Posted on December 17, by Scott Alexander I.
A sobering look at how man may perceive himself in the future, particularly as ideas about genetic predeterminism takes the place of dying Darwinism. Being a bit behind the curve, I had only just heard of the digital revolution last February when Louis Rossetto, cofounder of Wired magazine, wearing a shirt with no collar and his hair as long as Felix Mendelssohn's, looking every inch the young California visionary, gave a speech before the Cato Institute announcing the dawn of the twenty—first century's digital civilization.
Geographic locations, national boundaries, the old notions of markets and political processes—all would become irrelevant. With the Internet spreading over the globe at an astonishing pace, said Rossetto, that marvelous modem—driven moment is almost at hand. But something tells me that within ten years, bythe entire digital universe is going to seem like pretty mundane stuff compared to a new technology that right now is but a mere glow radiating from a tiny number of American and Cuban yes, Cuban hospitals and laboratories.
It is called brain imaging, and anyone who cares to get up early and catch a truly blinding twenty—first—century dawn will want to keep an eye on it.
Brain imaging refers to techniques for watching the human brain as it functions, in real time. On a scanner screen you can actually see the genes light up inside the brain. By standards, these are sophisticated devices.
Ten years from now, however, they may seem primitive compared to the stunning new windows into the brain that will have been developed. Brain imaging was invented for medical diagnosis. But its far greater importance is that it may very well confirm, in ways too precise to be disputed, certain theories about "the mind," "the self," "the soul," and "free will" that are already devoutly believed in by scholars in what is now the hottest field in the academic world, neuroscience.
Granted, all those skeptical quotation marks are enough to put anybody on the qui vive right away, but Ultimate Skepticism is part of the brilliance of the dawn I have promised. Neuroscience, the science of the brain and the central nervous system, is on the threshold of a unified theory that will have an impact as powerful as that of Darwinism a hundred years ago.
Already there is a new Darwin, or perhaps I should say an updated Darwin, since no one ever believed more religiously in Darwin I than he does. His name is Edward O. He teaches zoology at Harvard, and he is the author of two books of extraordinary influence, The Insect Societies and Sociobiology: Not "A" new synthesis but "The" new synthesis; in terms of his stature in neuroscience, it is not a mere boast.
Wilson has created and named the new field of sociobiology, and he has compressed its underlying premise into a single sentence. Every human brain, he says, is born not as a blank tablet a tabula rasa waiting to be filled in by experience but as "an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid.
The print is the individual's genetic history, over thousands of years of evolution, and there is not much anybody can do about it. Furthermore, says Wilson, genetics determine not only things such as temperament, role preferences, emotional responses, and levels of aggression, but also many of our most revered moral choices, which are not choices at all in any free—will sense but tendencies imprinted in the hypothalamus and limbic regions of the brain, a concept expanded upon in in a much—talked—about book, The Moral Sense, by James Q.
Wilson no kin to Edward O. The neuroscientific view of life This, the neuroscientific view of life, has become the strategic high ground in the academic world, and the battle for it has already spread well beyond the scientific disciplines and, for that matter, out into the general public.
Both liberals and conservatives without a scientific bone in their bodies are busy trying to seize the terrain. The gay rights movement, for example, has fastened onto a study published in July of by the highly respected Dean Hamer of the National Institutes of Health, announcing the discovery of "the gay gene.
Conservatives, meantime, have fastened upon studies indicating that men's and women's brains are wired so differently, thanks to the long haul of evolution, that feminist attempts to open up traditionally male roles to women are the same thing: Wilson himself has wound up in deep water on this score; or cold water, if one need edit.
In his personal life Wilson is a conventional liberal, PC, as the saying goes—he is, after all, a member of the Harvard faculty—concerned about environmental issues and all the usual things. But he has said that "forcing similar role identities" on both men and women "flies in the face of thousands of years in which mammals demonstrated a strong tendency for sexual division of labor.
Since this division of labor is persistent from hunter—gatherer through agricultural and industrial societies, it suggests a genetic origin. We do not know when this trait evolved in human evolution or how resistant it is to the continuing and justified pressures for human rights.
He was not PC or liberal enough. Feminist protesters invaded a conference where Wilson was appearing, dumped a pitcher of ice water, cubes and all, over his head, and began chanting, "You're all wet!
But that turned out to be mild stuff in the current political panic over neuroscience. In February ofFrederick K.
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