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Neuroscience & Moral Politics: Chomsky’s Intellectual Progeny  
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Neuroscience and Moral Politics: Chomsky’s Intellectual Progeny
by Gary Olson

The Daily Scare, 24 October 2007

Are humans "wired for empathy"? How does this affect what Chomsky calls the "manufacturing of consent"?

Throughout the world, teachers, sociologists, policymakers and parents are discovering that empathy may be the single most important quality that must be nurtured to give peace a fighting chance.
—Arundhati Ray

The official directives needn’t be explicit to be well understood: Do not let too much empathy move in unauthorized directions.
—Norman Solomon

The nonprofit Edge Foundation recently asked some of the world’s most eminent scientists, “What are you optimistic about? Why?” In response, the prominent neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni cites the proliferating experimental work into the neural mechanisms that reveal how humans are “wired for empathy.”

Iacoboni’s optimism is grounded in his belief that, with the popularization of scientific insights, these recent findings in neuroscience will seep into public awareness and “… this explicit level of understanding our empathic nature will at some point dissolve the massive belief systems that dominate our societies and that threaten to destroy us.” (Iacoboni, 2007, p. 14)

While there are reasons to remain skeptical (see below) about the progressive political implications flowing from this work, a body of impressive empirical evidence reveals that the roots of prosocial behavior, including moral sentiments such as empathy, precede the evolution of culture. This work sustains Noam Chomsky’s visionary writing about a human moral instinct, and his assertion that, while the principles of our moral nature have been poorly understood, “we can hardly doubt their existence or their central role in our intellectual and moral lives.” (Chomsky, 1971, n.p., 1988; 2005, p. 263)

In his influential book Mutual Aid (1972, p. 57; 1902), the Russian revolutionary anarchist, geographer, and naturalist Petr Kropotkin, maintained that “… under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life. Those species which willingly abandon it are doomed to decay.” Species cooperation provided an evolutionary advantage, a “natural” strategy for survival.

While Kropotkin readily acknowledged the role of competition, he asserted that mutual aid was a “moral instinct” and “natural law.” Based on his extensive studies of the animal world, he believed that this predisposition toward helping one another—human sociality—was of “prehuman origin.” Killen and Cords, in a fittingly titled piece “Prince Kropotkin’s Ghost,” suggest that recent research in developmental psychology and primatology seems to vindicate Kropotkin’s century-old assertions (2002).

The emerging field of the neuroscience of empathy parallels investigations being undertaken in cognate fields. Some forty years ago the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall observed and wrote about chimpanzee emotions, social relationships, and “chimp culture,” but experts remained skeptical. A decade ago, the famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal (1996) wrote about the antecedents to morality in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, but scientific consensus remained elusive.

All that’s changed. As a recent editorial in the journal Nature (2007) put it, it’s now “unassailable fact” that human minds, including aspects of moral thought, are the product of evolution from earlier primates. According to de Waal, “You don’t hear any debate now.” In his more recent work, de Waal plausibly argues that human morality—including our capacity to empathize—is a natural outgrowth or inheritance of behavior from our closest evolutionary relatives.

Following Darwin, highly sophisticated studies by biologists Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson posit that large-scale cooperation within the human species—including with genetically unrelated individuals within a group—was favored by selection. (Hauser, 2006, p. 416) Evolution selected for the trait of empathy because there were survival benefits in coming to grips with others. In his book, People of the Lake (1978) the world-renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey unequivocally declares, “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.”

Studies have shown that empathy is present in very young children, even at eighteen months of age and possibly younger. In the primate world, Warneken and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute at Leipzig, Germany, recently found that chimps extend help to unrelated chimps and unfamiliar humans, even when inconvenienced and regardless of any expectation of reward. This suggests that empathy may lie behind this natural tendency to help and that it was a factor in the social life of the common ancestor to chimpanzees and humans at the split some six million years ago (New Scientist, 2007; Warneken and Tomasello, 2006). It’s now indisputable that we share moral faculties with other species (de Waal, 2006; Trivers, 1971; Katz, 2000; Gintis, 2005; Hauser, 2006; Bekoff, 2007; Pierce, 2007). Pierce notes that there are “countless anecdotal accounts of elephants showing empathy toward sick and dying animals, both kin and non-kin” (2007, p. 6). And recent research in Kenya has conclusively documented elephant’s open grieving/empathy for other dead elephants.

Mogil and his team at McGill University recently demonstrated that mice feel distress when they observe other mice experiencing pain. They tentatively concluded that the mice engaged visual cues to bring about this empathic response (Mogil, 2006; Ganguli, 2006). De Waal’s response to this study: “This is a highly significant finding and should open the eyes of people who think empathy is limited to our species.” (Carey, 2006)

Further, Grufman and other scientists at the National Institutes of Health have offered persuasive evidence that altruistic acts activate a primitive part of the brain, producing a pleasurable response (2007). And recent research by Koenigs and colleagues (2007) indicates that within the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or VMPC is required for emotions and moral judgment. Damage to the VMPC has been linked to psychopathic behavior. This led to the belief that as a rule, psychopaths do not experience empathy or remorse.

A study by Miller (2001) and colleagues of the brain disorder frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is also instructive. FTD attacks the frontal lobes and anterior temporal lobes, the site of one’s sense of self. One early symptom of FTD is the loss of empathy.

We know from neuroscientific empathy experiments that the same affective brain circuits are automatically mobilized upon feeling one’s own pain and the pain of others. Through brain imaging, we also know that separate neural processing regions then free up the capacity to take action. As Decety notes, empathy then allows us to “forge connections with people whose lives seem utterly alien from us” (Decety, 2006, p. 2). Where comparable experience is lacking, this “cognitive empathy” builds on the neural basis and allows one to “actively project oneself into the shoes of another person” by trying to imagine the other person’s situation (Preston, in press), Preston and de Waal (2002). Empathy is “other directed,” the recognition of the other’s humanity.


So where does this leave us? If morality is rooted in biology, in the raw material or building blocks for the evolution of its expression, we now have a pending fortuitous marriage of hard science and secular morality in the most profound sense. The technical details of the social neuroscientific analysis supporting these assertions lie outside this paper, but suffice it to say that progress is proceeding at an exponential pace and the new discoveries are persuasive (Decety and Lamm, 2006; Lamm, 2007; Jackson, 2004 and 2006).

That said, one of the most vexing problems that remains to be explained is why so little progress has been made in extending this empathic orientation to distant lives, to those outside certain in-group moral circles. Given a world rife with overt and structural violence, one is forced to explain why our deep-seated moral intuition doesn’t produce a more ameliorating effect, a more peaceful world. Iacoboni suggests this disjuncture is explained by massive belief systems, including political and religious ones, operating on the reflective and deliberate level. These tend to override the automatic, pre-reflective, neurobiological traits that should bring people together.

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