Pop science watch: Is the altruism spot edging out the God spot in pop science?
A Washington Post article reports
"You gotta see this!" Jorge Moll had written. Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.
As Grafman read the e-mail, Moll came bursting in. The scientists stared at each other. Grafman was thinking, "Whoa -- wait a minute!"
The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable
There you have it! Morality explained. Indeed, a whack of materialists chimed in with comments like:
Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not "handed down" by philosophers and clergy, but "handed up," an outgrowth of the brain's basic propensities.
Here's a less hyped report of the original study, including the comment:
"Although understanding the function of this brain region may not necessarily identify what drives people like Mother Theresa, it may give clues to the origins of important social behaviors like altruism," said study investigator Scott A. Huettel, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center.
But would it even do that? A skeptical lawyer friend comments:
I don't think this is as persuasive as the author thinks. Different cultures have different taste preferences for food, for example -- some cultures love tastes that others find disgusting. Thus a person who has learned to like a particular taste will have the pleasure center activated when it tastes the flavor it has learned to experience as pleasant. But if the person has learned to hate a taste, that person's pleasure center will not light up on tasting that food.
So too with the altruistic behavior -- the person was taught that the behavior was good, and so feels pleasure when doing the behavior.
Thus I think what we are really seeing is a reflection of learned behavior, not "hardwired" altruism.
I note also that the study says the test subjects were "volunteers." In other words, the scientists chose altruistic people -- people willing to volunteer to help them -- as their universe of test subjects.
I should think the main question is whether altruism is really, in any sense, "hardwired" anywhere. "Hardwired" is outdated reductionist computerspeak, long overdue to be retired. It immediately raises an issue: "Hardwired" means part of the physical structure of the brain, like wiring in a computer. Somehow, that sounds unlikely. In fact, it sounds exactly like all those stupid, useless quests for the God gene, God circuit, God module in the brain, or whatever.
In my experience, young children have generous impulses, but the impulses are inconsistent and not necessarily keyed to a strong moral sense. The habit of generous behaviour within moral limits must indeed be learned. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. Like all good habits, it usually becomes a source of pleasure in time. No doubt the researchers are picking up a small part of that outcome. Of course, as anyone who persists in well-doing knows, altruism is certainly not always a pleasure. Some people are thankless, feckless, frustrating, or undeserving. Even the most experienced generous person can develop compassion fatigue. Persisting through the unpleasantness is the beginning of good character.
Kim in Vienna kindly noted some of my other comments on this subject. Here's a thought from nonmaterialist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor:
The brain is a material substance. It has location, dimensions, weight, temperature, and energy. It also has parts; it has a superior surface, a medial boundary, a left side and a right side. As such, it can interact with other things that have similar properties- things that have matter and parts and energy. A region of the brain can cause action potentials, or movements of the arm. Oxygen molecules, barbiturate molecules, electrons, or a hammer can, in turn, affect the brain.
Altruism, in contrast, has no matter or energy. It has no ‘location’, no weight, no dimension, no temperature. It has no properties of matter. Altruism entails things like purpose and judgment, which aren’t material. Altruism has no parts, in the sense that there is a ‘left-side’ of altruism and a ‘right side’ of altruism. There are, of course, left sided and right sided parts of the brain, which may be associated with acts of altruism, but there is no ‘left’ or ‘right’ to altruism itself. Of course, objects (like human brains or bodies) that have location, weight, etc. can mediate or carry out altruistic acts, but the altruism itself doesn’t have a location. Altruism isn’t spatial. ‘My altruism is three inches from the edge of the table’ is a nonsensical statement.
Materialist neuroscientists confuse association with causation. This is the unhappy result of scientific materialism, which excludes immaterial causes. Yet many things in the world, including our ideas and even our theories about the world, are not matter or energy. Altruism is obviously something very real; many people’s lives depend on it. We don’t know exactly what it is, but we know, by its properties, what it’s not. It’s not material. It shares no properties in common with matter. It can’t be caused by a piece of the brain.
The materialist project is becoming all the more frenetic as it becomes more obviously undoable. Consider, for example the claim that apes speak.
Upcoming book! The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, Harper August 2007).