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My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal,
with added links:
It's presumably neither ethical nor practical, but supposing
that somebody could sequence Osama bin Laden's genome, which genes
would you want to examine to try to understand his violent
I put this question to the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the
author of a new book called "The Science of Evil" (and a cousin of comedian
Sacha Baron Cohen). He replied that there is no evidence that bin
Laden's crimes came from his nature, rather than from his
experiences, so you might find nothing.
But, Prof. Baron-Cohen went on, it would at least be interesting
to take a look at bin Laden's MAOA gene (linked to aggression), his
AVPR1A and CNR1 genes (linked to emotional expression) and his
CYP11B1, NTRK1, and GABRB3 genes, which show some association with
how individuals score on a scale called the "Empathy Quotient." He
discovered these linkages in the course of testing his hypothesis
that cruelty is generally enabled by a failure of empathy.
In most cruel people, Prof. Baron-Cohen argues, the "empathy
circuit," which runs through 10 different regions of the brain,
goes down either temporarily or permanently, leaving the person
with "zero empathy." The reasons may be partly innate, partly a
function of early experiences such as birth trauma or parental
neglect, or an interaction of the two.
Not all zero-empathy people are cruel. There is a category of
"zero-positive" people, with autism or severe Asperger's, who lack
empathy but show no tendency to unkindness. And not all cruel
people lack empathy (bin Laden may be among the exceptions). But if
Prof. Baron-Cohen is right, a combination of a brain scan, a
genotyping and a case history could "diagnose" many or even most
cruel personalities, perhaps even before they commit crimes.
This would raise all sorts of ethical dilemmas and goes to the
heart of morality itself. The eminent "neurophilosopher" Patricia
Churchland, in her new book "Braintrust," sets out to understand good
rather than evil, but she reaches much the same conclusion as Prof.
Baron-Cohen. She, too, finds that morality is all about empathy.
(Both authors note in passing the startling discovery that it seems
to be possible to raise people's empathy by squirting the hormone
oxytocin up their noses.)
Prof. Churchland is also "biological" about morality, seeing it
as an adaptation that our brains have evolved in order to cement
social ties. With a series of examples, she rejects the idea that
morality is a set of rules and codes handed down from on high,
without which we would all behave badly. "Morality seems to me to
be a natural phenomenon," she concludes, "constrained by the forces
of natural selection, rooted in neurobiology, shaped by the local
ecology and modified by cultural developments."
Where does this new bio-morality leave the "naturalistic
fallacy," the idea that you cannot derive moral lessons from
scientific facts-that "is" does not determine "ought"? This
venerable shibboleth has been useful to generations of biologists
ever since it was formally "proved" by the philosopher G.E. Moore
in 1903. It absolves them of moral consequences from determining
how the world actually works: "I'm just telling you how it is, not
how it should be."
Prof. Churchland says the naturalistic fallacy is itself a
fallacy, based on a logical mistake. We are going to have to get
used to the idea that science will tell us things about the
biological causes of our moral sense that themselves have moral
implications. Moore, for example, concluded that we should use our
intuition, rather than our discoveries, to decide whether something
is right or wrong.
But the more we find out about the evolutionary origin of our
intuitions, says Prof. Churchland, the less promising they look as
"miraculous channels to the truth," rather than as rules of thumb
chosen by natural selection to achieve certain social goals.
Admitting that morality is partly an instinct need not lead to
less morality. It could make us wiser about encouraging good. But
it is a challenge.