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« Did You Ever Notice? (Norman Costa) | Main | Imran Khan: the 12th man rises..(Omar Ali) »

November 05, 2011


So are you backing determinism now, Norman?

@ Sujatha: PART 1

Thanks for commenting. I present this as a matter for discussion. Personally, I don't like determinism in the absolute. But, personal dislike is not argument. Yet, the idea must be confronted as we find, and will continue to find, more neurological, biochemical, and genetic correlates of behavior, thought, and emotion.

This discussion can be purely academic, though intriguing and intellectually stimulating. We can be speculative and imagine all sorts of interesting possibilities. What happens, though, when the discussions and speculations become front and center with someone saying, "Oh, I can fix that," referring to violent behavior, aggression, anti-social personality disorder, inability to empathize, addiction, greed, and phobias.

Fixing them doesn't sound like a bad idea. Suppose the fix is gene therapy. We might find it attractive if we could identify, in newborns, the John Wayne Gacey's and Adolph Eichmann's of the world. Suppose the fix is to kill them, because we don't know, yet, how to effect a therapy.

There is more and more evidence of neurological substrates for behaviors and mentation that some call spiritual. As enticing as this line of research is, we have to remember that we are in the VERY EARLY stages of this area as a developing science. Also, what we are identifying are correlates of such behaviors and mentation. fMRIs are still very gross extractions of data. Biochemistry and genetics seem to be playing a part. It is not difficult for some people to pursue a line of reasoning that starts with genes, then neurological structures, then spiritual experiences, then development of religion, then the horrors of organized religion, then lets kill all the priests. This has been proposed for "all the lawyers."

@ Sujatha: PART 2

This is not a matter for the future. It is in our past and is alive in the present. Eugenics took on a scientific rationalization following the work of Darwin. The practice of culling bad stock and breeding better stock has a scientific understanding that has been developed from observations for thousands of years. Civilizations and their wars practiced this with impunity upon peoples through the ages. In the 1970s, the American psychologist, Kenneth Clark, called for the administration of tranquilizers to Presidents and other political leaders to attenuate their aggressive predilections. The old Soviet Union would commit dissidents to psychiatric wards for disordered thinking and imposed unethical therapies upon them.

This is a difficult situation where advances in science will outstrip advances in social thought, ethics, philosophy, education, healing medicine, religious thought, and law. In such a situation the science is more likely to be hijacked by ideology, politics, and corporate interests that follow lines of power and money. Yes, this is about determinism, but, its really about more than that.

Collecting biological evidence that correlates with behavioral tendencies is not determinism, because that implies that awareness of physiological factors gives one leave to ignore any and all other factors that affect choice and human behavior. The problem is when you correlate data with The Answer, as opposed to opening up another line of inquiry. In this case, if there are certain physiological factors which impact one's sociological makeup, how can these factors be affected to encourage choices that improve the life of the individual and society as a whole? I've seen one suggestion which involved "training" the brain to associate helping people with positive feelings, giving positive reinforcement whenever the person reacted in sociologically positive ways. Perhaps diet and nutritional supplements could affect one's tendencies, as well as methods such as meditation, which have been shown to impact how the brain processes information.

The ethics of 'We know this gene causes a person to become a psychopath', hence we should selectively treat them to prevent such paths in the future, are to me, quite dubious. Do we police every minute of a pregnancy to ensure that the developing fetus is not subjected to alcohol, smoke, environmental contaminants of any kind that could precipitate developmental paths leading to disordered brains? How "Handmaidenish" would such a world be?
In fact, that is the Pandora's box that the study of genetics has opened up: how do we handle the fore-knowledge of disease, whether physical or mental, that will be predicted by genetic analysis of an embryo or newborn? It is all very well to say that we must do so to advance the cause of science, but the determinism will creep in, via socio-economic or cultural imperatives that are demanded by the current market forces.
Perhaps it is just as well that all this genetic testing and typing is still prohibitively expensive, and accessible to the affluent few. The rest of the human race can go on doing what they do best, reproducing prodigiously, and without the filters of selective genetics and therapies. It may make for a less peaceful world, but that seems to me less appealing than a messier but more diverse one.

I tend to agree with Sujatha here. I am not opposed to genetic research, especially those that predict troublesome physical afflictions that can be alleviated by medical intervention. Behavior on the other hand, is a whole different kettle of fish. I am not saying that there is no genetic / biochemical angle to human behavior. Most probably there is. But what we should do with that information is not something we have thought through legally, ethically or even with the proper perspective of human history. Society has valued and devalued different qualities at different times.

There have been many attempts before to ascertain human characteristics, including criminality, based on physiognomy, blood groups etc. The consequences were as useless as those predicted by caste, race or time of birth. Neuro-biology may be more accurate but I doubt that its cultural effects will be much better. As Norm pointed out, until we have thoroughly figured out the ethical implications of predicting gene based behavior, we ought to be very careful where we go with these kinds of studies. We haven't even been very successful in modifying common afflictions like depression with pharmaceutical intervention. I wonder what can be done to correct anti-social impulses. Rachel's suggestions for positive reinforcements to modify behavior and mood seems helpful. But those methods are good for everyone irrespective of what genetic data say about a particular individual. In fact, I believe that military boot camp training should include yoga and meditation. We can at least try to train calm and ethical killers and not the sociopaths who will kill and torture for fun as we saw in Abu Ghraib and other incidents of immorality in war.

As a cautionary note, if we are not extremely vigilant and skeptical about data correlating genes with behavior, even so called hard science may be vulnerable to temptations such as this.

Falsifying data in published articles is far more widespread than most people think. It exists in ALL areas of science. My personal view is that the 'prepublication' of articles on the Internet before submission to peer reviewed journals will go a long way to separating the wheat from the chaff.

If I read the article correctly, this is not a case of advances in science outstripping those in law, etc., despite Pararajasingham's sudden swerve at the end, where he predicts and prescribes a little hastily an adjustment of the legal system. At important points he represents the preliminary aspect of this research. From the Conclusion: "The latest neuroscientific research is beginning to force us to re-evaluate issues of morality and culpability." At the outset: "[T]here now seems to be enough complementary evidence to at least begin piecing together a coherent materialistic description of the psychopathic mind." (My emphases.) It doesn't help matters when he (or an editor) appends a subtitle referring to "evil," which seems to me to be a theme imported from a discourse remote from and infamously competing for attention with the scientific.

@ Dean:

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I will be posting articles that deal with related aspects this subject.


It's noteworthy that you picked up on the word 'evil.' While I can't comment on the state of mind of author or editor, the question of evil, regarding psychopaths, has been part of the literature since the classic book, "The Mask of Sanity," by Harvey Milton Cleckly, 1941, 1950, 1955, 1964, 1976, and Emily S. Cleckly, 1988, 5th ed.

Harvey Cleckly wrote that a description of the psychopath and psychopathic behavior invariably leads to the question of evil. Or, should I say that the question of evil rises in the minds of normal people when confronted with the crimes of the psychopath. In the 5th edition, Emily Cleckly writes, "In contrast with all the various diversities of viewpoint and degrees of conviction found among ordinary people, the so-called psychopath seems to hold no real viewpoint at all and to be free of any sincere conviction in what might be called either good or evil."

There is a scene in the comic movie, "Stir Crazy" with Richard Prior and Gene Wilder that captures the essence of the criminal psychopath, perfectly. Wilder is in a maximum security prison. He asks another inmate, "What are you in for?" "Burglary," was the answer. Wilder says to him, "But, they say you shot all five members of the family." He replies, "They were there." In the context of the film it was a funny line. Every psychiatrist and psychologist who deal with psychopaths know this characterization is spot on.

M. Scott Peck MD dealt with the problem of 'human evil' in his book, "The People of the Lie: Hope for Healing Human Evil," 1983. His view of 'human evil' is the harm inflicted on others by those who refuse to deal with their own problems. This is a very different idea of evil than what we might attribute to the psychopath.

Of course, there is the religious view of evil being propagated by a devil with enthusiastic cooperation of sinful humans.

Getting back to the article, Dr. Pararajasingham suggests (teases us, really) that this area of research may require us to rethink moral and/or criminal culpability for some people. This will be one helluva discussion as we look at related issues.

The next article in the series by Dr.JTP are up:

More food for thought.

On a tangential note (related to the concerns about determinism above), here is an article citing evidence of how environmental factors appear to affect the expression of genetic markers without altering the DNA itself:

Regarding a discussion of culpability, I believe that there should be some leeway in degree of consequences that takes into account intent and the ability to comprehend the severity of one's actions. However, I also believe that there should be standard consequences for behavior. I don't care whether or not someone is physiologically (for whatever constellation of factors) capable of empathizing with another human being. Our society says that you don't kill other people, and if you do, there are harsh consequences for having done so.

@ Rachel:

The first two sentences in your first comment sum up one of the issues here. Thanks. I'll post the next article, separately, for a fresh set of comments.

Thanks for the gene expression article. Only recently have I been coming across the idea of gene expression. I'm not a biologist nor a geneticist nor a life scientist. However, I like to keep up with the fundamental issues.

I'm especially enjoying Rachel's contributions here. The latest one (6:52 p.m.), however, only looks good on (virtual) paper. The point, driven home by the penultimate sentence, is that we ought to focus on promoting, discouraging, rewarding, or punishing behavior, and that "evil" intentions are for the most part incidental. But the problem is in our definition of behavior. For example, if "our society says that you don't kill other people," then why is "our society" presently embarked on a largely covert campaign of official slaughter? Self-defense? Bullying? Spectacle? Righteous crusading against terrorism? An unfortunate cost-benefit calculus? Really, how much play of leeway is required to afford these excuses any credibility? In short, what is the behavior to which we ought to be responding?

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