Psychologists are interested in what motivates and underlies the patterns of our innermost thoughts, our outermost behaviors and everything in-between. Biologists, in contrast, are set with the daunting task of demystifying the final products of 3.5 billion years of evolutionary change, in all of their staggering variety and complexity.
The overlap of the two is behavioral biology, a field with findings so surprising they threaten to shake the very core of our democratic institutions and spell the beginning of the end of the criminal justice system.
Does that sound a tad overdramatic? Perhaps, but it’s also true, and it may even be understating the significance of this new marriage of the social and life sciences.
Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist and primatologist at Stanford University, published what became one of the most famous lecture series on Stanford’s YouTube channel, “Human Behavioral Biology,” with millions of views per video. This enthusiastic embrace of science by the general public may sound surprising given the headiness of the topic, but Sapolsky’s hilarious quips and frequent digressions make for a fascinating if sometimes information-heavy experience. Throughout the course, viewers are treated to a series of case studies with implications so strange as to hardly be believable.
Yet, they are unforgivingly accurate accounts of the intimate connection between biology and the inner self. A spate of recent studies published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America shows that a jury verdict, even when granting or denying parole to candidates convicted of heinous felonies, can be swung simply based on whether the sentencing phase was scheduled for before or after lunch. Judicial acts of mercy may be more a matter of a dip in blood-sugar than due process, it turns out. Worse, it would seem meting out punishment is never easier than on an empty stomach.
Worse still, Sapolsky said in his video lecture that a few ounces of junk food in the morning will set in motion neurobiological processes that could ultimately make the difference between murder and rage, or the difference between a crime of passion and of coldhearted calculation.
This doesn’t stop with criminal justice. In a psychiatric study in Jerusalem entitled “Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow,” by Israel historian Yuval Noah Harari, patients with extreme cases of clinical depression made a last-ditch effort at recovery by submitting themselves to an experimental (and consent-form laden) treatment involving subcranial electrode implants. Patients described a dark cloud of despair and an oppressive sense of worthlessness stalking them every day of their tortured lives and then feeling it evaporate at the flick of a switch.
Weeks later, one female outpatient returned to the lab complaining that her depression had suddenly returned with a vengeance. In her lengthy pre-clinical interview, she despaired that the treatment must have failed, only for the experimenters to discover that her implant’s battery life had depleted faster than expected. After changing it out, the dark cloud lifted again.
What does all of this mean?
It means that our deepest inner feelings and their outward expression are downstream from biology in a way many people fail to realize or fully appreciate. As Sapolsky concludes, it may even be that “free will is what we call biology we haven’t discovered yet.” The implications of these little-known ideas are nothing less than revolutionary, poised to overthrow some of the most basic tenets of liberal democracy.
The presence of smelly garbage in a neuroscience lab at the University of Arkansas says otherwise, as reported in a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. It turns out that disgust-triggering odors can radically alter the way people respond to political questionnaires. Even more surprisingly, a sense of disgust heavily biases test-takers toward right-wing responses to topical questions in American politics, such as with gay marriage, producing levels of social conservatism that can be difficult to find even in the public square.
And that’s only scratching the surface. In Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s literature review on behavioral genetics, “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” he describes the many ways in which geneticists have established that our genes create temperamental biases which heavily influence our political affiliations.
His study concluded that someone who is high in the personality trait conscientiousness, for example, is far more likely to vote red and is more sensitive to feelings of ethical disgust. On the other hand, someone high in openness to experience and agreeableness is significantly less likely to do so.
This may mean that much of the purpose of a college education is to begin the process of taking back your worldview from your genes, and that the first step to critical thinking is to learn to disenfranchise your DNA. Though it may sound bizarre or disturbing, this emerging neuroscience of belief and behavior is likely to make itself impossible to ignore in the next 20 years or so. We may be able to sweep it under the rug for a time, holding back on criminal justice reform or a fundamental re-write of democratic voting procedures. But it won’t last.
Are you prepared for when that time comes?