Who’s afraid of the neuroscience of politics? I am.

So I’m reading Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it once I’m finished. Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell don’t seem to have read Mooney’s book either, but they did read a recent article by Mooney in HuffPost, summarizing his argument, and boy, did it make them mad. Mooney then gave a guest spot to his pal the behavioral psychologist Andrea Kuszewski, who served up a characteristically fiery and entertaining riposte called, “Who’s afraid of the neuroscience of politics?”, defending behavioral psychology, journalism, and liberal politics against the anti-anti-conservatism of Berezow and Campbell. Kuszewski answers her own question thus: “From the looks of things, it appears to be conservative journalists.” But I’m afraid of the neuroscience of politics, and I’m no conservative journalist. In fact, I’m a liberal historian of science and medicine (with, fwiw, graduate training in neuroscience).

Let me be clear at the outset: if I’m on anyone’s side in this debate, either rhetorically or politically, it’s Mooney and Kuszewski. I am appalled at the assault on knowledge and the way ignorance has become a viable political stance in this country. But as a good Enlightenment liberal, I believe in critique as a means of advancing understanding. And I’m personally vested in honing our arguments and developing our understanding as much as possible. I’m making this argument in the interest of rational, constructive discussion with the likes of Mooney and Kuszewski, not out of any allegiance to right-wing ideologues.

Berezow and Campbell are the authors of the forthcoming book, Science Left Behind, a counterweight to Mooney’s thoughtful, impassioned thesis about the anti-scientific tendencies of the American political right wing. Left-wing opponents of vaccines, GM food, and nuclear power are anti-science too, Berezow and Campbell argue; conservatives don’t have a monopoly on ideologically driven opposition to politically charged scientific issues. If Berezow and Campbell had read Mooney’s book, they’d have seen that he addresses each of those issues himself; further, there’s light-years’ difference intellectually between opposition to GM food and rejection of evolution or, for Christ’s sake, relativity. So the counterweight is really a duck on the other side of the scales from the accused witch; if the pans seem to balance, it says more about the experiment than about nature.

Anyway, in their article, Berezow and Campbell accuse Mooney of being dilettante, a philistine, a charlatan, a mountebank, and possibly a mummer and a picador, although I don’t want to read too deeply into their argument. They make lots of positively silly statements, such as that as a (mere) journalist, Mooney can “practice scientific malpractice with impunity.” Though that is literally true, rhetorically it is really a high-handed slap at those who would deign to write about science without holding a Ph.D. in microbiology, as does Berezow. Which is amusing, given that his coauthor Campbell edits Science 2.0, a website whose home page offers, “Know science and want to write? Register now to get your own column!”, and which, on the About Us page, says, “We created a place where everyone who wants to write about science can write to a large potential audience, regardless of popularity.”

It is, then, overall a dopey article, irrational and ill-informed, whose flaws Kuszewski enumerates and I don’t need to repeat. However, Berezow and Campbell almost make an interesting criticism. They say that Mooney’s argument—that there is a biological underpinning to conservativism—amounts to eugenics. Now taken literally, this is idiotic. Eugenics has been defined in many ways over the last 130 years, viz.:

    • “The study of the agencies under social control, that improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally” (Galton, 1883)
    • “The science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race” (Pearson, 1904)
    • “The science of human improvement by better breeding” (Davenport, 1910)
    • “The self-direction of human evolution” (Eugenics Congress, 1921)

All of them in some way imply a program of human hereditary improvement. As far as I can tell, Mooney offers us no plan for reducing the numbers of Republicans, the way Harry Laughlin had a plan for reducing the numbers of the feebleminded. More’s the pity, depending on your point of view, but anyway.

Still, in a slightly deranged way, there is a hint of a point here. I do find the search for the biological basis of political belief disturbing. I have no doubt that such a basis exists, but, taking the long view, the quest for it raises concerns. Ironically, I’m worried that Mooney and Kuszewski will, indirectly and in the long term, be feeding the enemy.

The search for the psychological and genetic basis of social behavior has a long history. It goes back to Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, the father of modern biostatistics, and the coiner of the term “eugenics.” Galton considered himself a good liberal, but his aims horrify right-thinking left-wingers today. He sought to implement, “under existing conditions of law and sentiment,” a system that would encourage the “best” (wealthy, educated, and successful) members of British society to have more children and the “worst” to have fewer. Galton cared about populations, not individuals. And for him, the potency of cold scientific logic overruled any wuzzle-headed sentimentality on behalf of those who were to be “selected against.”

Galton is in fact one of the gentler figures in this history. For the most part, he was opposed to coercive regulation of reproduction except when a person was so incapacitated he could not rationally make his own decisions. He was swayed from this view late in life, after 1900, when the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws led to a newly hardline coercive style of eugenics in the Progressive era, notoriously leading to dozens of sterilization laws, influencing immigration policy, and otherwise providing a powerful social weapon to be used against the poor, sick, foreign, black, female, and undereducated.

One of the leading figures of Progressive era eugenics was the psychologist Henry Goddard, of the Vineland Training School in New Jersey. Goddard was reasonably well-educated and a respected member of the professional psychological community. He introduced “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron,” to the lexicon, as scientifically precise and morally compassionate categories for individuals of mental defect. Through years of study of his mentally impaired students, he became convinced that he had found evidence for a Mendelian recessive gene for “feeblemindedness.” That such a gene existed was widely accepted, common knowledge among psychologists for decades. Goddard’s best-known work was “The Kallikaks,” which traced in thrilling detail the exploits of a “race of defective degenerates,” a highly inbred genealogy of crooks, murderers, prostitutes, good-for-nothings, and fools. Goddard was an ardent eugenicist and he set up an IQ testing station at Ellis Island to keep out mental defectives—who mostly turned out to be merely illiterate or simply people who didn’t speak English.

One could go on. There’s the psychologist Arthur Jensen’s 1969 study purporting to show, with good hard scientific data, that blacks are about 10-20 IQ points stupider than whites, so it was pointless for liberals to provide “compensatory education” designed to right past wrongs of separate but unequal education; there’s the XYY debate, during which it was briefly “proved” that having an extra Y chromosome makes you big, scary, and prone to violent crime; there’s Murray and Herrnstein’s 1994 conservative scientific bombshell The Bell Curve, which pretty much just rehearsed Galton, Goddard, Cyril Burt, and Jensen but triggered a large public debate over science and conservative politics.

The point is, efforts to explain human social behavior in terms of their genes and their brains have provided more ammunition to social conservatives than to social liberals. Explanations of complex social behavior in terms of the innate serve those in power more than they serve the forces of change. And they do so regardless of how much you couch your case in terms of “nature and nurture,” saying, “We know it’s not all nature; it’s just that we’re interested here in the nature side of things” (for a haunting example of this rhetorical strategy, read the opening chapters of The Bell Curve).

Science has a complex role in our society, as multifarious as the relationship between knowledge and power. When science is pitted against ignorance, I defend science with the spirit of the righteous. But when science is used to protect the status quo, to serve stockholders, or to serve the population at the expense of the individual—when science conflicts with my liberal values—I oppose it. My concern here is that while ostensibly defending science against ignorance, arguments such as this will inadvertently lend arms to those attacking the subaltern.

I’m afraid of the neuroscience of politics, then, because politics is about power. Because I’m a liberal, and liberalism today aims to take the side of those without power—it aims to equalize power. Because science, too, is at least partly about power, and so it has a complex relationship to liberalism that I don’t want to see glossed over. And because historically, explanations of complex social behavior in terms of innate biological characteristics have tended to serve those in power—the white, male, wealthy, and Protestant.

In today’s categories, Republicans.


Further Reading:

Beckwith, J., and L. Miller. “The XYY Male: The Making of a Myth.” Harv Mag 79, no. 2 (1976): 30–3.

Comfort, Nathaniel. “Zelig (recent Biographies of Francis Galton).” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80, no. 2 (2006): 348–363.

Cowan, Ruth. “Nature and Nurture: The Interplay of Biology and Politics in the Work of Francis Galton.” In Studies in the History of Biology, 133–208. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Davenport, Charles. Eugenics: The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding. New York: Henry Holt, 1910.

Elseviers, D. “The Criminal XYY Chromosomes: Fact or Fiction.” Sci People 6, no. 5 (1974): 22–4.

Fox, Richard G. “The XYY Offender: A Modern Myth?” The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 62, no. 1 (1971): 59–73.

Fraser, Steve. The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America. New York: BasicBooks, 1995.

Galton, Francis. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. London: Macmillan and Co., 1869. file://localhost/Volumes/NCREFS/PDFs/3331.pdf.

Gillham, Nicholas W. A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles A. Murray. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Jacoby, Russell, and Naomi Glauberman. The Bell Curve Debate. New York: Random House, 1995.

Jensen, Arthur. “How Much Can We Boost Scholastic Achievement?” Harvard Educational Review 39 (1969): 1–123.

Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. http://books.google.com/books?id=8esnhRxBomMC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA329#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Kincheloe, Joe L., Shirley R. Steinberg, and Aaron David Gresson. Measured Lies: The Bell Curve Examined. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Lewontin, Richard. “Race and Intelligence.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 26, no. 3 (1970): 2–8.

Pearson, Karl. The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton. Vol. 3. Cambridge [Eng.]: University press, 1930. http://galton.org/pearson/.

Steinfels, M. O., and C. Levine. “The XYY Controversy: Researching Violence and Genetics.” Hastings Cent Rep 10, no. 4 (1980): Suppl 1–32.

Galton’s work, as well as much scholarly commentary on Galton, is collected at http://galton.org.

4 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of the neuroscience of politics? I am.

  1. fredbortz

    Mooney is hardly a dilettante. He knows his science. Exhibit A is his Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, which I review at this link. That review has a link to my review of his earlier The Republican War on Science, where he describes how the tendency of people to resist scientific findings that go against their personal inclinations became a Republican War in recent decades.

    Still, like the author of this post, I do not like it when anyone deliberately ignores science (“Left-wing opponents of vaccines, GM food, and nuclear power are anti-science too”). But there’s one other factor we need to be aware of when getting involved in a political argument about a scientific or technological topic. A lot of people are not even aware that their political leanings are affecting their response to scientific evidence.

    I blogged about “subtle and not so subtle biases” here recently in the context of a book I wrote for young readers about the implications of Fukushima.

    Because I took a middle-of-the-road position rather than an alarmist “no nukes” view, reviewers whose unconscious biases were anti-nuclear saw my book a pro-nuclear. Only recently did a major reviewer (who works for a physics publisher) recognize my careful attempts to keep an open mind about nuclear technology and praise the book for being “bias free.” I blogged about that, too.

    Fred Bortz

  2. genotopia Post author

    Thanks for your comment. I do hope nothing in my post implied Mooney was a dilettante.

    And I sympathize with your efforts to be even-handed–especially important in writing for young audiences. I often find myself defending a “radical moderate” stance; I know I’ve hit the right note when I get even amounts of criticism from both sides.

    1. fredbortz

      I was responding to B & C’s characterization. It was clear that you did not agree with that. And, yes, I often use a similar terminology for my own blogging “from the radical middle.”

      Thanks for your empathy on that score.

  3. Dr. Eugene Wellborn

    Perhaps politcal ideology is not strictly genetic, but it has a certain geneticness to it that cannot be denied. Have you ever met a conservative Kennedy?


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