University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Social Sciences and Biotechnical Faculty, Master Study of Anthropology
NEUROSCIENCE AND ANTHROPOLOGY
The bittersweet taste of (r)evolution
Celje, May 2008
There has been much debate about the so called neuroscience revolution in the research fields commonly associated with the theories of the mind and the brain. Recent developments in neuroimaging techniques, namely the widely accessible and relatively cheap (for some) fMRIs, discovery of mirror neurons combined with major breakthroughs in (epi)genomics, have created a buzz in wider scientific community. It looks like we are on the verge of something big and important. Something »larger than life«.The excitement has spilled over even to humanities; once more it seems that sociologists, anthropologists and other social scientists are on the verge of finding their holy grail. Again. For the first time in history the advanced neuroimaging techniques enable us to see what is understood as »the human mind at work«, to see the “ghost in the machine”. It could be compared to seeing the image of an atom with the electronic microscope for the first time. The conscious ego, the very essence of what is believed to be human, has finally been caught in act, with the brain confirmed as its throne.
(R)EVOLUTION IN NEUROSCINCE AND THE HOLY GRAIL OF ANTHROPOLOGY
The evolutionary paradigm in the natural sciences dealing with the human condition is still a top choice among the theories. How could it not be? General principles of evolution on the macro level in the universe seem undeniable. All organic systems tend to go pass through stages in complexity, depending on the adaptation external conditions and not forgetting the coincidence factor. From one there can be many and from many there can be one. An eternal interplay of integration and disintegration of matter-energy. Yin and yang, libido and the death drive. It does not make sense to go in depth into these concepts at this point, only to state that the evolution is part of grand Western paradigm of the deterministic universe within which scientists believe they can predict events with complete certainty. It started with the first Greek materialists, trough Newtonian mechanics to Einstein’s relativity. The arrow of time is still seen only as an illusion (Prigogine, 1997). Judeo-Christian doctrine with God as an omnipotent legislator follows this path. Armed with this logic, the Western man has (temporarily) conquered the Nature. Everything makes sense, is predictable and comprehendible. But with chaos theory and similar spin-offs from established theories comes a new threat to the idea of the universe as the automata. These new perspectives on certainty and simple causality picture these more like an misapprehension and a universe governed by simple laws of physics seems more like white man’s anthropocentric foolishness. Psychology, neurology, psychiatry, medicine and all the hybrids among them follow in the same dogmatic footsteps. Why is this important and relevant for anthropology?
Firstly, one should define anthropology. The discipline includes diverse fields of research from archeology to linguistic anthropology, trying to embrace together the knowledge of seemingly incommensurable ideas about the human existence. We are dealing with tricky issues, ranging from pottery to poetry. It is a difficult enterprise. Understanding a phenomena as complex as humanity might seem as an intellectual suicide. Geertz somewhere said that anthropology is more like art and music and we could easily say that it also could be one of the “impossible professions” (Freud, 1937). Maybe that is why anthropology still does not hold the status of a “real” science. Its object of enquiry is too broad, too vague and too hard to grasp. We are divided into different schools of thought, held together only by the respect of our untouchable “totemic” founding fathers such as Spencer, Durkheim, Morgan, Tylor, Frazer, Rivers, Boas, Malinowski, Mead, Benedict, Sapir, Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard, Kroeber, Steward, White, Levi-Strauss, etc., strong belief in methodology of participant observation and an ideal about the understanding what it means to be human. While it might be ridiculed as to being unscientific, naïve, full of “just-so stories” and lacking true positivistic methodologies and producing little quantifiable evidences, anthropology, if viewed from the historical bird view, is the first of sciences which does not take relativity of observed phenomena for granted. We are skeptical of grand theories that make a splash every from time to time, but on the other hand easily fall in the trap of false prophets.
It was a bitter learning experience for anthropology and her devoted pupils. As a stepchild of 19. century Darwinian/Spencerian evolution, anthropology never totally lost its biological framework. How could it? But the ideo-political manipulations with facts, which culminated in eugenics and scientific racism of the early 20. century totalitarian regimes, to some extent sobered the anthropological community. Nurture, not nature was the favored explanatory concept. “Social structure”(Radcliffe-Brown, 1952) and “function” of culture (Malinowski, 1944) were topics that puzzled the British functionalism-structuralists, Boas’s heirs, armed with psychoanalysis and Marxists anthropologists studying post-colonial societies. It was only with Levi-Strauss and later even more with Wilson (Wilson, 1975), Lorenz (Lorenz, 1966) and sociobiology that the human “hardware” became an important issue in the anthropological discourse. We can, of course, only speculate what theories would have come out of the brilliant minds of early anthropologists when faced with new insights about the human condition, brought on by the rapid developments in genetics, linguistics and medicine after 1945.
It is difficult to argue against the notion, that we are all part of the Nature and at the same time part of the system, a unique system, which is distinctly human. It is not the world of atoms, but of elements of a different order; of non-material representations, images and symbols, of Culture. We are creatures wearing a cloth out of signifiers to cover up our inherited animalistic nudity.
Although I stated that anthropology is (and should be) to some extent skeptical of theoretical frameworks that base understanding of the widest possible range of human phenomena on human biology due to unpleasant experiences from the past, these theories should not be automatically dismissed. I believe anthropology should study Man as a “totality”, a complex system of interplaying natural and symbolic traits, a view already expressed by Marcel Mauss (Levi-Strauss, 1950). Culture was born out of Nature and Nature is being conceptualized trough the lenses of Culture.
This is why the latest developments and concepts associated with neurosciences seem so appealing for anthropology. Backed up by “hard” science, these insights sure look promising and new. Or do they?
Interpretations of psychopathological conditions in humans have created an appealing base for theories about the essence of human society and its laws. At the core of these concepts are the re-discovery of the so called Jacksonian brain, named after the 19. century neurologist John Hughlings Jackson, and the evolution of the social brain. The Jacksonian scheme follows the findings of the great Victorian biologists and social philosopher, Herbert Spencer, founder of social Darwinism. His influence and elaborations of the general evolutionary principles are the founding blocks of today’s understanding of the modular mind-brain, principles that have long been put aside and forgotten and are now being re-recognized and taken for a fact. The main idea is that the human brain, just as every other system in the universe, consists of hierarchical elements (“modules” in neuroscientific jargon) , which with time get incorporated or transformed into evolutionary more advanced ones. The so called “executive functions”, which include selection, generalization and modification, planning, flexible execution, monitoring and inhibition of lower modules are seen as the most advanced and recent structures in the human brain(Young, 2008). As the complexity of the system grows, the from higher developed centers inhibited archaic and primitive components become like a window in time, Lamarckian relicts of times long gone. In case of the brains, only in pathological (epilepsy) or unconscious (dreams) conditions do these lower centers “come to life” and offer a glimpse to our evolutionary past. This idea is articulated in the concept of the reptilian, (limbic), paleo-mammalian and neo-mammalian brain and Ernst Haeckel`s comparative embryology. This (old) model of the brain is now being resurrected and embodied in the concept of the social brain. Technology, namely the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which measures the haemodynamic response related to neural activity in the brain or spinal cord, has only recently allowed us to actually measure and see the concomitance of mind and flesh. While it is hard to argue against interpretations of brain “hardware” genesis, things are not as straightforward when theorizing on “software” development and its implications in social relations.
The very same evolutionary model was and is being applied to the interpretation of neuro/psychopathologies, starting with the 1967 John Price’s article (Price, 1967) about epidemiology of depression. Later, other similar interpretations of neuro/psychopathologies followed. Depression was interpreted as an evolutionary residue, as a “surrender complex” developed by the lesser-fit individuals, non-capable of coping with the highly competitive and aggressive social environment of the Paleolithic horde. I wonder if cockroaches also suffer any “neural” consequences for playing “dead” all the time (I do not really believe that…)?
Anxiety, depression, epilepsy and other neuro/psychopathologies are all remnants and trade-offs of Paleolithic adaptations, imprinted in the neural circuitry which today, due to genome lag, have become evolutionary unnecessary and possibly disruptive to life in a modern world.
To understand the conditions, which led to the development of such mechanisms, is to understand the very beginnings of the human society and make plausible conclusions about the modern man. During the course of the Paleolithic era, which lasted for 5 to 6 million years, the human brain had to adapt to different social and natural conditions. In addition to older, automatic and spontaneous neural schemes or “modules”, more and more complex and domain neutral centers evolved. If the module served the cause of reproductive success well, it developed further and stayed partially embedded it the neural structure of the brain. As time passed, these modules became analog to geological layers, each representing a specific period, which can be read as an open book.
But not only natural conditions influenced the evolution of mind modules. Human brain had to adapt to other brains as well to successfully compete with other, potentially deceptive individuals. Special “mind reading” modules had to emerge. A so called “cognitive arms race” began which resulted in increasingly larger and larger human brain. Modern human brain is the result of diverse evolutionary adaptations, culminating in what is today brain of a mosaic of modules, each processing its specific task.
The most obvious counter-argument for such an understanding of the human social evolution is the starting point, the very hypothesis of the primordial horde, an old Darwinian concept, supported by observations modern East African baboons (Price, 1967). This “reverse engineering” which only speculates on conditions many millennia before our time can be seen as a mere speculation, a “just so” story. The very same concept was harshly attacked, when Freud proposed his theory in 1913 on the evolution of human society (Freud, 2007). Freud took the Darwinian notion of the primal horde as the original human social organization. A small group of humans was dominated by a powerful alpha-male, having total control over females and access to enjoyment. The rival younger males at one point in history, decided to kill the Father in a bloody coupe d`etat and take over the power. The patricidal brotherhood soon realized their mistake. Feelings of guilt and disgust soon led to the restoration of the institution of the Father. The father was never defeated, on the contrary, he returned victorious and even more powerful in the reified version of the totem, which later in history changed its form to deities and eventually to the monotheistic god-Father. Lacanians later tried to defend the Oedipal theory of culture, claiming that the Father was never “real”. The obscene and vulgar father, who dominates the horde and has full access to enjoyment (females) is by the logic of the forever unobtainable Desire only a fantasy of the (Paleolithic) males. He is only a symbolic figure, a made-up authority and a strong reference for enforcement of social norms (Žižek, 1991).
Similar causal conclusions between natural “hardware” and cultural “software” have been made by the (discipline of) sociobiology, relying mostly upon the studies of animals (Wilson, 1975). Sociobiology argues that some human behaviors, such as male-female relations, kin selection, altruism, etc., are to an important extent determined by our genetic heritage. The most important mechanism is natural selection and reproductive success of the species. Some behaviors or social practices are “better” than others in the eyes our “selfish genes” (Dawkins, 2006). Cultural anthropologists argue about the highly speculative nature of, out-of-the-cultural-context taken sociobiological models and hypothesis, something that was stressed by Boas more than hundred years ago (Boas, 1896).
It is not hard to imagine the excitement of the sociobiologists when presented with the “new” data from the psychiatric and medical circles. Among other things, sociobiologists argue that altruism is genetically based and has evolved by means of natural selection. Altruism, sacrificing oneself to save some other members of the group (kin), is not incompatible with Darwinian laws of natural selection. On the contrary, the sacrifice is made in order to save (genetically) close related individuals for the benefit of the group (gene pool). Life must go on; it is the genes that have to be preserved and passed on to the next generations. When I go for a walk in the park and suddenly see a little boy drowning in the pond, I will most likely jump in the water and save him. Again, advocates of the “nurture” group in anthropology argue, that altruism is learned, not genetically programmed (Sahlins, 1976). “Love thy neighbor, as thyself”. This might had been the case in the past when humans lived in small and closely related groups, but today it has been replaced by cultural mechanism. Maybe somehow my brain misread the situation and interpreted the little boy as one of my kin; an evolutionary older switch was “turned-on” and engaged my motoric centers.
Exactly this is the point sociobiologists and modular mind theorists are trying to make. While many, if not most of our behaviors are culturally influenced, we can not bypass the fact that some might be rooted in our biology. Altruism and empathy are the best proofs for this claim. With the discovery of mirror neurons, first in monkeys and later also in the inferior frontal cortex and superior parietal lobe of the human brain, new insights and conclusions in the dynamics of these puzzling behavioral modes have been made. This special neurons get activated when we perform, see or even speak of an action and even more importantly also, when we see another person doing a specific task or being in a emotional state. We can “tune-in” with another’s emotional state due to “resonance” of mirror neuron system and can, if necessary, take appropriate action. Empathy, as it is argued, is therefore organically imprinted in our biological hardware and a result of evolutionary adaptations. "We are good," says professor Iacoboni, director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation laboratory of the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at UCLA, "because our biology drives us to be good." (Slack, 2007). Damage to the neural system, as in high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome, may affect individual`s social abilities and social functioning. Such individuals scored significantly lower on the “Emphaty quotient” (EQ) scale, as presented in Baron-Cohen`s article. Important differences in EQ were also found between the male and female group (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright, 2004).
Concept of empathy as a “social glue” becomes questionable, if we take into account that sometimes not all human emotional responses match. A sadist will feel extreme joy and pleasure when experiencing someone’s agony. The darker, egoistic and violent side of human nature, captured in the Roman proverb and later used by Thomas Hobbes, “Homo homini lupus”, is not an alternative side of human nature, but should be seen as complementary and therefore not overlooked, although it sometimes is.
Results from the “Iowa gambling task” (IGT) also showed the importance of the higher brain regions, in particular the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in regulation of decision-making. Successful decision-making was linked with the well functioning mechanism between anticipatory skin conductance responses (“marker” signals from the body) and prefrontal cortex (Dunn et al., 2006).
Psychopathologies, such as schizophrenia (Brüne, 2005) and pseudopsychopathic personality syndrome (Spence et al., 2004) were also illustrated as malfunctions of the “executive function” and the mirror neuron system and put in the evolutionary frame.
In the beginning of this essay I asked a question, which new insights do the new neuroscientific concepts and theories bring to the field of anthropology.
Remarkable discoveries in neurology, brought to light with the newest state of the art technologies, look promising for the anthropological discourse. In my opinion, we as anthropologists should be wary of the appearance. It is true that some human behaviors, such as empathy, are rooted in our biology. Solid evidences for explanation of structural mechanisms have been presented. One can not overlook the discovery of mirror neurons and the effect it will have on theories about child development and learning etc. It seems like the brain has finally been justly recognized as the seat of the mind.
But these theories lack a paradigmatic break-trough; they are conceptualized within an old, Western cosmological framework. Evolution is back, although it never went fully away, at least in humanities. Unless some radically new technology, as described in Arthur C. Clark’s novel, “The light of other days”, is developed, enabling us to see through tiny worm-holes in the past, then theories based on Paleolithic conditions, remain only that, just theories.
The problem occurs when these new insights lure biologists and similar natural scientists into theorizing on complex human phenomena, which can not be explained with simple causality and deduction. Anthropology knows things are not that transparent and straightforward. Take for example the concept of the (human) body. As Lock showed (Lock, 1993) the universal theory of embodiment is still not on the horizon. The body refuses to hold still and is an “excellent forum to reflect not only on theoretical dilemmas, but also on the politics of the practice of anthropology and its use beyond the confines of the discipline” (Lock, 1993: 148). It looks more like a Levi-Strauss’s “floating signifier” like mana, possessing "symbolic value zero", meaning different things to different people: it may stand for many or even any signifieds (Levi-Strauss, 1950).
Although sceptical, I still believe anthropology should study humanity in its totality of psychological, sociological and biological parameters. Something that was stressed by Marcel Mauss (Levi-Strauss, 1950).
It is this promise of finding the balance of nature and nurture that appears so “sweet” for anthropology. But the danger is in getting stuck in the honey of stagnant theoretical production. I am still waiting for the epistemological shift in the humanities, which might prove to be fatal for the classical theoretical horizon. The horns of Jericho are yet to raze the old walls of Western evolutionary paradigm.
So, the question is not what neurosciences can do for anthropology, but what can anthropology do for neurosciences?
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NEUROSCIENCE AND ANTHROPOLOGY
University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Social Sciences and Biotechnical Faculty, Master Study of Anthropology