Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Naked Brain Primates and Philosophers

Last month I posted a book review essay on The Ethical Brain and The Future of the Brain to recommend these studies of cognitive and neuro-research as first steps to understanding where the pharmaceutical and genetic aspects of technocorrections might take us. I've got a couple more to recommend now. The first is along the same line as the first two, Richard Restak's The Naked Brain: How the Emerging Neurosociety Is Changing How We Live, Work, and Love. Restak covers a lot of the same material as the others, the way the new technologies for imaging the workings of the brain are telling us so much about how it works and its relationship to our consciousness (which turns out to be a lot like a third party to our brain like the people we deal with every day are). The brain knows and does a hell of a lot more than "we" are privy to, and the imaging is giving us our first real clues to that, creating a "neurosociety" in which "brain science influences every aspect of daily life."

As I mentioned before, this clearly includes corrections sentencing. The "social neuro-science" he proposes has serious implications both for culpability and for sanctioning, for memory and testimony and for determining who's telling the truth and who's lying. (Maybe knowing that the same brain centers light up for cocaine craving, high-risk investment, and a lost love will intrigue you.) I liked the part that covered lie detection, the possibility of creating imaging that will ferret out deceivers (not good for really good liars), and the experiments that show that the better you think you are at detecting lying, the worse you are (Mr. Police Interrogator and Ms. Prosecutor). Perhaps you'll like better the section on the centers for moral reasoning in the brain, which are variable (oh, no) and not all that dependent on "reason" for effective activation. Here's the key graf for you public defender types looking for ways to bring the arguments into the courtroom: "the frontal lobes are underactive in psychopaths and others who act without moral or ethical restraint." So does that make them more or less culpable? You really think that argument's not going to come up more and more?
For those wondering why we spend so much more to punish people than the actual cost of their offense, Restak has an answer for you, the mental "revenge" mechanism that drives us to get payback (what we've called "expressive justice" here), even at substantial expense, for a perceived or actual wrong. In fact, we have mental circuits that get substantial satisfaction from the payback, even when it's just anticipated. The potential "technocorrections" aspect of this? No, we won't be able to say with complete certainty who the pedophile is or the potential addict or the sociopath, but will that stop us? If you're an insurance company, isn't it in your interest to know? If you're responsible for public safety, aren't you interested? (Threw that one in for the "law and order" guys after the PD comment above. You're welcome.) We will have the ability to change addiction patterns, maybe to change desires, maybe to hook brains up to computers and keep people (of all moralities if we want) under behavioral control. Are we ready for that? Are we even talking about it? Restak wants us to:

Here's our challenge: We can employ this emerging new knowledge about social neuroscience to advance human freedom within the neurosociety, or we can allow irresponsible people to use this knowledge in ways that are not always to our advantage.

I know where I'd place my bets, but I still have enough hopeless optimism to think that, if we get the word out wide and loud, maybe we can head some of the "irresponsible" off at the pass. Our futures literally depend on it. Maybe you should read this and the other books.

The other book I'm recommending isn't as obviously technocorrections-oriented, but there's a definite link and it's a cool read in any case. I'm a big Frans de Waal fan, the primatologist who's basically shown that the differences between us and chimps boil down mainly to bigger vocabs and electronics. Read his Chimpanzee Politics and not think of our governments, locker rooms, and frat houses, I dare you. The book I'm recommending is his newest , Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. The title should give the link to corrections sentencing away.

In a way I felt sorry for de Waal in this book as he presented the decades of work he's done with other species that demonstrates conclusively to any non-human-obsessed mind that morality exists along a spectrum among species, not a sharp separation between us (really, we're still putting ourselves up as paragons of morality??) and the rest of the animal kingdom. The format of the book was to let him present, then have four responders (not really worth mentioning) before he responded to them. It was like what it would have been like to be a guy who had actually spent his life exploring The New World and then had to suffer through John Locke and all those other guys who'd never been there expounding on what they must be like and, even better, creating an entire philosophical school on something that never existed. (We're just lucky as humans that surviving from day to day really requires so little grasp of reality and that our lives don't really depend on how much we believe to be true actually being true.)

Where this ties to corrections sentencing and technocorrections is through the clear evidence that morality is indeed biologically based. We can whine about how special we are, how we can't be animals, how the world is here for us, but the evidence doesn't support it. (Of course, when has that ever stopped us really in anything, especially corrections sentencing???) If genetics and gene expression in given environments are involved in setting our own and our community's standards of right and wrong, then we will have to consider the arguments of those who argue specialness for their defendants and we will have to consider the possibilities that genes make us different from each other, not "equal under the law."

We've based our law, our codes, our justifications for sanctions and mercies on views of humanity that are daily being shown to be as wrong as Locke, as wrong as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Luther, Rousseau and Marx. This is serious stuff, folks. And the guys doing the challenging are not under our tent and, in de Waal's case, suffer us not very gladly. They will be setting the new rules, the new paradigms, and we can embrace them and make sure our truly beneficial contributions are incorporated or we can play off in our corner and let people who don't have our experience and mistakes to learn from make the new policies. Or as a wise man once said, "we can allow irresponsible people to use this knowledge in ways that are not always to our advantage." The choice is ours. But time's a-wastin'.

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