Monday, January 22, 2018

Motherhood in America: The Natural Desire for Parental Care in a Liberal Regime

"After decades of decline, motherhood and family size are ticking up."  That's the conclusion in a new report from the Pew Research Center.  As is shown in the chart above, the percentage of American women ages 40 to 44 who are mothers has risen to 86% in 2016 from a low of 80% in 2006, and thus moving close to the high of 90% reached in 1976.

For me, this is empirical evidence for the natural desire for parental care as one of the 20 natural desires, and also evidence for how the freedom of a liberal social order like the United States allows human beings to satisfy this natural desire as part of their natural pursuit of happiness.

Some of my critics have denied this by arguing that in modern liberal societies, the pursuit of high socioeconomic status has diverted people from parenthood, as indicated by the fact that people in higher social classes in liberal societies have such low levels of fertility that they cannot even replace themselves.  Some of my critics say that this "demographic transition" shows the failure of a Darwinian explanation of human behavior, because it shows that the most successful people in a liberal society are not acting for their reproductive fitness.  Some of my alt-right critics say that this shows the need for restricting immigration to the U.S. from non-white countries in order to protect the genetic interests of white America.  Foreign-born black and Hispanic women have higher birth rates than U.S.-born white women.  The alt-right critics argue that ethnic nationalism has greater genetic fitness than classical liberalism, which should be seen as the deepest intellectual argument for Trumpism.  I have answered these critics in some previous posts (here and here).

My claims about the 20 natural desires of evolved human nature are empirically falsifiable, in that my claims would be refuted by evidence that most human beings are not in fact motivated by these desires.  So if most human beings--let's say 80% or more--did not show any desire for children, that would deny my argument for parental care as a natural human desire.  On the contrary, however, what we see--as in this Pew report--is that most women (80% to 90%) will become mothers before they reach the end of their reproductive years.

We also see, however, that this natural desire for children has to be balanced off against other desires, and it is highly variable across individuals and in response to variable economic and social conditions.  Some women by their individual natural temperament have little or no desire for children.  And those women who do desire children have to decide when to produce them, how many to produce, and how much to invest in each child.

In a liberal society like the United States, women have many educational and economic opportunities outside the home; and so they have to decide how to combine their investments in education and professional careers with their investments in children.  And in a society where social success depends a lot on educational achievement, women will want to invest in the education of their children.  It is understandable, therefore, that American women with higher levels of education and professional success tend to have fewer children and to have them later in their lives.

One of the remarkable findings in the Pew report is that the biggest increases in motherhood in America since the 1990s is among women with higher education.  Among women with a Bachelor's degree, the percentage of those in their early 40s who are mothers has increased from 83% in 1994 to 89% in 2014.  Even more amazing is the increase in motherhood for that small group of women in their early 40s with a Ph.D. or a professional degree (such as a medical or law degree): 80% of them today are mothers, as compared with 65% in 1994.

Isn't this evidence for the strength of the natural desire for parental care, and for how that natural desire is satisfied in a liberal social order?

Friday, January 12, 2018

Does Trump's Bad Character Matter? Michael Wolff and the Claremont Straussians

Why should he accept immigrants from "shithole countries" like Haiti and African nations rather than places like Norway? 

That's what Donald Trump said yesterday in a meeting in the White House with Congressional representatives gathered to discuss a proposal for immigration reform.

This language of vulgar racism has shocked many people, including Representative Mia Love, who represents a congressional district in Utah, and who is the first Haitian-American representative in Congress, and the first black female Republican elected to Congress.  She is the daughter of Haitian immigrants, who first arrived in the United States on a tourist visa, because they were fleeing from political violence in Haiti.  She is a pro-life conservative Republican.

Why would conservative Republicans want to denigrate someone like this as unworthy of American citizenship because her parents came from a "shithole country"?

Well, of course, this is just the latest display of Trump's disgustingly bad character.  In speaking of character, I have in mind what Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics identifies as the moral and intellectual virtues.  So Trump's bad character is that he lacks both the moral and intellectual virtues of a good human being.

The disastrous consequences of Trump's lacking those virtues are clear in Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.  Wolff's account of the first ten months in the Trump White House shows how Trump's vicious character has made it impossible for his people to execute any coherent public policy agenda.

But then some of Trump's supporters--and particularly the Claremont Straussians--seem to say that Trump's bad character doesn't matter, because all that matters is that the people brought into the government by Trump can carry out his good policies--particularly, for dismantling the administrative state.

One can see this, for example, in the "Statement of Unity" of the "Scholars and Writers for Trump," which includes many of the leading Claremont Straussians.  They explain their support for Trump by identifying the good policies he will promote in the areas of "Constitutional Governance," "Corruption in Government," "Economic Stimulus," "Religious Liberty," and "Education."  But they are completely silent about Trump's character, as though this is of no importance.

This is strange, because the Claremont people have learned about the importance of character in politics from their mentors Leo Strauss and Harry Jaffa, who pointed them to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and who also pointed to the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln as displaying the Aristotelian virtues.  Can anyone imagine Lincoln denigrating Haitian immigrants as coming from a "shithole country"?

And yet the Claremont people can point to evidence that the first year of Trump's administration has indeed shown some progress in attacking the administrative state put in place by progressives over the past century.  If so, does that show that Trump's bad character really doesn't matter?

The chaos that Trump's character has created in the White House is evident in Wolff's book.  And although critics have rightly questioned the truth of some of Wolff's stories, I haven't seen any evidence that would challenge the fundamental themes of Wolff's overall story. 

One can see that Wolff relied heavily on interviewing Katie Walsh, the White House deputy chief of staff, and Steve Bannon, who becomes in some ways the central character of the story.  But Wolff knew that he had to balance conflicting stories coming from people fighting a factional battle within the White House.

Wolff admits that many of the stories he was told are either "baldly untrue" or incoherent, as one should expect from a Trumpian White House (xii-xiii).  But most of what Wolff reports is consistent with the public record of the words and deeds of Trump and of those around him in the White House.

I see three fundamental themes in Wolff's book that seem plausible.  The first theme is that almost everyone in the Trump campaign--with the exception of Steve Bannon--did not expect Trump to win, and therefore they were not prepared to deal with Trump's unfitness for the presidency: "The unspoken agreement among them: not only would Donald Trump not be president, he should probably not be.  Conveniently, the former conviction meant nobody had to deal with the latter issue" (10).  "Donald Trump and his tiny band of campaign warriors were ready to lose with fire and fury.  They were not ready to win" (11).

But then, once they unexpectedly entered the White House, they were forced to deal with Trump's unfitness for his office.  He could not or would not read anything, not even a one-page briefing statement.  His attention span was so short that he could not listen to anyone for more than a few minutes.  He was so impulsive that he could not follow any consistent plan of speaking or acting.  Above all, he needed to be loved by everyone, and so he was easily seduced by flatterers, and easily slighted by any suggestion that someone did not love him as much as he loved himself.  He had no sense of shame or propriety, no sense of decorum, or concern for doing what is right for the circumstances one is in.  This is what a person looks like who has neither moral nor intellectual virtues.  (This bleak picture of Trump's character has been confirmed by others who know him well--for example, Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who wrote Trump's book The Art of the Deal.)

Trump's lack of any moral or intellectual coherence leads to the second theme of Wolff's book--Trump's dependence on Steve Bannon as the one person who was a somewhat coherent thinker about the meaning of Trumpism and how it might be put into public policy.  Bannon joined the campaign in August of 2016, and he seems to have been largely responsible for the campaign strategy that led to Trump's victory.  He also seemed to be the brains for Trumpism understood as alt-right economic nationalism, tight borders and restricted immigration,  and isolationism in foreign policy.

People in the White House joked about "President Bannon," and Bannon himself took this seriously by speaking to some people about how he was using Trump to prepare the way for Bannon's presidency.  This arrogance eventually provoked Trump, Bannon's enemies in the White House, and even some of his supporters.  Bannon's firing in August and his recent fall from prominence confirms Wolff's depiction of his own moral and intellectual defects.

On February 23 of last year, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Bannon famously promised the "deconstruction of the administrative state," which is exactly what the Claremont Straussians are hoping for.  Does Bannon's fall threaten that agenda?  Or is the attack on the administrative state going to be carried out by others in the Trump administration?

Bannon could never prevail in the White House, because he was opposed by rival factions, which is the third theme of Wolff's book:  the White House was thrown into chaos by the war between three factions.  With the help of Katie Walsh's analysis, Wolff saw that Trump's bad character make it impossible for him to sustain any coherent plan of public policy, because he became "something of a blank page--or a scrambled one," and the three leading people in the White House--Bannon, Kushner, and Priebus--each had a radically different idea about what should be written on that page.  "Bannon was the alt-right militant.  Kushner was the New York Democrat.  And Priebus was the establishment Republican."  Thus: "As Walsh saw it, Steve Bannon was running the Steve Bannon White House, Jared Kushner was running the Michael Bloomberg White House, and Reince Priebus was running the Paul Ryan White House.  It was a 1970s video game, the white ball pinging back and forth in the black triangle" (117).

Of course, rivalry in the White House is nothing new.  One might remember Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which relates the history of the factional fighting within Lincoln's White House.  But unlike Trump, Lincoln's moral and intellectual virtues allowed him to channel this rivalry towards promoting the good policies that Lincoln formulated.

Is it possible that the Claremont Straussians are correct in thinking that Lincoln's virtues are no longer necessary--that the good policies of Trumpism can be promoted without Trump having any of Lincoln's virtues?

Recently, Ryan Williams, the new President of the Claremont Institute, has suggested this possibility. He cites evidence that the first year of the Trump Administration has successfully begun to roll back the administrative state.  For example, he refers to the recent controversy over Trump's appointment of  Mick Mulvaney to be the Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  The CFPB was created in 2010 as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, and it's the model of what progressives want for the administrative state.  The CFPB is not accountable to either the Congress or the President, because the President cannot  remove the director of CFPB, the director appoints the inferior officers of the agency, and the funding of the agency is not controlled by Congress.  Richard Cordray was appointed the Director of CFPB by Obama, with a term expiring in the summer of 2018. To  avoid having Trump appoint a new director this summer, Cordray resigned in October and appointed his own successor, Leandra English, who refused to leave when Trump appointed Mulvaney.  Eventually, Mulvaney prevailed.  So, here, Williams suggests, we see Trump enforcing the constitutional principle that administrative agencies should not be so independent as to be unaccountable to the Congress, the President, and the Courts.

Williams also points to a recent article in the Washington Post on "How the Trump Era Is Changing the Federal Bureaucracy."  The article reports a significant reduction in the size of the federal bureaucracy, moves to punish bureaucrats who are not doing good jobs, and eliminating waste and bad spending. 

Consider these remarks in the article:

"Many chafed as supervisors laid down new rules they said are aimed at holding poor performers and problem workers to account." 

"Conservatives who have long pushed for smaller government are cheered by the developments." 

"And some civil servants said they welcome the focus on rooting out waste and holding federal workers to high standards." 

"Agencies have told employees that they should no longer count on getting glowing reviews in their performance appraisals, according to staff in multiple offices, as has been the case for years."

Amazingly, these Washington Post journalists report this in a tone that suggests this is bad for the country!

If this Trumpian attack on the administrative state is happening, despite the moral and intellectual emptiness of Trump himself, does this show that the bad character of the President does not matter?

I am not convinced of this.  As I reported in an earlier post (here), even some of the Trump supporters (for example, Stephen Balch of Texas Tech University) have admitted that Trump's bad character might ultimately prove more damaging to American conservatism than anything that Hillary Clinton might have done as Preside;nt.

I don't see how the conservative policy agenda of the Claremont Straussians can survive the damage that comes from the bad character of Donald Trump.

What happens to the Trumpian policy agenda when Trump's bad character provokes people into voting in November for a Democratic control of the Congress?

How can that agenda survive when the President overseeing that agenda takes malicious pleasure in the vulgar racism that insults people like Mia Love?

Polls indicate that the high rates of disapproval of Trump among American voters are due primarily to his bad character.  A report last July from the Gallup polling organization showed that of those disapproving of Trump's performance, 65% did so because of "personality/personal characteristics," and only 16% did so because of "issues/specific policies."  If this is accurate, then American voters think Trump's bad character really does matter, and it matters more to them than their possible agreement with policies of the Trump administration.

Moreover, there is a fundamental philosophical issue about the meaning of the American regime raised by Trump's claim that immigration policy should favor immigrants from predominantly white countries like Norway.  There are reports that when Trump said this, Senator Lindsey Graham spoke up at the meeting and said "America is an idea, not a race."

Until recently, the Claremont Straussians seemed to agree with Senator Graham, because they seemed to interpret the Declaration of Independence as appealing to the universal idea of human equality and liberty as defining American identity.  But recently, some of the Claremont Straussians (Tom West, for example) have said that Trump is right about the need to restrict the immigration of non-white people to protect America's white racial identity.  [See the comments on this post from Tom West.]

If so, then this would put the Claremont Straussians on the side of the alt-right white-identity movement, which would be a disturbing denial of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, or perhaps a denial of Lincoln's interpretation of the Declaration in favor of Stephen Douglas's interpretation.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Slavery and the Neurobiology of Self-Ownership: Frederick Douglass & Bud Craig

February will be the 200th anniversary of the birth in 1818 of Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave in Maryland, who at age 20 ran away from his slave master, and who became world-famous as a leading orator for the abolition of slavery and for a classical liberalism that would secure the natural rights of all human beings.

Douglass's liberal political thought was rooted in the natural human desire and capacity for the self-ownership of one's body and mind.  Now we can see how modern neurobiology supports this idea by explaining the neural basis of self-ownership in what neuroanatomist Bud Craig has called "interoception."

This post adds to my series of previous posts on the evolutionary neurobiology of self-ownership in liberal thought, which can be found herehereherehere, and here.

For Douglass, freedom meant self-ownership.  So that in making his argument against slavery as violating the fundamental human right to self-ownership, he was making a general argument for freedom.  And, indeed, as Nicholas Buccola has shown (in The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass [NYU Press, 2012]), Douglass appealed to the principle of self-ownership to support liberalism generally--arguing not only for the abolition of slavery, but also for universal suffrage, women's rights, the rights of immigrants, and religious liberty.

Some readers have asked me why I have devoted so much attention in Darwinian Natural Right and in this blog to the debate over slavery.  After all, they say, slavery is no longer a controversial topic.  My answer is that since human slavery is the most complete denial of human freedom, understanding why slavery is contrary to human nature gives us the understanding of why freedom is according to human nature, which supplies the foundation of liberalism.

Douglass said that even in childhood, he held onto one idea for freedom and against slavery: "Every man is the original, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body; or in other words, every man is himself, is his self, if you please, and belongs to himself, and can only part from his self ownership, by the commission of a crime" ("A Friendly Word to Maryland," The Frederick Douglass Papers, 4:42, available online).

In 1848, on the tenth anniversary of his escape from slavery, Douglass wrote an open letter to his former master, Thomas Auld, in which he explained his justification for running away as grounded on the human nature of self-ownership:
"The morality of the act, I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons.  What you are, I am.  You are a man, and so am I.  God created both, and made us separate beings.  I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine depend upon yours.  I cannot walk upon your legs, or you upon mine. I cannot breathe for you, or you for me; I must breathe for myself, and you for yourself.  We are distinct persons, and are each equally provided with faculties necessary to our individual existence.  In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living.  Your faculties remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner.  I therefore see no wrong in any part of the transaction" ("Letter to Thomas Auld," September 3, 1848, Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip Foner, p. 113, available online).
One can see here three features of Douglass's argument for self-ownership: the separate and distinct identity of each individual, the equality of human beings in their desire and capacity for self-ownership, and the grounding of this self-ownership in both divine law and natural law.

First, it is a natural fact about human beings that they are separate and distinct individuals in their bodies and their minds.  The existence of each individual is independent of the existence of others.  "Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine depend upon yours."

Despite the claims of liberalism's critics that this promotes a crudely selfish individualism, Douglass makes it clear that the natural individuality of human nature does not mean that human beings are utterly self-sufficient, because they are naturally social animals who need the love and cooperation of others for their survival and well-being.  Indeed, the realm of self-ownership includes all of those people to whom one is attached, particularly one's family and friends.  In his letter to Auld, Douglass boasts of the pleasure he takes in his wife and children, who cannot be taken from him by a slaveholder.  But even within such tightly bonded social groups, Douglass indicates, each person has an identity distinct from the others.

The second feature of self-ownership is that all human beings are equal in their desire and capacity for it, because it is part of their common human nature.  Like Charles Darwin, Douglass rejected the racial science that saw the human races as separate species, and he saw the unity of the human species as the natural ground for human equality of rights.  "Human rights stand upon a common basis . . . because all mankind have the same wants, arising out of a common nature" ("The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered," July 12, 1854, in Selected Speeches and Writings, 296).

I have written about Darwin's agreement with Douglass--and with Abraham Lincoln--in Darwinian Natural Right (chapter 7) and in some posts (here and here).

In some other posts (here, and here,), I have argued that the modern idea of human rights can be rooted in the universal desires and capacities of human biological nature.

Douglass recognizes, however, that even though each of us naturally desires self-ownership and thus resists oppression, our selfishness often makes it hard for us to see that everyone else has the same natural desire that we must respect.  It takes some effort to recognize the moral reciprocity of the Golden Rule, as expressed by Abraham Lincoln: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master."  Throughout history, slaves have sought freedom through running away or through violent resistance; but even as people have resisted their own enslavement, they have not necessarily resisted the enslavement of others.  In fact, those who have escaped slavery have sometimes become slaveholders themselves!

So, as I have indicated in another post (here), some historians have argued that slavery was not abolished by slaves rebelling against it, because the institution of slavery was not abolished until the emergence of abolitionist thought at the end of the 18th century.  Douglass's life illustrates this point. He liberated himself from slavery by running away.  But he did not begin campaigning for the abolition of slavery until, three years after his running away, he was recruited by William Lloyd Garrison to become a speaker for the abolitionist movement.  The emergence of abolitionism depended on the modern evolution of liberalism as symbolic niche construction (see my post here).

As I have indicated in some previous posts on the emergence of the first states in ancient Mesopotamia (here and here), the ancient Mesopotamians recognized the idea and reality of freedom.  Many people were free, and they expected the government to secure their freedom.  Those people who were enslaved could claim their freedom by running away.  But while we see slaves resisting their enslavement, we don't see slaves seeking to abolish the institution of slavery.  We don't see any Mesopotamians affirming that all human beings are by nature born free and equal.  That affirmation comes much later in history, in the writing of the English Levelers, Locke, and the Declaration of Independence.  This is what I mean by modern liberalism as symbolic niche construction.

The third feature of self-ownership is its grounding in divine law and natural law--God or Nature.  The human desire for self-ownership can be seen as a manifestation of God's creation, or it can be seen as a product of the natural order of things.  Evolutionary creationists will say that God used natural evolution to carry out his creative design.

Some people today have argued that the idea of human rights depends upon the moral dignity of human beings that comes from the idea that they have been created in God's image, and thus it is impossible to defend human rights without such religious belief.  I have argued against that claim (here).

So here I would say that evolutionary neurobiology can support Douglass's grounding of human rights in the natural desire and capacity for self-ownership.  The biological character of self-ownership is clear in Douglass's language.  "Every man is the original, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body."  "I cannot breathe for you, or you for me, I must breathe for myself."  Now we can see how this human sense of each person's self-ownership arises in the evolved neuroanatomy of the brain to serve the survival and well-being of the human animal.

We can see this experience of self-ownership as expressing what neuroscientists today call interoception--the self-aware perception of the state of the body (Erik Ceunen, Johan Vlaeyen, and Ilse Van Diest, "On the Origin of Interoception," Frontiers in Psychology 7 [May 2016]: 743). 

A. D. (Bud) Craig has surveyed the research on interoception in How Do You Feel? An Interoceptive Moment with Your Neurobiological Self (Princeton University Press, 2015), which brings together the work from his articles that I cited in my previous posts on interoception.  Craig has provided a good summary of his thinking in a lecture that he gave in 2009, available as a video.

These charts show Craig's neuroanatomical maps for interoception:

Craig's fundamental idea of interception is that our self-awareness arises from the feelings that we have from our bodies as a neural integration in insular cortex of the signals of the condition of the body.  The interoceptive neural network, having its core in the anterior insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, provides the basis for the subjective awareness of our bodily emotions and social feelings, including pleasure, anxiety, trust, and anger.

The first chart above shows the neural pathway for generating interoceptive self-awareness--from the spinal cord to the medulla and brainstem, to the thalamus, and finally to the cerebral cortex (particularly, the insula and the anterior cingulate--that is unique to primates.  Humans have this primate neural pathway, but humans are unique in the size and complexity of the cortical structures at the highest levels of the brain.

Interoceptive awareness can be measured quantitatively by heartbeat awareness--by asking a person to count the number  of heartbeats he or she feels in time intervals of 30, 45, and 60 seconds, and then comparing these numbers to real counts from an electrocardiogram recording or finger pulse oximeter.  Heartbeat awareness varies greatly across individuals.  Individual heartbeat awareness scores are correlated in fMRI images with increased activity in the right anterior insular cortex.  They are also correlated with the size of the right anterior insular cortex.  And, remarkably, better heartbeat perceivers are better at reading their own emotional feelings and the feelings of others; they are also better at making good decisions for themselves.  Better interoceptive awareness as measured by heartbeat perception also correlates with greater efficiency in rejecting unfair offers in playing the Ultimatum Game.  This shows how our bodily awareness supports our self-awareness, social awareness, moral awareness, and awareness of the world generally.

The human neural circuity for interoception integrates sensory information from all tissues and organs of the body, which includes information about the internal state of the body, about the physical environment outside the body, and about the social environment of interactions with other human beings.  As one example, of the assessment of the social environment, the left anterior insular cortex is activated by seeing trustworthy faces, and the right anterior insular cortex is activated by seeing untrustworthy faces.  The emotional assessment of this sensory information as indicating painful or pleasurable circumstances--threats or opportunities--can then send signals to those parts of the cortex that control and motivate behavior.

This neural circuitry for emotional assessment and behavioral decision-making integrates information not only about the present state of the organism but also about past emotional experiences stored in memory and about the projected future as simulated in imagination.  Thus, this neuroanatomical system allows us to act in the present in the light of past experiences and future expectations, so that we can act for what seems most desirable for us in promoting our survival and well-being.

The anterior insular cortex (AIC) is involved not only in interoceptive self-awareness but also in the social emotions that support cooperation and fairness.  Observing pain in others activates parts of the neural network that are also activated when we experience pain in ourselves.  Empathy for the pain of others activates the most anterior parts of the AIC, which overlaps with activation related to pain experienced in oneself.  But the activation associated with the experience of pain in oneself encompasses a much larger portion of the insula (including the middle and posterior insular cortex).  To some degree, then, the neural activity for self-concern is extended to concern for others.  But still our self-concern is distinguished from our concern for others.

Craig's survey of the research on the neuroanatomy of interoception explains the basis in the brain for Douglass's principle of self-ownership in human nature (see Craig, 3-9, 191, 195-97, 204-10, 223-24, 243, 258).

The feeling of self-awareness--the feeling of being alive--arises from the integration in the cortex of the brain of the feelings from one's own body.  This gives one a sense of ownership of one's body.  This is confirmed by the fact that damage to the insula from a stoke or a tumor can result in a patient having no feeling of ownership of a limb of the body.  A patient can feel that his leg is not really his.

Comparing brain activation in people viewing photographs of their own face or body as compared with people viewing photographs of the face or body of someone they know, researchers have seen that viewing one's one face or body selectively activates the right anterior insular cortex and the right cingulate cortex.  This is functionally equivalent to the mirror test of self-awareness--being able to recognize oneself in a mirror.  By about 18 months, most human infants can pass this test.

The brain's evolved capacity for a feeling of self-ownership includes feeling whether other people are likely to be helpful or harmful to oneself, as in the brain's ability to discriminate trustworthy faces and untrustworthy faces or to punish people who make unfair offers in an Ultimatum Game.  Our brains have evolved to protect ourselves from threats and to seek out cooperative relationships in ways that secure our survival and well-being.

In running away from his slave master, and then in arguing for the abolition of slavery, Douglass expressed the evolved natural propensity of the human brain for self-ownership and for moral resentment against those who would threaten the natural human right to self-ownership.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Spinoza's Neurobiology: The Emergence of the Mind in the Body and the Brain

The human mind is the idea of the human body.

This assertion by Spinoza in his Ethics (particularly, part 2) can be judged as a claim about human biology open to confirmation or falsification by recent research in neurobiology.  If this is so, then this illustrates a point that I have often argued on this blog--that the history of political philosophy is largely a history of debatable empirical claims about human nature, social life, and the natural world generally that can be interpreted and assessed in the light of modern scientific knowledge.

Some folks might object that Spinoza is speaking as a philosopher, who appeals to logic and intuitive judgment, rather than as a biological scientist, who relies on hypothesis-testing through empirical research.  But this modern distinction between philosophy and science was not accepted in Spinoza's time, when what we today would call "natural science" was called "natural philosophy."  Beginning in ancient Greece, philosophers like Aristotle engaged in biological research.

Moreover, Spinoza indicated that his understanding of the relationship between the mind (mens in Latin) and the body (corpus) depended on his understanding of the brain (cerebrum).  Our thoughts arise in our brains as stimulated by the motions that our bodily nerves receive from objects outside of us and from the internal activities of our bodies (Ethics I, appendix).  Spinoza took seriously Descartes's research on human anatomy and physiology; and although he rejected Descartes's claim that the pineal gland is the place in the brain where mind and body meet, and although he saw this as contradicting Descartes' assumption that that mind and body are two distinct substances, he assumed that thought must arise somehow and somewhere in the brain (V, pref.).  Spinoza thus left open the possibility that increasing knowledge of the brain might reveal how mind emerges in the brain from its integration of signals from the body, which would explain the neural basis for what he saw as the parallelism of mind and body.

Indeed, Antonio Damasio has argued, in Looking for Spinoza, Spinoza's intuition that the mind is the activity of the body is confirmed by modern neurobiological evidence that "mental processes are grounded in the brain's mappings of the body, collections of neural patterns that portray responses to events that cause emotions and feelings" (12).

This Spinozistic claim that our conscious feelings arise from neural mappings of body states can now be experimentally tested.  For example, Damasio and his colleagues have hypothesized that when feelings occur, there is increased neural activity in those areas of the brain that receive signals from the body and thus map the ongoing state of the body.  These brain areas are at different levels of the central nervous system, which include several nuclei in the brain stem tegmentum (the back part of the brain stem), the hypothalamus, two of the somatosensory cortices (the insula and the secondary somatosensory cortex), and the cingulate cortex.

To test this hypothesis, Damasio and his colleagues recruited forty people with no history of neurological or psychiatric disease.  The subjects were asked to think of some intense emotional episode from their lives that involved happiness, sadness, fear, or anger.  They were in a brain scanning room so that machines could measure blood flow in their brains using the technique of PET (positron-emission tomography), with the understanding that increased blood flow to some region of the brain is correlated with the local activity of the neurons.  The subjects were asked to signal with a hand movement the moment they began feeling the emotion--happiness, sadness, fear, or anger.  The brain scans showed increased activity in the predicted areas of the brain, which indicated that the mapping of body states had been modified during the process of conscious feeling.

Apparently, what was happening is that in the past, body states had induced a feeling like anger in the brain, and then this experience had been stored in memory; so that when they recalled this memory of anger to recreate the feeling of anger, they activated the neural circuitry of the body-sensing brain regions associated with this feeling.

Here, then, Damasio concludes, we can see in these brain images the correlation of mind and body claimed by Spinoza.

Damasio's use of brain imaging to support this kind of argument is illustrated in this TED talk:

There are, however, at least three problems with Damasio's use of neurobiology to support Spinoza: the mystery of subjectivity, the self-refuting character of materialist science, and the experience of spirituality.

In his TED talk, Damasio passes over the mystery of subjectivity in two sentences about two minutes into the talk.  He says that many people, including many neuroscientists, have said that human self-consciousness is too mysterious to be explained scientifically.  He rejects this.  But then he says: "It would be ridiculous to claim that we know how we make consciousness in our brains. But we can begin to approach the question and to see the shape of an answer."  Here he is pointing to what he calls the "consciousness puzzle" in Looking for Spinoza (198).  We can see neural patterns through the "tools of neuroanatomy."  And through the "tools of introspection," we can subjectively see our own mental images or ask other people to report their mental images to us.  But we cannot see the process by which observable neuroanatomy creates subjective introspection.  We see correlation but not causation.

In his experiment with the 40 people asked to create feelings of happiness, sadness, fear, and anger, he could see the PET brain images, but he could not see their conscious feelings, because he had to rely on the people to report to him what they were feeling.

In his book, Damasio admits that there is a "knowledge gap" here (208).  He observes:
"The mind level of biological phenomena has additional specifications that are not present at the neural-map level.  I hope a reductionist research strategy eventually will allow us to explain how we get from the 'neural-map' level to the 'mental' level, although the mental level will not 'reduce to' the neural-map level because it possesses emergent properties created from the neural-map level.  There is nothing magic about those emergent properties, but there is a lot that remains mysterious, given our massive ignorance of what they may involve" (325).
As I have indicated in my posts on the evolutionary emergence of the mind in the brain, I agree that there is nothing magic here, but I also agree that there is some mystery as long as we cannot explain exactly the natural process by which the observable brain causes the subjective mind.

The biblical creationist might say that the only way to resolve this mystery of consciousness is to see that the conscious human mind is the creation of God in His image.  But as I have indicated in another post (here), this falls into the fallacy of explaining a mystery through an even greater mystery.

The second problem for Damasio's Spinozist neurobiology is the possibility that any materialist science that sees the human mind as the product of mindless evolution becomes self-refuting.  (I have written about this here.)  Damasio never recognizes this problem.

One of the best arguments for theism is that the theistic doctrine of the human mind as created by God in His image provides the necessary support for believing in the validity of human thought, including the validity of modern science. If we embrace Naturalism--the view that nothing exists except Nature, and so there is no transcendent Creator God--we are caught in self-contradiction: if human thought originated not from a divine Mind but from the irrational causes of Nature, then we cannot trust our minds as reliable, and thus we cannot trust our belief in Naturalism. Naturalism destroys itself by destroying the rationality of believing in Naturalism, or anything else. Insofar as science--including evolutionary biological science--depends on the validity of human thought, and insofar as theism is the indispensable support for trusting in the validity of human thought, science is not only compatible with theism, science depends upon theism.

Natural selection rewards adaptive behavior and punishes maladaptive behavior. But natural selection does not care about the truth or falsity of an animal's beliefs. If beliefs produce adaptive behavior, they will be rewarded by natural selection regardless of whether the beliefs are true or false. Therefore, the evolution of adaptive behavior in our prehistoric ancestors did not guarantee or make it probable that our cognitive faculties would be reliable in generating mostly true beliefs.  Even Damasio admits that as produced by evolution, the brain is not a passive mirror of objective reality, because it constructs its own images of the world to serve the evolved purposes of survival and reproduction (199-209).

The weak link in this reasoning, however, is the assumption that adaptive behavior is completely unrelated to true belief. On the contrary, the evidence of evolutionary history suggests that evolution produces cognitive faculties that are reliable but fallible. The mental abilities of animals, including human beings, are fallible because evolution produces adaptations that are good enough for survival and reproduction but not perfect, and this results in the mental fallibility that is familiar to us.

Despite this fallibility, the mental faculties cannot be absolutely unreliable. In the evolution of animals,adaptive behavior requires accurate indicators. So, for example, a frog must have sensory equipment that allows him to accurately detect flies so that he can catch them with his tongue.  The waggle dance of bees must convey accurate information to other bees. Similarly, the immune system of the human body must accurately indicate the presence of foreign bodies and then accurately devise responses to destroy the invaders.

For those animals who develop some capacity for conscious reasoning--and most preeminently human beings--the accuracy of this conscious reasoning will be important for adaptation. The highest mental capacities of human beings are so biologically expensive in terms of the investment of energy they consume that it is implausible that evolution would have produced them unless they improved the ability of human beings to track the truth about themselves and their environment. Again, this is going to be fallible, but it's implausible that human beings could be naturally evolved for being in a state of complete and perpetual delusion.  These reliable but fallible cognitive capacities can then be appropriated for scientific research, which must include methods to minimize those evolved biases that impede our accurate perception of the world, an important theme for Spinoza.

The third problem for Damasio's Spinozist neurobiology is whether it can account for and satisfy the human need for spirituality and religious salvation.  Damasio does recognize this problem (267-89).

If Spinoza is right about the essence of human nature being the natural striving for self-preservation, then we might expect that when we confront the reality of suffering and death, we naturally strive to escape that vulnerability and mortality in achieving some enduring if not eternal joy in our lives and the lives of those we love.  Our striving for self-preservation becomes a striving for salvation.

Spinoza identifies two ways to human salvation--one for the many common people (the vulgus), and the other for the philosophic few.  For the common people, salvation can come only through faith in biblical revelation:
". . . I judge the utility, even necessity, of Sacred Scripture, or revelation, to be very great.  We can't perceive by the natural light that simple obedience is a path to salvation.  Only revelation teaches that this happens, by a special grace of God, which we cannot grasp by reason.  It follows that Scripture has brought great comfort to mortals.  Everyone, without exception, can obey.  But only a few (compared with the whole human race) acquire a habit of virtue from the guidance of reason alone.  So, if we didn't have this testimony of Scripture, we would doubt nearly everyone's salvation" (TPT xv.44).
For this reason, Spinoza did not want common people to read his books, because this would do them no good (TTP, pref. 34).  He wrote his books in Latin and discouraged any translations into Dutch, because he wanted to be read only by those few learned people who could read Latin.

The philosophic few could not take the first way to salvation, because they accepted the truth of human mortality, and thus they could not believe in salvation through resurrection to eternal life with God.

For the philosophic few, there was a second way to salvation--what Spinoza at the end of The Ethics called  "the mind's intellectual love of God," which induces that fullest satisfaction of the mind that is felt as Joy, and which is eternal (V, prop. 34-42).  When I first read The Ethics in Cropsey's class, I struggled to understand what this means.  I still do.

If atheism is the denial of the existence of God or of anything divine, then Spinoza was not an atheist, because he does affirm the existence of God (Ethics I, p. 11). Spinoza denied the common charge that he was an atheist.

But if atheism is denial of the existence of a personal God, who cares for human beings, who listens to prayers, who reveals Himself miraculously to human beings, who demands obedience to His law, and who rewards and punishes human beings in an eternal afterlife, then Spinoza was an atheist.

One can say for sure that Spinoza's God is an absolutely infinite being that is the first cause--the uncaused cause--of all things, that it is a being that human beings can love, and that this love of God is the greatest human good, although in loving God, human beings cannot expect God to love them in return.

Spinoza's phrase "God or Nature" (Deus sive Natura) has led some people to say that Spinoza is a pantheist who identifies the whole universe as divine (IV, pref., p. 4).  But then Spinoza says that God as first cause is to be identified with "nature naturing" (Natura naturans) rather than "nature natured" (Natura naturata) (I, p. 29).  And yet he also says that he does not separate God from nature as other philosophers do (letter 6).  (Is "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence Spinoza's God?)

Spinoza seems to be affirming a secular or naturalistic religiosity based on a religious feeling of awe, love, or joy in contemplating the order of nature, but without any sense of a personal God.  As Damasio indicates, this was most powerfully affirmed by Albert Einstein, who said that his God was Spinoza's God.  He described the religious feeling of the "profounder sort of scientific minds" as taking "the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection."  He described this feeling as "a sort of intoxicated joy and amazement at the beauty and grandeur of this world, of which man can form just a faint notion.  This joy is the feeling from which true scientific research draws its spiritual sustenance, but which also seems to find expression in the song of birds."  This might be what Spinoza meant by amor intellectualis Dei.

And what can a neurobiologist like Damasio say about this?  At the very least, he observes, "the spiritual is a particular kind of feeling state. . . . a particular state of the organism, a delicate combination of certain body configurations and certain mental configurations" (286).

But if Spinoza is right, these religious feelings in the brain do not point to any transcendent reality beyond nature.

In my copy of the Elwes translation of Spinoza's Ethics that was the text for Cropsey's class, I wrote this note in the margin of the text for Part 5, proposition 30: "On the intellectual love of God, compare Lucretius: 'it is true piety to be able to contemplate all things with a calm mind' (5.1205)."

Is that enough for our salvation--at least for those few like Einstein who can feel joy in contemplating the beautiful order of a natural world that is joyful in being intelligible to our minds, although it does not care for or about us, so that we can love it without expecting to be loved in return?

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Darwinian Neurobiology Supports Spinoza: Self-Preservation, Freedom of Philosophizing, and Lockean Liberalism

In the fall of 1972, I was in the second year of my graduate work in political science at the University of Chicago; and I was a student in Joseph Cropsey's course on Benedict de Spinoza's Ethics.  I wrote a paper for the course entitled "Spinoza on Preservation," which I typed on my manual Smith-Corona typewriter, using "white-out" to correct my mistakes.  (You millennials out there might have seen an ancient typewriter in a museum or in some old movies.) 

My grade for the paper was A-.  Cropsey had a bad habit of slipping with his pen and leaving a minus mark after writing an A.  (I have written some posts on Cropsey herehere, and here.)

I recently found this yellowed paper in an old file of papers and notes on Spinoza, and I read it for the first time in 45 years.  I was surprised by three discoveries.  First, I was surprised to see how much of my thinking in Darwinian Natural Right and other writings included ideas from Spinoza--particularly, the principle that the good is the desirable as rooted in the evolved biological nature of human beings.

My second discovery was noticing how much of what Spinoza said about the human mind as the activity of the human body and brain has been confirmed by research in neurobiology over the past 40 years, which is the argument of Antonio Damasio in Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (Harcourt, 2003).  In writing Darwinian Natural Right, I was influenced by an earlier book by Damasio--Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (Putnam's Sons, 1994)--in which he shows that neurobiology refutes Kant's claim that morality depends on pure reason without emotion, and supports Hume's claim that morality depends on reason but also on the moral emotions that arise in the brain to guide us to survival and well-being as social animals.

My third discovery was seeing how Spinoza had formulated most of the foundational ideas for John Locke and the modern liberalism that Locke initiated.  This became especially clear to me recently when I read Wim Klever's unpublished paper "Locke's Disguised Spinozism," which is available online.  To support his assertion that Locke's thinking in The Essay Concerning Human Understanding, The Two Treatises of Government, and The Letter on Toleration derives from his reading of Spinoza, Klever places quotations from Spinoza and Locke side by side to show Locke's borrowing from Spinoza's thought and language. 

When Bishop Stillingfleet accused Locke of "Spinozism" in presenting Revelation as a product of human imagination, Locke responded: "I am not so well read in Hobbes and Spinoza to be able to say what were their opinions in this matter."  But as Klever indicates, the persecution of Spinoza--his reputation as a dangerous atheist, his expulsion from the Synagogue by the Amsterdam Sephardic rabbis, and the suppression of Spinoza's books--would explain why Locke, who himself lived in fear of being arrested and beheaded for his subversive writing, would need to hide his adoption of Spinozist ideas.

This has led me into thinking about how Spinoza's account of the biological nature of self-preservation supports Lockean liberal thought, and of how this might be confirmed by modern Darwinian neurobiology.  I also thought about how the empirical evidence for human progress over the past two centuries might show that the increasing freedom brought by Spinozist and Lockean liberalism has indeed increased the survival and well-being of human beings around the world.

Damasio says that when he was young, he read Spinoza and copied a quotation that he liked.  Years later, he renewed his interest in Spinoza when he decided to check the accuracy of the quotation that he had kept on a yellowed piece of paper.  He found it in The Ethics:  "the foundation of virtue is this very striving to preserve one's own being, and that happiness consists in man's being able to preserve his being" (IV, prop. 18, schol.)

As he continued reading The Ethics, Damasio found a second quotation that appealed to him as a neurobiologist who explains the human mind as the expression of the brain's mappings of the body's striving for survival and well-being: "The object of the idea constituting the human Mind is the Body" (II, prop. 13).  In my next post, I will probe this Spinozist neurophysiology of the mind as grounded in the body, in contrast to the Cartesian separation of the immaterial mind and the material body as two substances.

The first quotation points to how the biological striving to preserve one's own being provides the natural ground for the liberal understanding of the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as rooted in biological self-ownership.  Damasio observes:
". . . It is an affirmation that at the base of whatever rules of behavior we may ask humanity to follow, there is something inalienable: A living organism, known to its owner because the owner's mind has constructed a self, has a natural tendency to preserve its own life; and that same organism's state of optimal functioning, subsumed by the concept of joy, results from the successful endeavor to endure and prevail.  Paraphrased in deeply American terms, I would rewrite Spinoza's proposition as follows: I hold these truths to be self-evident, that all humans are created such that they tend to preserve their life and seek well-being, that their happiness comes from the successful endeavor to do so, and that the foundation of virtue rests on these facts.  Perhaps these resonances are not a coincidence" (170-71).
Spinoza recognizes that grounding virtue in the natural concern for oneself will be criticized by those who believe "that this principle--that everyone is bound to seek his own advantage--is the foundation, not of virtue and morality, but of immorality"--the immorality of selfish individualism (IV.prop. 13, school.).  His response to this criticism is to argue that since human beings are naturally social animals who need the cooperation of others, "to man, then, there is nothing more useful than man," and man "can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that all should so agree in all things that the Minds and Bodies of all should strive together, as far as they can, preserve their being; and that all, together, should seek for themselves the common advantage of all."  Therefore, those men who are governed by reason in seeking their own advantage "want nothing for themselves that they do not desire for other men." 

This striving to leave in peaceful mutual cooperation with others is an extension of the striving to preserve oneself.  Evolutionary theorists today recognize this as showing the evolved propensity for cooperation based on kinship, mutual aid, and reciprocity.  The propensity to reciprocity includes the right to punish cheaters who are not trustworthy cooperators.

In the state of nature without government, human beings can enforce the natural law of cooperation by rewarding those who are cooperative and punishing those who cheat or aggressively attack others; and thus the state of nature can be a state of peace. But since many people are not rational enough to obey this natural law, the state of nature can become a state of war.  To escape this state of war, people can consent to a government to secure their natural rights through enforcing formal laws for peaceful cooperation and the punishment of aggressors.  Government thus rests on a social contract.

Hobbes had also argued for government being based ultimately on consent, but the difference between Hobbes and Spinoza was that unlike Hobbes, as Spinoza said, "I always preserve natural right unimpaired" (letter 50).  Even when they live under an established government, people have a natural right to resist oppression, and when government becomes too oppressive, it will so provoke the people that they will rebel and seek a new government better designed for their safety and happiness.

Another difference from Hobbes is that Spinoza, in The Political Treatise, ranked monarchy as the least desirable form of government, aristocracy as a better form of government, and democracy as the best.  Spinoza was thus the first major philosopher to clearly and forcefully endorse democracy as the best form of government.  He conceded, however, that in certain historical circumstances monarchy could be best for a society.

Spinoza suggested that the fundamental principle of politics is that the power of political leaders depends on their having the support of what some political scientists today call a "minimum winning coalition." (I have written about that here.)  No ruler can rule alone.  Even an absolute dictator needs a small coalition of powerful people who are loyal to him, and so the dictator must do everything necessary to win and maintain their loyalty.  Consequently, the private interest of the dictator's small coalition of supporters is advanced at the expense of the public interest of the people at large, and that provokes resentment among the people who will become rebellious.  For that reason, the larger the minimum winning coalition supporting a government, the more powerful it is.  Democracy approaches being the most absolute form of government.

Spinoza saw a liberal democracy as the best form of government, because it is "the most  natural state," "the one which approached most nearly the freedom nature concedes to everyone" (Theological-Political Treatise, xvi, 36).  This idea that a modern liberal democracy approaches the freedom that human beings enjoyed in the state of nature of human hunter-gatherer ancestors has been part of my argument for the evolution of Darwinian liberalism.

Another difference from Hobbes is that while Hobbes denied that there was any highest good (summum bonum) for life (Leviathan xi, 1), Spinoza affirmed that the philosophic or scientific life of understanding the laws of nature was the perfection of our nature and thus our highest end, and that a liberal democracy that cultivates the arts and sciences and secures the freedom for philosophizing allows those few human beings capable of such philosophizing to achieve that highest human life (TTP iv, 9-12).  (Locke agreed that "the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness" [ECHU 2.21.51].)

The Dutch Republic had moved far towards such intellectual freedom--providing refuge for people like Locke--but still, as Spinoza's life indicated, even the Dutch Republic put some limits on freedom of thought and expression.  Spinoza's primary aim was to promote the future achievement of a "free republic" where "everyone is permitted to think what he wishes and to say what he thinks" (TTP xx). 

So while Spinoza's life did illustrate what Leo Strauss saw as "persecution and the art of writing," Spinoza foresaw that the future triumph of liberalism would secure a liberty for the philosophic life that would make esoteric writing unnecessary.  I have argued for this in some posts  here and here.  I have also argued, against Strauss and the Straussians, that this shows how the bourgeois virtues of a liberal open society include the moral and intellectual virtues of  the highest human excellence (here).

In a series of posts in November and December of 2016, I surveyed the empirical evidence for human progress through the Liberal Enlightenment of the past two centuries.  We have more freedom--both personal freedom and economic freedom--that has promoted human survival and well-being more fully than ever before in human history.  We have more lives and longer lives.  Life is healthier.  Life is richer and less impoverished. Life shows more equality of opportunity.  There is more freedom for people to think what they wish and to say what they think.

Spinoza was right.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Von Economo Neurons: The Neural Basis for Self-Awareness, Social Awareness, and the Moral Sense?

In the summer of 1996, I participated in a Summer Institute on the Biology of Human Nature at Dartmouth College, directed by Roger Masters and Robert Perlman.  At the time, I was finishing my book manuscript Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature; and this Summer Institute helped me think through many of the questions for the book, including the fundamental question of the biological basis for the human mind and morality.

We spent one afternoon at a human dissection lab at Dartmouth Medical School, where a professor of neurology guided us in our dissection of two human brains.  We talked about how the human brain compares with the brains of other animals.  And we asked what might make the human brain unique.  As we sliced up these brains, I remember asking myself: Where's the soul?  How does the soul or mind arise in the evolution of the brain?

At one point, the neurology professor suggested that part of the answer as to the uniqueness of the human brain might be special neurons--particularly, "spindle neurons" that seem to facilitate fast communication across distant neural networks in the large human brain, neurons that are found only in certain areas of the human brain and possibly in some other primate brains.  Looking back on this, I assume that the professor had read a recently published article on spindle neurons in the human anterior cingulate cortex (Nimchinsky et al. 1995).

I was intrigued by this, and I wanted to learn more.  But as far as I could tell, there wasn't much research on these spindle neurons.  Only recently, have I discovered that over the past 15 years there has been intense study of these neurons.  Although the conclusions remain very speculative, there is evidence that these neurons provide some of the neural basis for human self-awareness, social awareness, and the moral sense.

As I have often argued on this blog--most recently in response to Roger Scruton's claim that biological science cannot study the human mind--this sort of research shows how evolutionary biologists can explain the evolutionary emergence of the human mind in the primate brain and body, although the inward experience of subjective self-awareness will always remain somewhat mysterious.

A Cartoon of Von Economo (Spindle) Neurons with Only a Single Dendrite Compared with Pyramidal Neurons with Many Dendrites

The mystery is that while each of us has direct access to our own subjective consciousness, we cannot directly observe the conscious experience of anyone else.  So when neuroscientists put someone in a functional MRI brain scanning machine, the scientists can see what parts of the brain light up in the brain images as indicating neural activity, but they cannot see what the person is thinking or feeling, and so they must ask that person to report what he or she was thinking or feeling. The scientists can then infer that the observed patterns of neural activity are somehow correlated with the reported thoughts and feelings.

Scientists have observed that the anterior insular cortex (AIC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) on both sides of the brain are jointly active in most functional imaging studies, and that the AIC supports emotional feelings, self-awareness, and social awareness.  Moreover, they have observed that these two parts of the brain have a high concentration of spindle neurons that are not found anywhere else in the brain, except for small numbers in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Spindle neurons are also called von Economo neurons (VENs), because Constantin von Economo provided the first comprehensive description of these neurons in 1925 (Seeley et al. 2012).  It was not until the end of the 20th century, however, that comparative neurologists began to study VENs as special neurons that might be part of what explains the evolutionary uniqueness of the human mind.

VENs appear in the brains of only a few species.  They are present in gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees, and orangutans, although in numbers smaller than for humans.  They are also found in the brains of whales, dolphins, and elephants.  Thus, VENs are associated with species that have large brains, which suggests the possibility that VENs facilitate speedy communication of neural signals over neural networks scattered over large brains.  VENs are also associated with species that have complex social lives and that show mirror self-awareness (recognizing themselves in mirrors).  This supports the speculation that VENs allow animals to self-consciously navigate successfully through complex social interactions.  This fits with the "social brain hypothesis" of Robin Dunbar--the idea that the evolution of large and complex brains arose primarily as an adaptation for the mental challenges of social life (Allman et al. 2010; Bauernfeind et al. 2013; Cauda et al. 2014; Chen 2009; Craig 2015, pp. 217-19; Dunbar and Shultz 2007).  (I have written a post on Dunbar's presentation of his theory at the 2013 conference of the Mont Pelerin Society in the Galapagos Islands.)

Allman et al. (2010, pp. 496-97) have argued that the VENs in the anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex are activated either by social error--by some defect in an individual's social network--or by social success--by some satisfying experience in a social network:
". . . For example, these structures are activated by resentment (Sanfey et al. 2003), deception (Spence et al. 2001), embarrassment (Berthoz et al. 2002), and guilt (Shin et al. 2000).  They are also activated by feelings of empathy for the suffering of others, another type of social error signal (Singer et al. 2004).  In mothers, FI in the right hemisphere responds to the crying of distressed infants (Lorberbaum et al. 2002), which is a powerful social error signal.  The anterior insula (including both superior and inferior components) was activated when partners in the prisoner's dilemma game failed to reciprocate cooperative moves made by the subject, which is a type of social error signal (Rilling et al. 2008).  Anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex are also activated by pro-social signals, such as love and trust (Bartels and Zeki 2004; Singer et al. 2004), which suggests that these structures register both negative and positive aspects of the states of social networks.  The responses of FI and LA are parametrically related to how humorous subjects judge cartoons to be; the humorous content of the cartoons typically involved social errors (Watson et al. 2007)."
Here the VENs are associated with the moral emotions of social life such as guilt, shame, resentment, sympathy, love, and a sense of humor.

There are few VENs in human infants at birth.  The number of VENs increases rapidly during the first eight months of life, and they reach adult numbers at about four years of age.  The number is extremely variable between individuals, which might explain individual variability in the acuteness of self-awareness and social awareness (Allman et al. 2011).

Another way to infer the functional activity of VENs is to notice how the degeneration of VENs leads to distinctive kinds of mental disorders.  For example, early behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia arises from the degeneration of VENs in the anterior insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.  People with frontotemporal dementia suffer a breakdown in their social character, showing a loss of self-conscious emotional control, social empathy, and emotional self-awareness.  They become insensitive, erratic, and irresponsible in ways that can destroy their social lives by breaking up their family lives and their professional careers.  This can be seen as additional evidence for seeing the evolution of VENs in humans as part of the evolution of the social brain (Kim et al. 2012).

Seeing people with severe forms of mental disorder like frontotemporal dementia is disturbing, because it raises the question of whether they have lost their souls, from having lost the neural activity that supports the self-awareness, social awareness, and moral sense that constitute the healthy human mind.

VENs seem to be a crucial part of that neural activity, and therefore the evolution of VENs must be part of the emergent evolution of the mind in the primate brain.

Some of my other posts on the evolution of the mind can  be found hereherehere, and here.

Most of the research that I have reported here relies heavily on brain imaging.  I have argued against the fallacy of seeing brain imaging as mind reading herehere, and here.


Allman, John, et al. 2010. "The von Economo Neurons in Frontoinsular and Anterior Cingulate Cortex in Great Apes and Humans." Brain Structure and Function 214:495-517.

Allman, John, et al. 2011. "The von Economo Neurons in the Frontoinsular and Anterior Cingulate Cortex." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1225:59-71.

Bartels, A., and S. Zeki. 2004. "The Neural Correlates of Maternal and Romantic Love." Neuroimage 21:1155-1166.

Bauernfeind, Amy L., et al. 2013. "A Volumetric Comparison of the Insular Cortex and Its Subregions in Primates." Journal of Human Evolution 64:263-79.

Berthoz, S., et al. 2002. "An fMRI Study of Intentional and Unintentional (Embarrassing) Violations of Social Norms." Brain 125:1696-1708.

Cauda, Franco, et al. 2013. "Functional Anatomy of Cortical Areas Characterized by Von Economo Neurons." Brain Structure and Function 218:1-20.

Chen, Ingfei. 2009. "Brain Cells for Socializing." Smithsonian Magazine, June 2009.

Craig, Arthur D. (Bud). 2015. How Do You Feel? An Interoceptive Moment with Your Neurobiological Self. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dunbar, Robin, and S. Shultz. 2007. "Evolution in the Social Brain." Science 317:1344-1347.

Kim, Eun-Joo, et al. 2012. "Selective Frontoinsular von Economo Neuron and Fork Cell Loss in Early Behavioral Variant Frontotemporal Dementia." Cerebral Cortex 22:251-59.

Lorberbaum, J.P., et al. 2002. "A Potential Role for Thalamocingulate Circuitry in Human Maternal Behavior." Biological Psychiatry 51:431-45.

Nimchinsky, E. A., et al. 1995. "Spindle Neurons of the Human Anterior Cingulate Cortex." Journal of Comparative Neurology 355:27-37.

Rilling, J., et al. 2008. "Neural Correlates of the Affective Response to Unreciprocated Cooperation." Neuropsychologia 46:1265-1266.

Sanfey, A. G., et al. 2003. "The Neural Basis of Economic Decision-Making in the Ultimatum Game." Science 300:1755-1758.

Seeley, William W., et al. 2012. "Distinctive Neurons of the Anterior Cingulate and Frontoinsular Cortex: A Historical Perspective." Cerebral Cortex 22:245-50.

Shin, L. M., et al. 2000. "Activation of Anterior Paralimbic Structures During Guilt-Related Script-Driven Imagery." Biological Psychiatry 48:43-50.

Singer, T., et al. 2004. "Brain Responses to the Acquired Moral Status of Faces." Neuron 41:653-62.

Spence, S. A., et al. "Behavioural and Functional Anatomical Correlates of Deception in Humans." NeuroReport 12:2849-2853.

Watson, K. K., et al. 2007. "Brain Activation During Sight Gags and Language-Dependent Humor." Cerebral Cortex 17:314-24.

Friday, December 08, 2017

The Progressive View of Presidential Leadership in Claremont Trumpism

The current issue of The New York Review of Books (December 21, 2017) has an article by Jacob Heilbrunn on "Donald Trump's Brains" that identifies the Straussian conservatives associated with the Claremont Institute as the intellectuals with the most influence in the Trump administration.  As its name indicates, The Claremont Review of Books has always tried to be the right-wing alternative to The New York Review of Books.  It is remarkable, therefore, that this article in the New York Review includes a large reproduction of the cover of the spring 2016 issue of the Claremont Review, with its picture of Donald Trump, under the title "Lights. Camera. Faction!"

Heilbrunn gives an accurate account of how the West-Coast Straussians of the Claremont Institute have adopted Trump as their leader.  He fails, however, to notice the fundamental contradiction in their position.  He correctly identifies the Claremont argument that America needs to return to the principles of the American constitutional founding that have been eroded through the corrupting influence of American progressive thought beginning with Woodrow Wilson.  But he does not notice how their support for Trump's populist leadership depends upon their adopting the progressive view of the president as a "man of the people" whose leadership must transcend the checks and balances of the founders' Constitution.

Heilbrunn does not comment on the picture of Trump on the cover of the Claremont Review:  Trump has the crown of a monarch on his head!  This suggestion that the American president can and should have the royal prerogative powers of a monarch contradicts the argument of the American founders that the president as constrained by the Constitution does not have monarchic powers (as indicated, for example, in The Federalist number 67).  But this does conform to the claim of the American progressives like Woodrow Wilson that the Constitution was flawed in establishing a "leaderless democracy," and that the president needed to break free of the constitutional system in exercising populist leadership.

Moreover, Heibrunn does not notice that this progressivist view of presidential leadership is defended by Charles Kesler in that spring 2016 issue of the Claremont Review.  Kesler speaks of Trump as a "strong leader" in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.  Kesler quotes Wilson's claim that "the President is at liberty to be as big a man as he can," and he quotes Wilson's declaration that "the personal force of the President is perfectly constitutional to any extent which he chooses to exercise it."  Kesler observes: "'Personal force'--not far from Trump's praise of high energy, toughness, and strength in the ideal chief executive."

Kesler praises Trump for taking "a tough position in tough terms." After all, Kesler observes, "every republic essentially faces what might be called the Weimar problem.  Has the national culture, popular and elite, deteriorated so much that the virtues necessary to sustain republican government are no longer viable?"  In such times, the nation needs a "strong leader."

Thus, Kesler implies that Trump is doing for the United States what Adolf Hitler did for Germany.  Hitler promised to make Germany great again.  Like Weimar Germany, the United States needs someone "to be as big a man as he can."  After all, as Trump has said, in one of his favorite quotations from Mussolini, "it is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep."

Oddly, in affirming the need for a President acting as a "strong leader" who is free "to be as big a man as he can," Kesler, the West-coast Straussian, seems to be agreeing with Harvey Mansfield, the East-coast Straussian, who has asserted the need for Presidents who  show the "manly nihilism" of "one-man rule."

If this follows from the teaching of Leo Strauss, then Will Altman was right to argue that Strauss was promoting Nazism, because he saw classical liberalism as so decadent that it needed the spirited manliness of Nazism--or  Donald Trump--to save it.  One of the writers at the Journal of American Greatness, in an article on "Paleo-Straussianism," has said of Strauss that "the philosophic mind he admired the most belonged to a Nazi."  Altman has argued that Strauss's praise for Martin Heidegger and his refusal to repudiate Heidegger's Nazism is good evidence for Strauss's acceptance of Nazism, or at least some radically illiberal alternative to the liberal regime.

Altman cited Strauss's comments about how every healthy society must be a "closed society" rather than an "open society."  The Trumpist Straussians seem to conform to this  by agreeing with Trump's claim that to make America great again, America must become a closed society not open to Muslims and immigrants from non-European countries.

And yet, contrary to the Claremont Institute's progressive view of presidential leadership, which would allow Trump "to be as big a man as he can," the first year of Trump's presidency has shown that the constitutional limits on presidential power have frustrated Trump's hopes for one-man rule.  In a recent New York Times article, it is reported: "Mr. Trump's difficult adjustment to the presidency, people close to him say, is rooted in an unrealistic expectation of its powers, which he had assumed to be more akin to the popular image of imperial command than the sloppy reality of having to coexist with two other branches of government."

It is said that in his first few months in office, Trump regularly barked commands at Senators.  But then, in one meeting, Senator Bob Corker snapped back: "I don't work for you, Mr. President."  In another meeting, Trump repeatedly cut in while Senator Mitch McConnell was making an elaborate presentation on the complexity of health care, until McConnell told the President: "Don't interrupt me."

So maybe the constitutional system of checks and balances really does work as it was intended by the framers to frustrate populist demagogues like Trump.  And maybe we will see that when Trump is impeached or forced to resign.

(In this post, I have used some passages from a previous post.)