Read the whole article.
The revival of an extinct species is no longer a fantasy. But is it a good idea?By Carl Zimmer
Photograph by Robb Kendrick
On July 30, 2003, a team of Spanish and French scientists reversed time. They brought an animal back from extinction, if only to watch it become extinct again. The animal they revived was a kind of wild goat known as a bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex. The bucardo (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) was a large, handsome creature, reaching up to 220 pounds and sporting long, gently curved horns. For thousands of years it lived high in the Pyrenees, the mountain range that divides France from Spain, where it clambered along cliffs, nibbling on leaves and stems and enduring harsh winters.
Then came the guns. Hunters drove down the bucardo population over several centuries. In 1989 Spanish scientists did a survey and concluded that there were only a dozen or so individuals left. Ten years later a single bucardo remained: a female nicknamed Celia. A team from the Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park, led by wildlife veterinarian Alberto Fernández-Arias, caught the animal in a trap, clipped a radio collar around her neck, and released her back into the wild. Nine months later the radio collar let out a long, steady beep: the signal that Celia had died. They found her crushed beneath a fallen tree. With her death, the bucardo became officially extinct.
But Celia’s cells lived on, preserved in labs in Zaragoza and Madrid. Over the next few years a team of reproductive physiologists led by José Folch injected nuclei from those cells into goat eggs emptied of their own DNA, then implanted the eggs in surrogate mothers. After 57 implantations, only seven animals had become pregnant. And of those seven pregnancies, six ended in miscarriages. But one mother—a hybrid between a Spanish ibex and a goat—carried a clone of Celia to term. Folch and his colleagues performed a cesarean section and delivered the 4.5-pound clone. As Fernández-Arias held the newborn bucardo in his arms, he could see that she was struggling to take in air, her tongue jutting grotesquely out of her mouth. Despite the efforts to help her breathe, after a mere ten minutes Celia’s clone died. A necropsy later revealed that one of her lungs had grown a gigantic extra lobe as solid as a piece of liver. There was nothing anyone could have done.
The dodo and the great auk, the thylacine and the Chinese river dolphin, the passenger pigeon and the imperial woodpecker—the bucardo is only one in the long list of animals humans have driven extinct, sometimes deliberately. And with many more species now endangered, the bucardo will have much more company in the years to come. Fernández-Arias belongs to a small but passionate group of researchers who believe that cloning can help reverse that trend.
The notion of bringing vanished species back to life—some call it de-extinction—has hovered at the boundary between reality and science fiction for more than two decades, ever since novelist Michael Crichton unleashed the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park on the world. For most of that time the science of de-extinction has lagged far behind the fantasy. Celia’s clone is the closest that anyone has gotten to true de-extinction. Since witnessing those fleeting minutes of the clone’s life, Fernández-Arias, now the head of the government of Aragon’s Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands department, has been waiting for the moment when science would finally catch up, and humans might gain the ability to bring back an animal they had driven extinct.
“We are at that moment,” he told me.
I met Fernández-Arias last autumn at a closed-session scientific meeting at the National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. For the first time in history a group of geneticists, wildlife biologists, conservationists, and ethicists had gathered to discuss the possibility of de-extinction. Could it be done? Should it be done? One by one, they stood up to present remarkable advances in manipulating stem cells, in recovering ancient DNA, in reconstructing lost genomes. As the meeting unfolded, the scientists became increasingly excited. A consensus was emerging: De-extinction is now within reach.
“It’s gone very much further, very much more rapidly than anyone ever would’ve imagined,” says Ross MacPhee, a curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “What we really need to think about is why we would want to do this in the first place, to actually bring back a species.”
In Jurassic Park dinosaurs are resurrected for their entertainment value. The disastrous consequences that follow have cast a shadow over the notion of de-extinction, at least in the popular imagination. But people tend to forget that Jurassic Park was pure fantasy. In reality the only species we can hope to revive now are those that died within the past few tens of thousands of years and left behind remains that harbor intact cells or, at the very least, enough ancient DNA to reconstruct the creature’s genome. Because of the natural rates of decay, we can never hope to retrieve the full genome of Tyrannosaurus rex, which vanished about 65 million years ago. The species theoretically capable of being revived all disappeared while humanity was rapidly climbing toward world domination. And especially in recent years we humans were the ones who wiped them out, by hunting them, destroying their habitats, or spreading diseases. This suggests another reason for bringing them back.
“If we’re talking about species we drove extinct, then I think we have an obligation to try to do this,” says Michael Archer, a paleontologist at the University of New South Wales who has championed de-extinction for years. Some people protest that reviving a species that no longer exists amounts to playing God. Archer scoffs at the notion. “I think we played God when we exterminated these animals.”
Other scientists who favor de-extinction argue that there will be concrete benefits. Biological diversity is a storehouse of natural invention. Most pharmaceutical drugs, for example, were not invented from scratch—they were derived from natural compounds found in wild plant species, which are also vulnerable to extinction. Some extinct animals also performed vital services in their ecosystems, which might benefit from their return. Siberia, for example, was home 12,000 years ago to mammoths and other big grazing mammals. Back then, the landscape was not moss-dominated tundra but grassy steppes. Sergey Zimov, a Russian ecologist and director of the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy in the Republic of Sakha, has long argued that this was no coincidence: The mammoths and numerous herbivores maintained the grassland by breaking up the soil and fertilizing it with their manure. Once they were gone, moss took over and transformed the grassland into less productive tundra.
In recent years Zimov has tried to turn back time on the tundra by bringing horses, muskoxen, and other big mammals to a region of Siberia he calls Pleistocene Park. And he would be happy to have woolly mammoths roam free there. “But only my grandchildren will see them,” he says. “A mouse breeds very fast. Mammoths breed very slow. Be prepared to wait.”
Saturday, March 23, 2013
This article at the National Geographic site, from science writer Carl Zimmer, examines our ability to revive extinct species, and whether or not that is really a good idea - or (I'm thinking) not. Fortunately, even under the best conditions, we are still many years away from implementing this technology.
Over at NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, philosopher Alva Noë takes on some of the current trends in neuroscience and mental health care, known as "neuroscience care," concluding:
There's no such thing as "neuroscience care." Or rather, there wasn't until very recently.
There is neurology, which is a branch of medicine, a healing art, grounded, like all medicine, on science.
And there's neuroscience, which has about as much to do with health care as physics does with roof repair.
* * *
It's all hype. You are not your brain. We don't understand memory or perception in the brain.It's a good article - here it is in its entirety.
by ALVA NOË
March 22, 2013
A real human brain on display at an exhibition in Bristol, England.Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Neurology is the branch of medicine concerned with the health of the brain and nervous system. If you've spent time in the office of a neurologist, you'll have noticed that there is something quaintly old-world about the practice.
Neurologists ask a lot of questions; they listen; then they hook you up to pre-computer age devices that measure the speed of nerve conductance; neurologists do things like attach electrodes and stick needles in your arm. It's all positively 19th-century.
It's no surprise at all, I think, that our most famous neurologist, Oliver Sacks, is best known as a story teller.
Which is not to say that he is not also a healer. Neurology, after all, is a branch of medicine.
If you listen to the radio, you're likely to have caught wind of something fresh and new in the health care market place: "neuroscience care." If you haven't noticed already, pay attention: you'll hear about new centers for "neuroscience care" that are setting up clinical shop around the country and reaching out to you for custom.
We're worried about our brains, of course. We are terrified of growing old and facing the degeneration of our faculties. Alzheimer's.
But buyer beware!
There's no such thing as "neuroscience care." Or rather, there wasn't until very recently.
There is neurology, which is a branch of medicine, a healing art, grounded, like all medicine, on science.
And there's neuroscience, which has about as much to do with health care as physics does with roof repair.
Neuroscience is a good thing. Don't get me wrong. But it is a theoretical discipline through and through. It comes in roughly two varieties. Some neuroscientists are biologists whose focus is on the nervous system, its physiology and development, in humans and other species. Others — the one's studying memory and perception, for example — are really cognitive psychologists; they combine traditional methods of psychology (forced choice tests, reaction times, etc.) with brain imaging studies (using fMRI or PET).
At best, what has been rebranded as "neuroscience care" is good-old-fashioned neurology. It's been repackaged for the 21st century. The tangled wires with clips and electrodes are hidden in the back room. Sleek images of multi-million dollar brain scanners decorate the brochure. The doctor's office is sunny.
At its worse, neuroscience care trades cruelly on the way neuroscience has been oversold in the contemporary culture. We want to believe that we are just brains in body transport systems and that the science of the brain will unlock our secrets. I am sure you've heard lots about how brain science holds the key to understanding perception, memory, love, preference, even consciousness itself.
It's all hype. You are not your brain. We don't understand memory or perception in the brain.
And we are still a long way of from finding a cure for Alzheimer's.
I'm all for sunny offices and for a neurology that is informed by neuroscience. But the rebranding is the stuff of snake-oil salesmen.
~ You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter:@alvanoe
This press release from Stanford University details some new research by Michael Palmer, a computational biologist at Stanford, Marcus Feldman, a biology professor at Stanford, and Stanford research biologist Arnav Moudgil, that was recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
The researchers found that long-term evolutionary dynamics were surprisingly predictable in a model of protein folding and binding - in a model that used 128 lineages (a total of more than 16,000 individual proteins), over a span on 10,000 generations. The seeming complexity of the experiment did not make predictions more difficult, however, but rather made them easier.
A protein-folding simulation shows that the debated theory of long-term evolution is not only possible, but that the outcomes are predictable. The Stanford experiment provides a framework for testing evolutionary outcomes in living organisms.BY BJORN CAREY
Dr. Michael Palmer, left, and Professor Marcus Feldman, with co-author Arnav Moudgil (not pictured), found that the long-term evolutionary dynamics were surprisingly predictable in a model of protein folding and binding.
Two birds are vying for food. One bird's beak is shaped, by virtue of a random mutation, such that it's slightly more adept at cracking seeds. This sets the bird on the road toward acquiring more food, a better chance of scoring a mate and, most important, passing on its genetic endowment.
This individual's success is an example of short-term evolution, the widely accepted Darwinian process of natural selection by which individual organisms that have better adapted to their surroundings prevail.
In recent years, however, some scientists have argued that natural selection occurs not just at the individual organism level, but also between lineages over the course of many generations. In a new study, Stanford biologists have demonstrated that not only is this long-term evolution possible, but that long-term evolutionary outcomes can be surprisingly predictable.
The group set up a computer simulation in which 128 lineages of proteins continuously folded into new shapes, competing to bind with other molecules, called ligands, in each new configuration. The better each protein could attach itself to the ligands, the more ligands it would scoop up, and the higher its fitness – that is, its average number of "offspring" – would be. The simulation was run for 10,000 generations.
Although the chaos of 128 lineages – a total of more than 16,000 individual proteins – mutating over thousands of generations might seem unpredictable, and that it would be nearly impossible for the same thing to happen twice, it's actually the opposite.
"Even though things look complicated, the possible evolutionary trajectories are quite constrained," said lead author Michael Palmer, a computational biologist at Stanford. "There are only a few viable mutations at any point, which makes the dynamics predictable and repeatable, even over the long term."
The study, co-authored by Marcus Feldman, a biology professor at Stanford, and Stanford research biologist Arnav Moudgil, was recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
In some experiments, the lineages that consistently came out on top in the long term were not initially the best adapted at binding to ligands. "The immediate fitness is not the only important thing," Palmer said. "Yes, a lineage does have to survive in the short term. But just as important is how it is able to adapt to new and potentially variable environments over the longer term."
A good example of this scenario is Darwin's famous finches. It's thought that individuals – perhaps just a single pair of birds – from a South American species ended up on the Galápagos Islands about 1 million years ago. Today their descendants have diversified into about 15 modern species. Some eat seeds, some eat insects, or flowers. Some eat ticks, or even drink the blood of other birds.
"If there was some catastrophe that removed one of those food sources, it might wipe out one or more of the 15 species, but the rest of the lineage – the descendants of that initial pair of birds – would persist," Palmer said. "Now say there was a competing lineage that was great at cracking seeds, but unable to evolve to other diets due to some prior genetic constraint. The same catastrophe could wipe it out."
The finding, and others like it, could represent a significant shift in viewpoint for biologists. For one thing, it means that in certain situations, scientists should look beyond the details at the level of the individual organism, as the evolutionary dynamics can be accurately understood as lineage selection.
It also has implications on a species' genomic architecture, or how a genome is organized on the lineage level. While a lineage's genome might primarily select for a particular set of traits in order for individuals to survive in the short term, in order to out-compete other lineages, it must also be able to adapt to new conditions over the long term.
"An individual can have a lucky mutation that produces an immediate adaptation," said Palmer. "Or a lineage can have a lucky mutation that happens to position it to adapt to the range of environments it will experience over the next thousand generations. A single mutation can have a distinct short-term and long-term fitness."
The authors believe that the work can be replicated in microorganisms, and are now hoping that microbiologists will apply the new metrics of selection in vitro.
"There is already some evidence in vitro that there is a lot of constraint on evolutionary trajectories," Palmer said, "and we think we've come up with a good framework to quantify evolutionary predictability and long-term fitness."
Michael Palmer, Biology: (415) 867-3653, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944, email@example.com
Friday, March 22, 2013
Via Top Documentary Films, this is an interesting documentary on the emerging field of permaculture design, an offshoot of the permaculture movement. Permaculture emerged from the fields of ecological design, ecological engineering, and environmental design, which develops sustainable architecture and self-maintained horticultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems.
Here is a brief overview of permaculture from Wikipedia:
The core tenets of permaculture are:Enjoy the documentary.
Permaculture design emphasizes patterns of landscape, function, and species assemblies. It asks the question, "Where does this element go? How can it be placed for the maximum benefit of the system?" To answer this question, the central concept of permaculture is maximizing useful connections between components and synergy of the final design. The focus of permaculture, therefore, is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements by the way they are placed together; the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture design therefore seeks to minimize waste, human labor, and energy input by building systems with maximal benefits between design elements to achieve a high level of synergy. Permaculture designs evolve over time by taking into account these relationships and elements and can become extremely complex systems that produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input.
- Take care of the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
- Take care of the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
- Share the surplus: Healthy natural systems use outputs from each element to nourish others. We humans can do the same. By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles.
The design principles which are the conceptual foundation of permaculture were derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use. Permaculture draws from several disciplines including organic farming, agroforestry, integrated farming, sustainable development, and applied ecology. Permaculture has been applied most commonly to the design of housing and landscaping, integrating techniques such as agroforestry, natural building, and rainwater harvesting within the context of permaculture design principles and theory.
Permaculture is a system for sustainable living on Earth that benefits all creatures and supplies all the needs of humanity.
Present systems are failing miserably: resource depletion, water storage, degraded landscape, food shortage, climate change.
All these things are negative and we don’t need to focus on them completely, but we need to look at how we can positively design our way out of this problem.
How we can come up with solutions that will supply all our needs, benefit the environment, and create absolute abundance. A designed system that gives you a positive view on the future, something that you can engage in and feel meaningful.
Based on the 72-hour Permaculture Design Certificate Course as devised by Bill Mollison, join Geoff Lawton as he takes you into the world of Permaculture Design and introduces you to a new way of looking at the world.
Learn how to apply your design skills by observing, analyzing and harmonizing with the patterns of Nature. Discover the theory and then see the examples in action in this unique video.
Essential information for anyone interested in learning more about Permaculture and how they can apply it in their daily lives to create sustainable abundance.
Watch the full documentary now – 82 min
This Vimeo video comes from Neuphi: Neuroscience and Philosophy, and this particular segment features philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel arguing that under the current understanding of materialism, it would be quite possible to consider the United States as a conscious entity.
So, is the U.S. conscious, or is the understanding and use of materialism flawed in some way, as Thomas Nagel and others have been arguing of late?
from Paul Kelly
There seems to be no principled reason to deny entityhood to spatially distributed but informationally integrated beings. The United States can be considered as a concrete, spatially distributed but informationally integrated entity. Considered as such, the United States is at least a candidate for the literal possession of real psychological states, including phenomenal consciousness or subjective experience. The question, then, is whether it meets plausible materialistic criteria for consciousness. My suggestion is that if those criteria are liberal enough to include both small mammals and weird alien species that exhibit sophisticated linguistic behavior, then the United States probably does meet those criteria. The United States is massively informationally interconnected and responds in sophisticated, goal-directed ways to its surroundings. Its internal representational states are functionally responsive to its environment and not randomly formed or assigned artificially from outside by the acts of an external user. And the United States exhibits complex linguistic behavior, including issuing self-reports and self-critiques that reveal a highly-developed ability to monitor its evolving internal and external conditions.
Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Ross Anderson, writing for The Atlantic, interviews Oxford ethicist Brian Earp ans his colleagues (Anders Sandberg and Julian Savulescu), who argue that we should be open to the increases in human well-being that successful "love drugs" could engender.
In a series of several papers, Earp and his colleagues make a convincing case that couples should be free to use "love drugs," and that in some cases, they may be morally obligated to do so. Anderson interviewed them by email and this is a condensed version of that interaction.
Ross Andersen is an Atlantic correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He is also the Science Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and a contributor to The Economist.
By Ross Andersen
A philosopher argues that taking love-altering substances might not just be a good idea, but a moral obligation.
Not actual love drugs (Alexis Madrigal)
George Bernard Shaw once satirized marriage as "two people under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, who are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part."
Yikes. And yet, nearly all human cultures value some version of marriage, as a nurturing emotional foundation for children, but also because marriage can give life an extra dimension of meaning. But marriage is hard, for biochemical reasons that may be beyond our control. What if we could take drugs to get better at love?
Perhaps we could design "love drugs," pharmaceutical cocktails that could boost affection between partners, whisking them back to the exquisite set of pleasures that colored their first years together. The ability to do this kind of fine-tuned emotional engineering is beyond the power of current science, but there is a growing field of research devoted to it. Some have even suggested developing "anti-love drugs" that could dissolve abusive relationships, or reduce someone's attachment to a charismatic cult leader. Others just want a pill to ease the pain of a wrenching breakup.
Evolutionary biologists tell us that we owe the singular bundle of feelings we call "love" to natural selection. As human brains grew larger and larger, the story goes, children needed more and more time to develop into adults that could fend for themselves. A child with two parents around was privy to extra resources and protection, and thus stood a better chance of reaching maturity. The longer parents' chemical reward systems kept them in love, the more children they could shepherd to reproductive age. That's why the neural structures that form love bonds between couples were so strongly selected for. It's also why our relationships seem to come equipped with a set of invisible biochemical handrails: they're meant to support us through the inevitable trials that attend the creation of viable offspring.
The problem for us modern, long-lived humans is that natural selection is only interested in reproductive fitness. Once your kids can make their own kids, natural selection's work is finished. It doesn't care whether your marriage remains emotionally satisfying into your golden years. But if the magic of love resides in the brain, an organ whose mysterious workings we are slowly starting to unravel, there might be a workaround.
At first blush, love may seem like a poor prospect for pharmacological intervention. The reflexive dualist in us wants to say that romantic relationships are matters of the soul, and that souls ought to be free of medical tinkering. Oxford ethicist Brian Earp argues that we should resist these intuitions, and be open to the upswing in human well-being that successful love drugs could bring about. Over a series of several papers, Earp and his colleagues, Anders Sandberg and Julian Savulescu, make a convincing case that couples should be free to use "love drugs," and that in some cases, they may be morally obligated to do so. I recently caught up with Earp and his colleagues by email to ask them about this fascinating ethical frontier. What follows is a condensed version of our exchange.
What is the current thinking among evolutionary biologists as to how love---or adult pair bonding---evolved?
From the perspective of evolutionary biology, love is a complex neurobiological phenomenon that has been wired into us by the forces of evolution. It makes heavy use of the brain's reward systems, and its ability to bring together (and keep together) human beings--from prehistoric times until the present day--has played a major role in the survival of our species.
In terms of natural selection, the working consensus among evolutionary biologists is that the human adult pair bond probably developed out of earlier structures involved in creating and sustaining feelings of attachment between mothers and their infants. Evolution likes to make use of existing systems for new purposes. In this case, the shift might have been driven by the heightened importance of paternal care for offspring with bigger and bigger brains over generations of human evolution. These burgeoning baby brains took longer to reach maturity than their more ancestral counterparts, leaving the infant vulnerable and underdeveloped for extended periods of time. The idea is that if parents fell in love and remained together during this fragile period for their offspring, their own genetic fitness would be enhanced.
The anthropologist Helen Fisher has famously argued that "love" is not a single straightforward emotion, but an emergent suite of motivational states that stem from underlying systems for lust, attraction, and attachment. In her theory--one of a number of "biological" theories of love with quite a bit of overlap between them--the lust system promotes mating with a range of promising partners; the attraction system guides us to choose and prefer a particular partner; and the attachment system fosters long-term bonding, encouraging couples to cooperate and stay together until their parental duties have been discharged. These universal systems are then hypothesized to form a biological foundation on which the cultural and individual variants of sexual, romantic, and longer-term love are built.
What scientific evidence do we have that the difficulties people face in modern relationships can be successfully addressed with pharmaceuticals?
Modern relationships are challenging for a whole range of reasons, and these reasons might be very different from one couple to the next. Drug-based treatments aren't always going to be the best approach, and sometimes they should even be avoided. Putting a chemical band-aid on a violent or abusive relationship, for example, would be an extremely bad idea. But we do know that in at least some cases, states of the brain that are susceptible to being pharmacologically altered may have something to do with the interpersonal difficulties couples face.
To give an obvious example, just think of a marriage in which one partner suffers from severe depression. As anyone who's been in that situation can tell you, chronic depression in one or both members of a committed partnership can drag the whole relationship down. Addressing the root of the problem, in this case through the use of anti-depressant pharmaceuticals if necessary, could make a big difference for some couples.
For another example, consider the widespread use of Viagra to treat male impotence, a problem that prevents some couples, especially older couples, from having sex. Lack of sex reduces oxytocin levels, and reduced oxytocin levels can degrade a couple's romantic bond. If a drug-based treatment could help the couple restore a healthy sex life, this could improve their chances of sustaining a well-functioning relationship.
Beate Ditzen and her colleagues at the University of Zurich have shown that oxytocin nasal spray can facilitate positive communication--and reduce stress levels--in romantic couples engaged in an argument. Oxytocin, sometimes called the "love hormone" for its role in sustaining mother-infant and romantic attachment bonds, increased the ratio of positive to negative communication behaviors and facilitated a drop in cortisol levels after the conflict. These factors have been shown to play a major role in predicting long-term relationship survival. While commentators like Ed Yong have recentlyemphasized that oxytocin can have a "dark side" as well--for example, by promoting in-group favoritism--the key is to figure out which people, which situations, and which ways of administering the hormone will maximize its effectiveness and minimize any troubling side-effects. We're working on some research right now to sort these conditions out.
In earlier decades, MDMA (ecstasy) was sometimes used in couple's therapy to boost empathy and improve emotional communication skills. While this sort of use would be illegal today, there has been a recent resurgence of scientific interest in possible therapeutic uses of MDMA, for example to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. More research is needed, of course, but there is no reason why it should not be carried out, carefully and ethically, with proper social, procedural, and legal safeguards in place.
You argue that "love drugs" can help us address the tension between our moral values and our evolved psychobiological natures. Where does that tension manifest itself most obviously in relationships today? How have things changed since our basic sexual and relational drives evolved?
If you look at this in the context of evolutionary biology, you realize that in order to maximize the survival of their genes, parents need to have emotional systems that keep them together until their children are sufficiently grown--but, what happens after that is of no concern to natural selection. As Donald Symons has written, "in analyzing the psychological underpinnings of marriage [we should] keep in mind that Homo sapiens is the product of evolution ... we are designed to promote gene [survival], not individual survival, and reproductive [success], not marital success." Since we now outlive our ancestors by decades, the evolved pair-bonding instincts upon which modern relationships are built often break down or dissolve long before "death do us part."
We see this in the high divorce rates and long term relationship break up rates in countries where both partners enjoy freedom--especially economic freedom. We are simply not built to pull off decades-long relationships in the modern world. Nature designed us to be together for a while, but not forever--and once we push beyond the natural childrearing boundary, we are, in a sense, living on borrowed time.
Another major tension comes from our non-monogamous impulses. Humans are rare among mammals in that we practice at least some form of social monogamy. But there is a mountain of evidence suggesting that sex outside of the primary parenting bond was common throughout our evolutionary history, and would have been to the reproductive advantage of both males and females of our species. Jealousy seems to have deep roots as well, so there is nothing particularly new about feelings of sexual possessiveness--but the conscious, socially enshrined value-expectation that both husbands and wives should remain 100% sexually exclusive to one another for decades in a row, and that failure to meet this goal should entail the end of the relationship, is certainly a more recent invention. Adultery is one of the leading causes of marriage failure.
You point out that married couples should have the freedom to use love-enhancing drugs if they so wish, but you also go a step further, arguing that there are circumstances where married couples ought to take them. What are the most compelling of those circumstances?
Imagine a couple that is thinking about breaking up or getting a divorce, but they have young children who would likely be harmed by their parents' separation. In this situation, there are vulnerable third parties involved, and we have argued that parents have a responsibility--all else being equal--to preserve and enhance their relationships for the sake of their children, at least until the children have matured and can take care of themselves. One way to do this, of course, would be to attend couple's therapy and see if the relationship problems could be meaningfully resolved through "traditional" methods. But what if this strategy isn't working? If love drugs ever become safely and cheaply available; if they could be shown to improve love, commitment, and marital well-being--and thereby lessen the chance (or the need) for divorce; if other interventions had been tried and failed; and if side-effects or other complications could be minimized, then we think that some couples might have an obligation to give them a try. Of course, we aren't suggesting that anyone should be forced to take love drugs--or any drugs--against their will. But we do think that when children are involved, the stakes become higher for finding a workable solution to relationship difficulties between the parents.
What if "love drugs" only serve to prop up fading cultural institutions? Some might argue that monogamy is outdated, or a bad fit with human nature, and that rather than pharmacologically altering ourselves to accommodate it, we should jettison the whole thing instead. What would you say to them?
Whenever individuals--or societies--experience a mismatch between their values and human nature, they face a choice. They can give up or amend their values, accept a contradiction between their values and their impulses or behaviors, or they can try to modify or manage human nature.
This "management" can happen in different ways. It might involve shaping the physical, social, and legal environment to incentivize value-consistent behavior and disincentivize value-inconsistent behavior. Or it might involve the use of biotechnology (such as love drugs in the case of monogamy) to modify the source of the behavior directly--or some combination of the above. Which course to take for any given mismatch depends upon a huge range of factors, and there are often good arguments for different approaches depending on the details of the given case.
As a baseline, we have argued for something called the "principle of default natural ethics." This just means that, given the choice, we should try to adopt values that are as consistent as possible with human nature, so that we can avoid troubling side-effects that come from unnatural suppression and heavy-handed regulation of basic instincts: just think of the recent sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and consider some obvious reasons why that tragedy might have come about. Sometimes, following the principle of default natural ethics means that we should jettison our social institutions--especially when they are so far out of synch with our human dispositions as to be totally unworkable, or when they end up creating bigger problems than they were designed to solve in the first place. This isprobably part of the reason why we've moved past communism as a model for social and political organization: it seemed, at least to many people, to make a lot of sense on paper, but in the real world it ran up against too many deep facts about the way that people actually work.
But communism was an experiment, both radical and recent. Monogamy, on the other hand, or at least some form of it, has been a part of human societies for a much longer time, so we have to be more careful about how we deal with its problematic features--most notably the gap it creates between the ideal of sexual exclusivity and the reality of human promiscuity.
Some people think that we should give up on monogamy, and there are plausible arguments for this view. In fact, one possibility is that love drugs could be used to eliminate jealousy rather than the impulse to stray--and for individual couples, this might indeed be a worthwhile strategy. For couples who are committed to polyamory, for example, jealousy would seem to be the odd man out: it conflicts with the polyamorists' higher-order goals for sexual openness.
We obviously cannot set the moral priorities for any given relationship. But in making a more general argument, we note that most couples as a matter of fact value sexual fidelity and make an explicit promise to hold to it. And at least when children are involved, we think that this promise may be morally justified, since extramarital sex can lead to extramarital love that would divert time and energy directly away from existing offspring. On the other hand, when children are not an issue, when there are good arguments for non-monogamy for a particular couple, or when non-monogamous social institutions have a good chance of contributing to human welfare in a given culture or community, then we don't see any reason why people should go out of their way to "prop up" problematic social norms through the use of pharmacology.
There are certain environmental features of modernity---like ease of travel and expanded social circles---that make monogamy more difficult. Why shouldn't we focus on limiting the effects of those factors instead of altering ourselves biochemically?
It's a question of trade-offs. Most people think that ease of travel and far-flung social connections are a good thing, and contribute positively to human flourishing in the modern era. On a practical level, too, these things aren't likely to go away. So when they do become a problem--by making it easier to commit adultery, for example--we have to be creative about how we respond. Certainly there are a range of non-biochemical strategies that couples can use to stay faithful to each other despite the pressures and temptations of modern life, and they should be free to pursue these strategies to the best of their abilities. We have simply argued that it may be time to consider a wider range of possibilities, as contemporary relationships need all the help they can get. At the end of the day, anyone who fully appreciates the post-Enlightenment ideals ensconced in present-day Western cultures would be loathe to restrict travel, freedom of socializing, freedom of divorce, or gender equality in the workplace, despite their potential to undermine full-fledged monogamy. The cure would be worse than the disease.
You could see how these drugs could be used in the context of a parent-child relationship---perhaps to boost feelings of love in an otherwise apathetic mother. Are there any special ethical concerns there?
There may be some. But remember our analogy to treating depression in a romantic context, and then just extend this reasoning to a parent-child relationship. So long as it is the parent taking the drug, voluntarily and under conditions of informed consent, and so long as this drug-based treatment had a reasonable chance of improving her ability to care for her own offspring, there would seem to be little to worry about in terms of ethics. Some people might be concerned that this drug-induced "love" would be inauthentic in some way - but it depends on what you take as your baseline. Perhaps the authentic situation is the one in which feelings of love and contentment occur naturally between the parent and the child, and it is only a disordered biochemical state that brought about the apathy actually felt by the mother. Just as when a depressed person finds that a small dose of medication allows him to "be himself" again--finding joy in the old activities he used to love so much, for example--so might some mothers find that taking a love drug allows them to engage with their children in a way that feels more true to their own self-conception than they would feel without it.
It's often said that you don't have an obligation to love someone, usually based on the idea that it is impossible to voluntarily control our emotions. But if love drugs make such control more possible, then there might be some loves that should be felt. It's debatable whether this is true for spouses, but it seems very hard to argue against the idea that we should love our children.
This is an actual wedding ring. It smells like anise now. (Alexis Madrigal)
You've also written about "anti-love drugs," which could be used to dissolve love bonds in abusive relationships, or in cases where someone has fallen under the spell of a cult leader. Are there drugs like this that are currently under development?
With the exception of anti-androgen drugs sometimes used to treat paedophilia--and which work in a rather "low-level" way by targeting the bodily sex drive--very few chemical substances are currently available that have been explicitly designed with the goal of diminishing feelings of love or sexuality. But that doesn't mean that anti-love drugs don't exist in certain forms. Some Orthodox Jewish groups use "off label" anti-depressant medication to suppress libido, so that young yeshiva students can comply with strict religious norms concerning human love and sexuality. These selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can also lead to "emotional blunting" of higher-order feelings involved in romantic attraction. Some people report finding it harder to cry, worry, get angry, or care about other people's feelings while taking anti-depressants. The overall lack of emotional stimulation produced by SSRIs has been described as producing a "blandness" that can overwhelm certain romantic relationships. As one author has put it: "aside from ruining your sex life, antidepressants could also be responsible for breaking your heart."
Other substances that can reduce libido--usually considered a "side effect"--include tobacco and alcohol, almost all blood pressure pills, certain pain relievers, statin cholesterol drugs, some acid blockers used to treat heartburn, the hair loss drug finasteride, and seizure medications including gabapentin and phenytoin.
There is some work showing that scientists can block a pair-bond from forming in certain vole species--those cute little rodents than are one of the few socially monogamous creatures on the planet--but this involves injecting dopamine- or oxytocin-blockers directly into the nucleus accumbens, and so similar experiments have not been carried out in humans.
In some cases---as with someone under the spell of a cult leader---the drugs would conceivably be administered against the wishes of the smitten person. How do we justify an invasion of autonomy that goes to something as personal as love?
This is a tricky situation. On the one hand, if love really can make a person "lose her mind" then at least in theory there could be an argument for saying that a person has been compromised mentally and thus some form of intervention could be justified. You would have to provide very strong evidence that the person was genuinely incompetent to make a decision on her own behalf, and you would have to be sure that she was at risk of suffering serious and unambiguous harm if left to her own devices. But the potential for paternalistic overreach here is huge, and we should be very cautious about assuming that we know better than someone else what is in her own best interests, all things considered. In general, individuals should be protected from any form of coercion by ensuring there are robust laws protecting independence of the mind. Interestingly, small children can be indoctrinated into fundamentalist religious cults without any restriction. That is a lot more worrying and occurs for thousands, or perhaps millions of children.
What's the threshold for the use of anti-love drugs? Should people use them in cases where they aren't in any particular danger, like in the case of a tough break-up? Some might argue that you can't learn from a break-up without experiencing it in full. Do you buy that?
In a forthcoming paper, we argue for four conditions for the use of anti-love biotechnology: (1) the love in question is clearly harmful and needs to dissolve one way or another; (2) the person would conceivably want to use the technology, so there would be no problematic violations of consent; (3) the technology would help the person follow her higher-order goals instead of her lower-order feelings; and (4) it might not be psychologically possible to overcome the relevant feelings without the help of anti-love biotechnology. But the question here seems to be, what if it were possible to overcome the attachment, only it would involve a lot of protracted pain and difficulty, and the person would rather just move on with the business of living?
Philosophers will disagree about what should be allowed in a case like this. So-called "bioconservatives" would probably remind us that even great and seemingly unbearable suffering can impart unforeseeably important lessons, and that people should be very careful about turning to drugs to solve their problems or dull their pains. They tend to say things like: "With suffering comes understanding" - and of course, there is a kernel of truth to that. Bioliberals, on the other hand, would be likelier to point out that "traditional" methods of getting over heartache aim at changing our brain chemistry just as much as drugs would, only indirectly and sometimes less effectively. "Sometimes suffering is just suffering," they would add, and then they might go on to suggest that such fruitless pain should be eliminated by whatever means the individual judges for himself are best.
For our part, we certainly don't deny that there can be great value in experiencing the world "as it really is" - in its heartbreak and agony as much as in its joys. But we think that even if it could be shown that human beings had some sort of existential duty to experience pain along with happiness, this duty would not absolute: it could be trumped by the debilitating effects of certain traumas, and sometimes a broken heart might qualify in just this sense.
What if these drugs enabled romantic sabotage? You could envision a scenario where someone uses a discreetly delivered anti-love drug to ruin someone else's relationship---in order to get rid of a romantic rival.
This would clearly be unethical, and would be analogous to (and perhaps no worse than) telling a scurrilous lie about the mutual object of affection in order to cause the rival-in-love to lose his interest. It also calls to mind the use of "date-rape" drugs to manipulate a person into having non-consensual sex. In general, if the love- or sex-related action would be considered morally impermissible if undertaken by "traditional" means, then it should be considered morally impermissible if undertaken by means of anti-love biotechnology. We need robust laws to prevent anyone's giving a drug or other intervention to another person that could alter their minds or change their behavior without their consent. This will be a big area in the future. Love drugs are just one part of it.
One worry with "anti-love drugs," is that they could be used by fundamentalist groups to "cure" homosexuals, or by traditionalist groups in India that disapprove of "inter-caste love." Do these risks negate the potential social utility of anti-love drugs.
This is an important consideration. As is well known, the very disturbing practice of conversion therapy in the United States (designed to "cure" gay and lesbian individuals of their sexual and romantic feelings) carried on until at least the 1970s with the full-throated endorsement of the mainstream profession of mental health. And as late as 2012, a U.S. federal judge ruled that such therapy cannot be outlawed, even when conducted on minors, since it constitutes a protected form of religious "speech"-- indeed it is still being performed in a number of fundamentalist Christian communities to this day.
While there is very little evidence that existing interventions actually work in the way intended--and quite a bit of evidence that they can cause trauma and other serious harms--future technologies might indeed be more effective. So if we were to grant that religious fundamentalists (for example) might try to use these future technologies in ways that progressive-minded people would object to, one tempting conclusion is that we should try to prevent their coming-into-being at whatever cost.
But jumping to this conclusion would be premature. In the first place, we have to remember that any new technology poses risks - whether it is an anti-love pill, a powerful military weapon, or something more mundane. So the possibility that a new technology might be used for ill can never constitute, by itself, sufficient reason to reject it. Instead, the potential harms that might accrue from misuse of the technology have to be weighed against the potential benefits that might accrue from its responsible use. Second, even if it could be shown that the development of various anti-love interventions would be too risky to be worth pursuing, it still might not be possible to avoid having to deal with their eventual existence. This is because advances in other areas - i.e., in treatments for debilitating mental disorders such as autism - might leave us with the very same neuroscientific knowledge and technological capabilities that we would have ended up with had we sought them out for love-diminishing purposes directly. In such a scenario, we would still have to ask ourselves whether or when to use the powers we had (inadvertently) created.
What this question highlights, though, is that ethical dilemmas concerning emerging biotechnological innovations cannot be resolved in an "enlightened" academic vacuum. Instead, there is a much wider debate taking place in society over what sorts of values we should hold in the first place with respect to things like love, sex, and relationships (and nearly everything else as well). And plainly this broader conversation--between the insights of progressivism and the insights of conservatism, as well as between the forces of secularism and the forces of religion--will continue to shape the moral ends toward which human beings collectively and individually strive, regardless of what technology is actually in hand, and regardless of what pontificating bioethicists may argue in their papers. So we have argued that at most fundamental level, the relevant question--what we call the basic technology-value question--becomes:
How can we use new technologies for good rather than for ill, while simultaneously trying to reach a functional consensus on what sorts of things should be considered good, and what sorts of things should not be considered ill?'Progressive-minded people' clearly have their work cut out for them in terms of this longer-term project.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Philosopher Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False has been savaged in the press - perhaps the most vicious attacks since the publication of Rupert Sheldrake's A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance (1981), a book that inspired Nature's senior editor, John Maddox, to pen an editorial called "A Book for Burning?"
I've posted a few reviews here - both in support and in criticism - but this article from The Weekly Standard offers a pretty solid overview of the critical responses.
Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him?MAR 25, 2013, VOL. 18, NO. 27 • BY ANDREW FERGUSON
Last fall, a few days before Halloween and about a month after the publication of Mind and Cosmos, the controversial new book by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, several of the world’s leading philosophers gathered with a group of cutting-edge scientists in the conference room of a charming inn in the Berkshires. They faced one another around a big table set with pitchers of iced water and trays of hard candies wrapped in cellophane and talked and talked, as public intellectuals do. PowerPoint was often brought into play.
The title of the “interdisciplinary workshop” was “Moving Naturalism Forward.” For those of us who like to kill time sitting around pondering the nature of reality—personhood, God, moral judgment, free will, what have you—this was the Concert for Bangladesh. The biologist Richard Dawkins was there, author of The Blind Watchmaker, The Selfish Gene, and other bestselling books of popular science, and so was Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts and author of Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. So were the authors of Why Evolution is True, The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, Everything Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, and The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions—all of them books that to one degree or another bring to a larger audience the world as scientists have discovered it to be.
Contemporary philosophers have a name for the way you and I see the world, a world filled with other people, with colors and sounds, sights and sensations, things that are good and things that are bad and things that are very good indeed: ourselves, who are able, more or less, to make our own way through life, by our own lights. Philosophers call this common view the “manifest image.” Daniel Dennett pointed out at the conference that modern science, at least since the revelations of Darwin, has been piling up proof that the manifest image is not really accurate in any scientific sense. Rather science—this vast interlocking combine of genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, particle physics—tells us that the components of the manifest image are illusory.
Color, for instance: That azalea outside the window may look red to you, but in reality it has no color at all. The red comes from certain properties of the azalea that absorb some kinds of light and reflect other kinds of light, which are then received by the eye and transformed in our brains into a subjective experience of red. And sounds, too: Complex vibrations in the air are soundless in reality, but our ears are able to turn the vibrations into a car alarm or a cat’s meow or, worse, the voice of Mariah Carey. These capacities of the human organism are evolutionary adaptations. Everything about human beings, by definition, is an evolutionary adaptation. Our sense that the colors and sounds exist “out there” and not merely in our brain is a convenient illusion that long ago increased the survival chances of our species. Powered by Darwin, modern science proceeds, in Dennett’s phrase, as a “universal corrosive,” destroying illusions all the way up and all the way down, dismantling our feelings of freedom and separate selfhood, our morals and beliefs, a mother’s love and a patient’s prayer: All in reality are just “molecules in motion.”
The most famous, most succinct, and most pitiless summary of the manifest image’s fraudulence was written nearly 20 years ago by the geneticist Francis Crick: “ ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”
This view is the “naturalism” that the workshoppers in the Berkshires were trying to move forward. Naturalism is also called “materialism,” the view that only matter exists; or “reductionism,” the view that all life, from tables to daydreams, is ultimately reducible to pure physics; or “determinism,” the view that every phenomenon, including our own actions, is determined by a preexisting cause, which was itself determined by another cause, and so on back to the Big Bang. The naturalistic project has been greatly aided by neo-Darwinism, the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to human behavior, including areas of life once assumed to be nonmaterial: emotions and thoughts and habits and perceptions. At the workshop the philosophers and scientists each added his own gloss to neo-Darwinian reductive naturalism or materialistic neo-Darwinian reductionism or naturalistic materialism or reductive determinism. They were unanimous in their solid certainty that materialism—as we’ll call it here, to limit the number of isms—is the all-purpose explanation for life as we know it.
One notable division did arise among the participants, however. Some of the biologists thought the materialist view of the world should be taught and explained to the wider public in its true, high-octane, Crickian form. Then common, nonintellectual people might see that a purely random universe without purpose or free will or spiritual life of any kind isn’t as bad as some superstitious people—religiouspeople—have led them to believe.
Daniel Dennett took a different view. While it is true that materialism tells us a human being is nothing more than a “moist robot”—a phrase Dennett took from a Dilbert comic—we run a risk when we let this cat, or robot, out of the bag. If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes. Civil order requires the general acceptance of personal responsibility, which is closely linked to the notion of free will. Better, said Dennett, if the public were told that “for general purposes” the self and free will and objective morality do indeed exist—that colors and sounds exist, too—“just not in the way they think.” They “exist in a special way,” which is to say, ultimately, not at all.
On this point the discussion grew testy at times. I was reminded of the debate among British censors over the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover half a century ago. “Fine for you or me,” one prosecutor is said to have remarked, “but is this the sort of thing you would leave lying about for your wife or servant to read?”
There was little else to disturb the materialists in their Berkshire contentment. Surveys have shown that vast majorities of philosophers and scientists call themselves naturalists or materialists. Nearly all popular science books, not only those written by the workshoppers, conclude that materialism offers the true picture of reality. The workshoppers seemed vexed, however, knowing that not everyone in their intellectual class had yet tumbled to the truth of neo-Darwinism. A video of the workshop shows Dennett complaining that a few—but only a few!—contemporary philosophers have stubbornly refused to incorporate the naturalistic conclusions of science into their philosophizing, continuing to play around with outmoded ideas like morality and sometimes even the soul.
“I am just appalled to see how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang,” he said, dropping his hands on the table. “They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.”
There was an air of amused exasperation. “Will you name names?” one of the participants prodded, joking.
“No names!” Dennett said.
The philosopher Alex Rosenberg, author of The Atheist’s Guide, leaned forward, unamused.
“And then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever,” he said. “And it’s by Tom Nagel.”
There it was! Tom Nagel, whose Mind and Cosmos was already causing a derangement among philosophers in England and America.
Dennett sighed at the mention of the name, more in sorrow than in anger. His disgust seemed to drain from him, replaced by resignation. He looked at the table.
“Yes,” said Dennett, “there is that.”
Around the table, with the PowerPoint humming, they all seemed to heave a sad sigh—a deep, workshop sigh.
Tom, oh Tom . . . How did we lose Tom . . .
Thomas Nagel may be the most famous philosopher in the United States—a bit like being the best power forward in the Lullaby League, but still. His paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” was recognized as a classic when it was published in 1974. Today it is a staple of undergraduate philosophy classes. His books range with a light touch over ethics and politics and the philosophy of mind. His papers are admired not only for their philosophical provocations but also for their rare (among modern philosophers) simplicity and stylistic clarity, bordering sometimes on literary grace.
Nagel occupies an endowed chair at NYU as a University Professor, a rare and exalted position that frees him to teach whatever course he wants. Before coming to NYU he taught at Princeton for 15 years. He dabbles in the higher journalism, contributing articles frequently to the New York Review of Books and now and then to the New Republic. A confirmed atheist, he lacks what he calls the sensus divinitatis that leads some people to embrace the numinous. But he does possess a finely tuned sensus socialistis; his most notable excursion into politics was a book-length plea for the confiscation of wealth and its radical redistribution—a view that places him safely in the narrow strip of respectable political opinion among successful American academics.
For all this and more, Thomas Nagel is a prominent and heretofore respected member of the country’s intellectual elite. And such men are not supposed to write books with subtitles like the one he tacked onto Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
Imagine if your local archbishop climbed into the pulpit and started reading from the Collected Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?” demanded the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, on Twitter. (Yes, even Steven Pinker tweets.) Pinker inserted a link to a negative review of Nagel’s book, which he said “exposed the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” At the point where science, philosophy, and public discussion intersect—a dangerous intersection these days—it is simply taken for granted that by attacking naturalism Thomas Nagel has rendered himself an embarrassment to his colleagues and a traitor to his class.
The Guardian awarded Mind and Cosmos its prize for the Most Despised Science Book of 2012. The reviews were numerous and overwhelmingly negative; one of the kindest, in the British magazine Prospect, carried the defensive headline “Thomas Nagel is not crazy.” (Really, he’s not!) Most other reviewers weren’t so sure about that. Almost before the ink was dry on Nagel’s book the UC Berkeley economist and prominent blogger Brad DeLong could be found gathering the straw and wood for the ritual burning. DeLong is a great believer in neo-Darwinism. He has coined the popular term “jumped-up monkeys” to describe our species. (Monkeys because we’re descended from primates; jumped-up because evolution has customized us with the ability to reason and the big brains that go with it.)
DeLong was particularly offended by Nagel’s conviction that reason allows us to “grasp objective reality.” A good materialist doesn’t believe in objective reality, certainly not in the traditional sense. “Thomas Nagel is not smarter than we are,” he wrote, responding to a reviewer who praised Nagel’s intelligence. “In fact, he seems to me to be distinctly dumber than anybody who is running even an eight-bit virtual David Hume on his wetware.” (What he means is, anybody who’s read the work of David Hume, the father of modern materialism.) DeLong’s readers gathered to jeer as the faggots were placed around the stake.
“Thomas Nagel is of absolutely no importance on this subject,” wrote one. “He’s a self-contradictory idiot,” opined another. Some made simple appeals to authority and left it at that: “Haven’t these guys ever heard of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett?” The hearts of still others were broken at seeing a man of Nagel’s eminence sink so low. “It is sad that Nagel, whom my friends and I thought back in the 1960’s could leap over tall buildings with a single bound, has tripped over the Bible and fallen on his face. Very sad.”
Nagel doesn’t mention the Bible in his new book—or in any of his books, from what I can tell—but among materialists the mere association of a thinking person with the Bible is an insult meant to wound, as Bertie Wooster would say. Directed at Nagel, a self-declared atheist, it is more revealing of the accuser than the accused. The hysterical insults were accompanied by an insistence that the book was so bad it shouldn’t upset anyone.
“Evolutionists,” one reviewer huffily wrote, “will feel they’ve been ravaged by a sheep.” Many reviewers attacked the book on cultural as well as philosophical or scientific grounds, wondering aloud how a distinguished house like Oxford University Press could allow such a book to be published. The Philosophers’ Magazine described it with the curious word “irresponsible.” How so? In Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, the British philosopher John Dupré explained. Mind and Cosmos, he wrote, “will certainly lend comfort (and sell a lot of copies) to the religious enemies of Darwinism.” Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University made the same point: “I regret the appearance of this book. It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of ‘intelligent design.’ ”
But what about fans of apostasy? You don’t have to be a biblical fundamentalist or a young-earth creationist or an intelligent design enthusiast—I’m none of the above, for what it’s worth—to find Mind and Cosmos exhilarating. “For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe,” Nagel writes. “It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.” The prima facie impression, reinforced by common sense, should carry more weight than the clerisy gives it. “I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life.”
The incredulity is not simply a matter of scientific ignorance, as the materialists would have it. It arises from something more fundamental and intimate. The neo-Darwinian materialist account offers a picture of the world that is unrecognizable to us—a world without color or sound, and also a world without free will or consciousness or good and evil or selves or, when it comes to that, selflessness. “It flies in the face of common sense,” he says. Materialism is an explanation for a world we don’t live in.
Nagel’s tone is measured and tentative, but there’s no disguising the book’s renegade quality. There are flashes of exasperation and dismissive impatience. What’s exhilarating is that the source of Nagel’s exasperation is, so to speak, his own tribe: the “secular theoretical establishment and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates.” The establishment today, he says, is devoted beyond all reason to a “dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion.” I’m sure Nagel would recoil at the phrase, but Mind and Cosmos is a work of philosophical populism, defending our everyday understanding from the highly implausible worldview of a secular clerisy. His working assumption is, in today’s intellectual climate, radical: If the materialist, neo-Darwinian orthodoxy contradicts common sense, then this is a mark against the orthodoxy, not against common sense. When a chain of reasoning leads us to deny the obvious, we should double-check the chain of reasoning before we give up on the obvious.
Nagel follows the materialist chain of reasoning all the way into the cul de sac where it inevitably winds up. Nagel’s touchier critics have accused him of launching an assault on science, when really it is an assault on the nonscientific uses to which materialism has been put. Though he does praise intelligent design advocates for having the nerve to annoy the secular establishment, he’s no creationist himself. He has no doubt that “we are products of the long history of the universe since the big bang, descended from bacteria through millions of years of natural selection.” And he assumes that the self and the body go together. “So far as we can tell,” he writes, “our mental lives, including our subjective experiences, and those of other creatures are strongly connected with and probably strictly dependent on physical events in our brains and on the physical interaction of our bodies with the rest of the physical world.” To believe otherwise is to believe, as the materialists derisively say, in “spooky stuff.” (Along with jumped-up monkeys and moist robots and countless other much-too-cute phrases, the use of spooky stuff proves that our popular science writers have spent a lot of time watching Scooby-Doo.) Nagel doesn’t believe in spooky stuff.
Materialism, then, is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go as far as materialists want it to. It is a premise of science, not a finding. Scientists do their work by assuming that every phenomenon can be reduced to a material, mechanistic cause and by excluding any possibility of nonmaterial explanations. And the materialist assumption works really, really well—in detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation. Materialism has allowed us to predict and control what happens in nature with astonishing success. The jaw-dropping edifice of modern science, from space probes to nanosurgery, is the result.
But the success has gone to the materialists’ heads. From a fruitful method, materialism becomes an axiom: If science can’t quantify something, it doesn’t exist, and so the subjective, unquantifiable, immaterial “manifest image” of our mental life is proved to be an illusion.
Here materialism bumps up against itself. Nagel insists that we know some things to exist even if materialism omits or ignores or is oblivious to them. Reductive materialism doesn’t account for the “brute facts” of existence—it doesn’t explain, for example, why the world exists at all, or how life arose from nonlife. Closer to home, it doesn’t plausibly explain the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren’t. These failures, Nagel says, aren’t just temporary gaps in our knowledge, waiting to be filled in by new discoveries in science. On its own terms, materialism cannot account for brute facts. Brute facts are irreducible, and materialism, which operates by breaking things down to their physical components, stands useless before them. “There is little or no possibility,” he writes, “that these facts depend on nothing but the laws of physics.”
In a dazzling six-part tour de force rebutting Nagel’s critics, the philosopher Edward Feser provided a good analogy to describe the basic materialist error—the attempt to stretch materialism from a working assumption into a comprehensive explanation of the world. Feser suggests a parody of materialist reasoning: “1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has. 2. Therefore we have good reason to think that metal detectors can reveal to us everything that can be revealed” about metallic objects.
But of course a metal detector only detects the metallic content of an object; it tells us nothing about its color, size, weight, or shape. In the same way, Feser writes, the methods of “mechanistic science are as successful as they are in predicting and controlling natural phenomena precisely because they focus on only those aspects of nature susceptible to prediction and control.”
Meanwhile, they ignore everything else. But this is a fatal weakness for a theory that aspires to be a comprehensive picture of the world. With magnetic resonance imaging, science can tell us which parts of my brain light up when, for example, I glimpse my daughter’s face in a crowd; the bouncing neurons can be observed and measured. Science cannot quantify or describe the feelings I experience when I see my daughter. Yet the feelings are no less real than the neurons.
The point sounds more sentimental than it is. My bouncing neurons and my feelings of love and obligation are unquestionably bound together. But the difference between the neurons and the feelings, the material and the mental, is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind. And of the two, reductive materialism can capture only one.
“The world is an astonishing place,” Nagel writes. “That it has produced you, and me, and the rest of us is the most astonishing thing about it.” Materialists are in the business of banishing astonishment; they want to demystify the world and human beings along with it, to show that everything we see as a mystery is reducible to components that aren’t mysterious at all. And they cling to this ambition even in cases where doing so is obviously fruitless. Neo-Darwinism insists that every phenomenon, every species, every trait of every species, is the consequence of random chance, as natural selection requires. And yet, Nagel says, “certain things are so remarkable that they have to be explained as non-accidental if we are to pretend to a real understanding of the world.” (The italics are mine.)
Among these remarkable, nonaccidental things are many of the features of the manifest image. Consciousness itself, for example: You can’t explain consciousness in evolutionary terms, Nagel says, without undermining the explanation itself. Evolution easily accounts for rudimentary kinds of awareness. Hundreds of thousands of years ago on the African savannah, where the earliest humans evolved the unique characteristics of our species, the ability to sense danger or to read signals from a potential mate would clearly help an organism survive.
So far, so good. But the human brain can do much more than this. It can perform calculus, hypothesize metaphysics, compose music—even develop a theory of evolution. None of these higher capacities has any evident survival value, certainly not hundreds of thousands of years ago when the chief aim of mental life was to avoid getting eaten. Could our brain have developed and sustained such nonadaptive abilities by the trial and error of natural selection, as neo-Darwinism insists? It’s possible, but the odds, Nagel says, are “vanishingly small.” If Nagel is right, the materialist is in a pickle. The conscious brain that is able to come up with neo-Darwinism as a universal explanation simultaneously makes neo-Darwinism, as a universal explanation, exceedingly unlikely.
A similar argument holds for our other cognitive capacities. “The evolution story leaves the authority of reason in a much weaker position,” he writes. Neo-Darwinism tells us that we have the power of reason because reason was adaptive; it must have helped us survive, back in the day. Yet reason often conflicts with our intuition or our emotion—capacities that must also have been adaptive and essential for survival. Why should we “privilege” one capacity over another when reason and intuition conflict? On its own terms, the scheme of neo-Darwinism gives us no standard by which we should choose one adaptive capacity over the other. And yet neo-Darwinists insist we embrace neo-Darwinism because it conforms to our reason, even though it runs against our intuition. Their defense of reason is unreasonable.
So too our moral sense. We all of us have confidence, to one degree or another, that “our moral judgments are objectively valid”—that is, while our individual judgments might be right or wrong, what makes them right or wrong is real, not simply fantasy or opinion. Two and two really do make four. Why is this confidence inherent in our species? How was it adaptive? Neo-Darwinian materialists tell us that morality evolved as a survival mechanism (like everything else): We developed an instinct for behavior that would help us survive, and we called this behavior good as a means of reinforcing it. We did the reverse for behavior that would hurt our chances for survival: We called it bad. Neither type of behavior was good or bad in reality; such moral judgments are just useful tricks human beings have learned to play on ourselves.
Yet Nagel points out that our moral sense, even at the most basic level, developed a complexity far beyond anything needed for survival, even on the savannah—even in Manhattan. We are, as Nagel writes, “beings capable of thinking successfully about good and bad, right and wrong, and discovering moral and evaluative truths that do not depend on [our] own beliefs.” And we behave accordingly, or try to. The odds that such a multilayered but nonadaptive capacity should become a characteristic of the species through natural selection are, again, implausibly long.
Nagel’s reliance on “common sense” has roused in his critics a special contempt. One scientist, writing in the Huffington Post, calls it Nagel’s “argument from ignorance.” In the Nation, the philosophers Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg could only shake their heads at the once-great philosopher’s retrogression from sophisticated thinking to common sense.
“This style of argument,” they write, “does not, alas, have a promising history.” Once upon a time, after all, our common-sense intuitions told us the sun traveled across the sky over a flat earth. Materialistic science has since taught us otherwise.
Not all intuitions are of the same kind, though. It is one thing for me to be mistaken in my intuition about the shape of the planet; it’s another thing to be mistaken about whether I exist, or whether truth and falsehood exist independently of my say-so, or whether my “self” has some degree of control over my actions. Indeed, a person couldn’t correct his mistaken intuitions unless these intuitions were correct—unless he was a rational self capable of distinguishing the true from the false and choosing one over the other. And it is the materialist attack on those intuitions—“common sense”—that Nagel finds absurd.
Leiter and Weisberg, like most of his other critics, were also agog that Nagel has the nerve to pronounce on matters that they consider purely scientific, far beyond his professional range. A philosopher doubting a scientist is a rare sight nowadays. With the general decline of the humanities and the success of the physical sciences, the relationship of scientists to philosophers of science has been reversed. As recently as the middle of the last century, philosophers like Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer might feel free to explain to scientists the philosophical implications of what they were doing. Today the power is all on the side of the scientists: One false move and it’s back to your sandbox, philosophy boy.
And so some philosophers have retreated into the same sort of hyperspecialization that has rendered scientists from different subdisciplines practically incapable of communicating with each other. Now these philosophers, practicing what they call “experimental philosophy,” can pride themselves on being just as incomprehensible as scientists. Other philosophers, like Dennett, have turned their field into a handmaiden of science: meekly and gratefully accepting whatever findings the scientists come up with—from brain scans to the Higgs boson—which they then use to demonstrate the superiority of hardheaded science to the airy musings of old-fashioned “armchair philosophy.”
In this sense too Nagel is a throwback, daring not only to interpret science but to contradict scientists. He admits it’s “strange” when he relies “on a philosophical claim to refute a scientific theory supported by empirical evidence.” But he knows that when it comes to cosmology, scientists are just as likely to make an error of philosophy as philosophers are to make an error of science. And Nagel is accused of making large errors indeed. According to Leiter and Weisberg and the others, he is ignorant of how science is actually done these days.
Nagel, say Leiter and Weisberg, overestimates the importance of materialism, even as a scientific method. He’s attacking a straw man. He writes as though “reductive materialism really were driving the scientific community.” In truth, they say, most scientists reject theoretical reductionism. Fifty years ago, many philosophers and scientists might have believed that all the sciences were ultimately reducible to physics, but modern science doesn’t work that way. Psychologists, for example, aren’t trying to reduce psychology to biology; and biologists don’t want to boil biology down to chemistry; and chemists don’t want to reduce chemistry to physics. Indeed, an evolutionary biologist—even one who’s a good materialist—won’t refer to physics at all in the course of his work!
And this point is true, as Nagel himself writes in his book: Theoretical materialism, he says, “is not a necessary condition of the practice of any of those sciences.” Researchers can believe in materialism or not, as they wish, and still make scientific progress. (This is another reason why it’s unconvincing to cite scientific progress as evidence for the truth of materialism.) But the critics’ point is also disingenuous. If materialism is true as an explanation of everything—and they insist it is—then psychological facts, for example, must be reducible to biology, and then down to chemistry, and finally down to physics. If they weren’t reducible in this way, they would (ta-da!) be irreducible. And any fact that’s irreducible would, by definition, be uncaused and undetermined; meaning it wouldn’t be material. It might even be spooky stuff.
On this point Leiter and Weisberg were gently chided by the prominent biologist Jerry Coyne, who was also a workshopper in the Berkshires. He was delighted by their roasting of Nagel in the Nation, but he accused them of going wobbly on materialism—of shying away from the hard conclusions that reductive materialism demands. It’s not surprising that scientists in various disciplines aren’t actively trying to reduce all science to physics; that would be a theoretical problem that is only solvable in the distant future. However: “The view that all sciences are in principle reducible to the laws of physics,” he wrote, “must be true unless you’re religious.” Either we’re molecules in motion or we’re not.
You can sympathize with Leiter and Weisberg for fudging on materialism. As a philosophy of everything it is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath. Say what you will about Leiter and Weisberg and the workshoppers in the Berkshires. From what I can tell, none of them is a psychopath. Not even close.
Applied beyond its own usefulness as a scientific methodology, materialism is, as Nagel suggests, self-evidently absurd. Mind and Cosmos can be read as an extended paraphrase of Orwell’s famous insult: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Materialism can only be taken seriously as a philosophy through a heroic feat of cognitive dissonance; pretending, in our abstract, intellectual life, that values like truth and goodness have no objective content even as, in our private life, we try to learn what’s really true and behave in a way we know to be good. Nagel has sealed his ostracism from the intelligentsia by idly speculating why his fellow intellectuals would undertake such a feat.
“The priority given to evolutionary naturalism in the face of its implausible conclusions,” he writes, “is due, I think, to the secular consensus that this is the only form of external understanding of ourselves that provides an alternative to theism.”
In a recent review in the New York Review of Books of Where the Conflict Really Lies, by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Nagel told how instinctively he recoils from theism, and how hungry he is for a reasonable alternative. “If I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true,” he wrote, “the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith.” He admits that he finds the evident failure of materialism as a worldview alarming—precisely because the alternative is, for a secular intellectual, unthinkable. He calls this intellectual tic “fear of religion.”
“I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear,” he wrote not long ago in an essay called “Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion.” “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
Nagel believes this “cosmic authority problem” is widely shared among intellectuals, and I believe him. It accounts for the stubbornness with which they cling to materialism—and for the hostility that greets an intellectual who starts to wander off from the herd. Materialism must be true because it “liberates us from religion.” The positive mission Nagel undertakes in Mind and Cosmos is to outline, cautiously, a possible Third Way between theism and materialism, given that the first is unacceptable—emotionally, if not intellectually—and the second is untenable. Perhaps matter itself has a bias toward producing conscious creatures. Nature in that case would be “teleological”—not random, not fully subject to chance, but tending toward a particular end. Our mental life would be accounted for—phew!—without reference to God.
I don’t think Nagel succeeds in finding his Third Way, and I doubt he or his successors ever will, but then I have biases of my own. There’s no doubting the honesty and intellectual courage—the free thinking and ennobling good faith—that shine through his attempt.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.