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So in my last blog posts we learned about the role of heredity in determining behavior and the non-affect of parenting and the family environment on behavioral traits.  But most of us feel we are in control of ourselves (I suppose except when it comes to the “scars” parents leave with us that shape our behavior). But it turns out like the effect of parenting, the notion of free will is an illusion.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine has written an article in The Atlantic detailing insights on the brain and behavior:

The Brain on Trial
Advances in brain science are calling into question the volition behind many criminal acts. A leading neuroscientist describes how the foundations of our criminal-justice system are beginning to crumble, and proposes a new way forward for law and order.

As he shows, what has been thought of as “free will”, the uncaused cause, simply does not exist. All human behavior is the result of physical processes that occur in the brain. But even more poignant is that despite the brain’s awesome complexity, it behaves in some fairly predictable ways. The most basic evidence of this is the fact that people have personalities; we all have certain tendencies and semi-predictable responses to certain situations. Our behavior is far from completely random. Even more concretely, we have evidence from the sciences of behavioral genetics, which finds that all behaviors are heavily influenced by the genes; cognitive neuroscience, which finds that our thoughts and emotions can be traced electrical and chemical activity in the brain; and pharmacy, which finds that personality and behaviors can be altered by the introduction of drugs.  And of course, there is the (apparently somewhat exaggerated) story of Phineas Gage.

As such, none of us have any real control over our behavior, our emotions, even our thoughts—though our brains are designed to make us believe that we in fact do. Indeed, we may consciously deliberate over our actions, but even this is just the dueling between different parts of the brain, such as between the limbic system that may urge one to pick up a box of jelly donuts, and the prefontal cortex that weighs the consequences and compels one to put it down. Whatever portion of the brain which “wins” leads us to commit a given action, be it to indulge or to pass. Meanwhile, the social part of our brain concocts a story about our reasons for committing this action, leading us to believe “we” (the self) were in control all along. You don’t control your brain; your brain controls you. And much of what it does is often hidden and mysterious to you.

Even more significant is that different brains are built differently, and we all vary in the strength and the proclivities of these different systems. As such, what is a reasonable action to one might be totally alien to another.

Yet in many ways, our society—including our justice system and the libertarian concept of “personal responsibility”—is built on the idea that we indeed do have full control. Even beyond expecting people to not kill or steal, society expects overweight people to “eat right,” smokers, drinkers, and drug addicts to use “will power” and quit, people in relationships to resist temptation and stay faithful, and often expects people with depressed moods to soldier on and “take control” of their lives.

Clearly this is foolhardy, because despite a myriad of different diets, despite berating, humiliation, warnings about our health, and despite Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, people continue to become overweight and obese in increasing numbers. Despite a decades-long “War on Drugs”, people continue to get high. Despite ever increasing taxes and restrictions on smoking, people continue to light up. And despite destroyed careers and arduous public scandals, people (mostly men) continue to cheat.

Each of these can be traced to particulars of the brains in people that engage in them, all being highly heritable. Indeed, as we’ve seen, adult BMI has been found to be 80% heritable. And recent research has made some amazing discoveries into the brains of some people who chronically overeat; they are indeed “food addicts,” and respond to food much the same way as a smoker’s does to cigarettes or how an alcoholic’s does to booze.

Indeed, here’s a short list of some of the genes that have been discovered to influence behavior:

OXTR (Oxytocin-Receptor): The “Kindness gene”: people with the “GG” alleles are “generally judged as more empathetic, trusting and loving. Those with AG or AA genotypes tend to say they feel less positive overall, and feel less parental sensitivity.”

BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor): The shorter allele has been found to be linked to suicidal behavior, possibly because they take longer to recover from highly adverse experiences.

5-HHT: Serotonin transporter gene:  Individuals with the shorter alleles of this genes are at risk for depression when they experience periods of prolonged stress.  Part of the “Orchid hypothesis,” that some individuals have evolved to prosper only in specific environments, but fall apart if not properly cared for (this hypothesis will be the subject of a future post).

Vassopressin receptor gene:  Men who have one the shorter versions of the gene are less satisfied with one female partner and are inclined to seek out more (as most of the rest of the class Mammalia does). Men with one of the longer versions stay true to one woman.

MAOA (monoamine oxidase-A): The “warrior gene,” men with one the shorter alleles have been shown to be more prone to violence, particularly when abused as children (although I suspect that that due to a gene-gene interaction rather than a gene-environment one).

And of course, the effects of these genes by themselves are only probabilistic in nature; they need to be taken in the context of the entire genome; i.e., they are impacted by other genes.  The DRD4 (Dopamine receptor D4), gene, a gene that has been linked to all sorts of novelty seeking behaviors (also known as the “Wanderlust/Thrillseeking” gene), links to behaviors including…

  • Gambling
  • Alcoholism
  • Drug use
  • ADD
  • Impulsivity
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior.

…only seems to exhibit such effects in certain samples and not others, suggesting that other mediating genes also play a role.

As well, some of these genes, such as 5-HHT, show distinct environmental interactions.  But even an “environmental” source of behavior doesn’t imply the existence of free will.  Either it be by genetic specification or by the impact of experience, the brain is still compelled to act according to its present composition, regardless of how such composition came about.

Note that most of these genes code for interactions with important neurotransmitters and hormones.  Neurotransmitters are—in a manner of speaking—the juice of emotion; they are chemicals that act in the brain and nervous system to promote certain emotional states.  Dopamine for example is the brain’s natural high, and any gene that affects it (and other neurotransmitters) affects the reward system in the brain, and promotes or inhibits certain behaviors.  Oxytocin is the “love hormone,” and is responsible for long-term emotional bonding, such as between parent and child and between partners in long-term relationships, among other things.

In the case of cheating men, a gene for the receptors for the hormone vasopressin seems to be at play. So, indeed, it turns out that the reason that men like Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Jesse James, and Tiger Woods stray is highly similar to the reason that Jim McGreevy, Ted Haggard, and Larry Craig committed their acts; they are “oriented” that way.

Indeed, the word “orientation” betrays the way we think about sexual behavior.  Its use indicates that today—when it comes to homo- and bisexuality—most of us accept such individuals were “born that way” and can do nothing to alter this aspect about themselves.  Yet we do not extend this notion to men with polygynous preferences.  Nor do we extend that thinking to the chronically overweight, and we barely extend this notion to substance addicts, despite that all are equally heritable, and were all equally “born” the way they are. Asking a man with one of the short copies of the vasopressin receptor gene to stay faithful to one woman is like asking a gay man to do the same. Asking the chronically overweight to “eat right and exercise” is like asking a cocaine addict not to snort up if coke was readily accessible. It simply doesn’t work, and sooner or later, it breaks down if the object of desire is available.

This inability to recognize the differences among ourselves coupled with erroneous the belief in the existence of free will is the central failure of our thought on this matter. What works for one person does not necessarily work for the next person. Yet much of our society—especially our legal system—is built on this one-size-fits-all model, which is simply outdated.

This suggests a new approach to understanding behavior. Much as psychiatrists have given up trying to toughen up the depressed out of their woes or have given up trying to “cure” homosexuality, we should rethink our response to these different behaviors. Society should stop trying to shame the overweight into eating right or exercising or berating their lack of “will power.” We should

come to accept that not all men (and many women) were cut out for monogamy and stop holding them to that expectation (which is why I’m skeptical of those ridiculous “sex rehabs” for cheaters—they are about as sensible as spiritual healing camps for gays).

We should stop waging this wasteful “War on Drugs”—stop locking up the addicted—and instead offer better chemical treatments for the worst addicts.

Of course, none of this means that we should completely do away with the concept of responsibility or stop locking up criminals. To come to this conclusion based on what I am saying would be misunderstanding the true purpose of legal punishment. While we are slaves to our brains, our brains are organic computers that generate outputs based on inputs. The threat of punishment if one breaks to law is one of these inputs that the brain weighs in making decisions. Criminal justice serves as a deterrent, causing people to behave responsibly by letting us know that if we offend, we serve time, maintaining order.

But even with this knowledge, people still commit crimes. This is because brains vary in their ability to process these incentives that lead to responsible behavior. This understanding should alter our justice system based on the idea of willful intent. Instead we should try to focus on the risk of re-offense, as that is truly what is more important when dealing with criminals. This, ultimately, is why it is indeed justified to punish a Winona Rider or a Paris Hilton less severely than one would a more hardened criminal for same crime; a short prison sentence is likely to be a very effective deterrent on these individuals than it would be on a more aggressive thug.

Indeed, the secondary purpose of prison is to keep dangerous people away from law-abiding folks. Killers and thieves are a danger to society and need to be kept somewhere where they cannot harm decent people.

One problem group that falls under this category are pedophiles. Pedophilia is really an “orientation” as is homosexuality—pedophiles are sexually attracted to young children. And as such, it is equally incurable. Yet they can’t be allowed to prey upon children, but prisons are often less-than-effective because it doesn’t address the underlying issue—the pedophilia itself. As Eagleman suggests, newer scientific understanding of the risk of re-offense should be used to decide what we do with them.

The idea of “free will” is an outdated philosophical concept that modern science has rendered meaningless. Yet we continue to base our legal system, our politics, and our approach to vice as if it was the basis of human behavior. Only with coming to terms with its nonexistence can we hope to achieve a more fair and just society with more effective approaches for the problems that ail many of us and the things that cause personal heartache.