Deeper into the Brain

On the Issues
Rapid advances in genetics and neuroscience will enable us to understand human nature and its social implications far more precisely than ever before. The consequences of that knowledge are largely unforeseeable, but they will likely include a challenge to our notions of equality and a renewed temptation to engage in eugenics.

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 twenty-first 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.

Translation into Political Codes

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 twentieth 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.

Beyond Race and Sex

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 twentieth 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 relationships.

A New Cause for the Left

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 ‘Laissez 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 twentieth-century man, destined to look as myopic a century from now as the predictions of nineteenth-century men about the twentieth. 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.

Charles Murray is the Bradley Fellow at AEI.

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