Is neuroscience the next “great tragedy of Science”?

The great tragedy of Science —
the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Human behaviour is so complex – and feels so personal – that some thinkers believe that empirical methodologies will never be able to explain it fully, even if “explain” is correctly understood to mean understanding “what” and “how” rather than “why.”

Yet the research keeps coming, and as it does, the likelihood increases that the good kind of reductionism, the kind that uncovers the more basic structures that underlie the more complex, will someday lead to a thorough knowledge of how what we do works – including what we think and feel.

(This is not, please note, the kind of simple-minded super-reductionism that points at a pinch of sodium and a puff of chlorine gas and exclaims “Ecce table salt!” I’m talking about the kind of methodological reductionism that explains how table salt emerges from the chemical interaction of sodium and chlorine. Quite different things, obviously, but some anti-reductionists stubbornly decline to differentiate.)

Some philosophers are caught up in the word games around the language we use to describe what we know. They twist and turn, and sometimes their misunderstanding of science, and in some cases their distrust of its perceived implications, leads them onto sterile epistemological ground from which there is little obvious escape.

I do not share their pessimism. I don’t underestimate the scope of the tasks involved in describing “how people work” in scientific terms, but I’m sanguine about our eventual ability to do so.

Others, prominent among them the theists, are threatened by the encroachment of scientific inquiry into “sacred territory,” into investigations of the physical dynamics of emotion, thought, and morality.

Again, I disagree. I understand that there are people who don’t want to know how magic tricks work, or who don’t care to know the compositional principles behind a Bach fugue. As better writers than I have pointed out often enough already, understanding how something works can add a new kind of beauty, can inspire new levels of awe or wonder, even new love for our fellow creatures.

With this rather too self-indulgent introduction accomplished, I’d like to turn this posting in the direction that motivated it — to two new articles.

One reports the use of brain scans to indicate both how much neural lineage we share with other vertebrates and how our inclination to social behaviours may have a clear genetic basis. The other reviews a book that pinpoints oxytocin as a crucial physical reinforcer of social behaviour. Both articles stress the physical dynamics underlying the emergence of human social interaction.

A new study reported by Science Daily on May 31st shows that “humans, fish and frogs share neural circuits responsible for a diversity of social behavior.”

“There is an ancient circuitry that appears to be involved in social behavior across all vertebrates,” said lead author Hans Hofmann.

Hoffman and a grad student analyzed 12 regions of the brain “responsible for social behavior and decision-making” in 88 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish. They concentrated on the mesolimbic reward system (responsible for prioritizing stimuli) and on the “social behavior network” (a pattern of activity over six related brain parts).

“In these key brain regions, we found remarkable conservation of gene activity across species,” said Hofmann. He believes that the data shows that rather than inventing novel genetic and molecular frameworks for new behaviours, “small tweaks over time” in long-present neural circuits led to new behaviour.

“Vertebrate brains are incredibly diverse, but we are finding the commonalities, even at the level of gene activity,” said Hofmann. “Now we have a framework with which we can ask whether there are molecular universals associated with social behaviors.”

In “Kin and Kindness,” published in the Wall Street Journal on May 25th, Michael Shermer reviews Paul J. Zak’s The Moral Molecule.

In The Moral Molecule, “Zak explains that trust is built through mutually beneficial exchanges that result in higher levels of oxytocin.” He argues that although oxytocin evolved to reinforce pair bonding and attachment in social animals, it also “had the bonus effect of cementing a sense of trust among strangers.”

In one study in Papua New Guinea, Zak measured oxytocin levels in tribal warriors before and after they participated in a ritual dance. Levels after the dance were elevated, providing evidence that group cohesion is aided by biochemical reinforcement.

“Mr. Zak identifies a causal chain from oxytocin to empathy to morality to trust to economic flourishing.” In one trust game study, subjects with higher initial levels of oxytocin were more cooperative and generous. And even the less generous subjects became more generous and cooperative after they were given a nose spray laced with oxytocin.

Both Hoffman’s scans and Zak’s investigations are examples of specific, measurable features of the mechanisms that underlie human behaviour. Studies like these do not pretend to address the subjective experiences that arise from physical processes, yet they do provide further information regarding how we “work” – as well as further evidence that how we “work” is entirely biochemical at its base.

Humans are remarkable creatures, if I may say so myself, but we are not quite so special as to be unique. And while finding similarities in social circuitry with other animals and describing the effects of oxytocin stimulation on social behaviours is obviously a long way from illuminating all of the mechanisms of mind that produce self and sentiment, they are nonetheless more small steps in that direction.

And I, for one, am neither threatened enough by the possible loss of the mystery of human nature to shrink the limits of exploration, nor frustrated enough by the slow pace to declare the task impossible, not at so early a point in the process of discovery.

Will we ever achieve a material understanding of our mental lives? Call me a cock-eyed optimist, ‘cuz I can’t get the idea that we just might out of my head.


2 thoughts on “Is neuroscience the next “great tragedy of Science”?

  1. What is the ultimate goal of neuroscience? From what I have read neuroscience hopes to eventually solve the mind-body problem by reducing all atributes of mind to chemical reactions or even in some distant future into interactions among neutrinos, bosons or indeed some other as yet undiscovered “God Particle”. Attributes of mind like free will, creativity , love and so on will no longer exist as these will have been reduced to some form of chemistry or indeed physics.

    No doubt when the so called “attributes of mind” are fully understood in material terms, it will be possible to synthesise a robot with an IQ 1000 times that of Einstein.Human beings will not be allowed to breed , who has time for “soulless zombies”? Best to have more efficient machines or robots.

    That is how neuroscience will bring on the “scientific Armageddon”. That indeed will be the next “great tragedy of science”

    • The dangers you list are real. But I don’t agree that understanding how something works makes it disappear. The subjective experience persists.

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