Jonathan Haidt in conversation

ImageJonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and author of The Righteous Mind has been visiting UBC the past few days, and he stopped by at the National Core for Neuroethics to discuss a variety of issues in which we have a common interest.  While he was here, he was kind enough to sit with me and have a conversation about groupish genes, the response to his upcoming appearance on the Colbert Report, and current events.

On the consequences of personhood

Personhood is in the news. Mississippi is considering a ballot initiative to define a fertilized egg as having personhood. This morning, the New York Times published an editorial on the matter, and the arguments were all framed in consequentialist terms:

“Besides outlawing all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest or when a woman’s life is in danger, and banning any contraception that may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, including birth control pills, the amendment carries many implications, some quite serious.”

“It could curtail medical research involving embryos, shutter fertility clinics and put doctors in legal jeopardy for providing needed medical care that might endanger a pregnancy. Pregnant women also could become subject to criminal prosecution. A fertilized egg might be eligible to inherit money or be counted when drawing voting districts by population. Because a multitude of laws use the terms “person” or “people,” there would be no shortage of unintended consequences.”

It is a certainty that there would be consequences to such legislation, but what is interesting is that all of the parties involved in the debate skirt the fundamental issue: what do we mean by personhood anyway? Continue reading


Retribution, the dictionary tells us, is the dispensing of punishment for misdeeds. Derived from the Latin re tribuere, it literally means to pay back. We humans have strong retributive instincts, and it is often said that this behaviour arose as a product of our evolution as social beings: the threat of retribution enforces social norms, and was among the features that increased the likelihood of cooperation among members of society in the early years of human evolution. Given that cooperation confers significant adaptive advantages to the group, retributive norms flourished, and whether via genes or enculturation, the desire for retribution has been passed on to us.

The value of retributive impulses in the modern world is more difficult to discern. We humans are noted for having the ability to not only act in a manner that is instinctive, but also to reflect upon the propriety of our actions. Amongst philosophers, retribution is often contrasted with consequentialism, the notion that the response to a misdeed should produce the best result for society. Consequentialism is possible because the modern human brain is able to reason, and by so doing we are able to anticipate near, medium and long-term futures: we can decide whether the best response to a misdeed is retribution, education, or even doing nothing at all. At different times, different responses may be called for. What matters most to the consequentialist is not the payback but rather the outcome. The tension between retribution and consequentialism is a hot button issue in the field of neurolaw, where neuroessentialists argue that it is time to rethink the concept of punishment, while traditionalists suggest that deterrence remains the best way of organizing civil society. Continue reading

Altruism tested

Three Mile Island

In 1979, I was in graduate school in Philadelphia, a city in which I had been living for seven years. As is the case with most people of university age, I had a cadre of close friends for whom I would give the world. Or at least so I thought.

As it happens, I also had a cousin who lived in Philadelphia, with whom I had had a sometimes frosty relationship. Despite the fact that we lived within 10 blocks of each other, we saw each other no more than a couple of times a year, events that I believe we both approached with equal amounts of dread and delight.

In March of that year, a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, less than 100 miles from where I was, experienced a partial meltdown. There were a few tense days. I remember one morning in particular being sufficiently charged with anxiety that I packed my car with some provisions, planning to leave town if things did not improve soon. The question was, who was I going to take with me, as none of my close friends had cars of their own.

Actually, I didn’t even ask the question. I knew. I called my cousin and told her that I was leaving town that afternoon, and that if she wished, she (and her husband) could come with me. In the end, things calmed down just before we were set to leave, and Three Mile Island became a memorable blip in the history of the nuclear power industry. But for me, it taught me a deep lesson about the power of genetic relatedness and altruistic behaviour, one which has now been formally tested.
Continue reading

Don’t throw the evolutionary psychology baby out with the bathwater

Evolutionary psychology is under attack again.  Leading the charge is Sharon Begley who has an incendiary piece in Newsweek entitled, “Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?”.  Sharon is a very insightful science writer, but her arguments seem to be driven as much by outrage as by data.

It has always been a weakness of the field of evolutionary psychology that the bulk of the research has consisted of hypotheses (some would say just-so stories) rather than data.  More controversially, some of the conclusions which followed have been politically uncomfortable to consider. But the real question is not whether they are uncomfortable but whether they reveal something meaningful about the human condition.  The proper way to arrive at that conclusion is to sharpen our thinking and carry out experiments to test these hypotheses.  Indeed, in recent years the field has moved to more rigorous forms of inquiry and data is beginning to emerge which serves to test some of the hypotheses that have been put forward.  As with any field of science, some of the hypotheses that have been put forward have been found wanting.  There is nothing really new about that.  What makes Sharon’s piece newsworthy (but at the same time a bit slanted) is that at least some of the hypotheses that have fallen were those very ones that were viewed as uncomfortable.

But frankly, these are arguments over details, the sort of thing that scientists hash out in the Q&A sessions that are the staple of scientific meetings. The bigger criticism for evolutionary psychology (evident in Sharon’s piece but much more so in the commentary by David Brooks in the New York Times) is that our brains do not consist of pre-programmed modules that were set in stone during the Pleistocene. Rather, it seems that the adaptation which has allowed us to flourish as a species is the fluidity with which we use our neural apparatus to the task at hand, whatever it may be.  This plasticity is why my brain, whose genetic programming most certainly derives from my evolutionary history, is able to master such a modern task as typing. By presenting the brain as a series of modules with fixed functions, evolutionary psychology painted itself into a corner.  The challenge for the field is really to understand something much more nuanced: how plasticity interacts with innate neural networks to produce modern behavior.

[For those interested in further commentary, some of it quite detailed with respect to the individual arguments put forward by Begley, I recommend you go hereand here and here.]