fraught with great risks, many of which would have direct implications for Humankind's survival and Earth's continued life sustaining capability.

What are we to do as individuals, as societies? Remain skeptical. Trust, exercise, and vigorously defend individual intentionality, agency, and rationality. Behave compassionately toward all.

Whatever neuroscience and genetics ultimately reveal about human nature, our future will be an unimaginable journey well worth taking - if we and the planet survive it.

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