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What “Letting People Be Themselves” Means

In Humans as Superorganisms: How Microbes, Viruses, Imprinted Genes, and Other Selfish Entities Shape Our Behavior, Peter Kramer and Paola Bressan present evidence that we are “not unitary individuals,” but rather “collections of human and nonhuman elements that…in an incessant struggle, jointly define who we are.”  The research they highlight challenges those of us who want to “let people be themselves” to explain precisely what we mean by “themselves.”  If people are not unitary individuals, then what could “themselves” refer to?

The notion that we are not unitary individuals is not new.  Quantum physicists have pointed out that every atom of our bodies is entangled with the entire universe, biologists have pointed out that less than 2% of those atoms remain in us for over a year, and psychologists have pointed out that the mechanisms of our cognition typically extend beyond our brains to include scratchpads, musical instruments, calculators, and the Internet.  Kramer and Bressan add merely that our values and preferences—what we call our “soul”—are just as entangled with our environment as are our other aspects.

In my opinion, the most compelling branch of their argument is the one relating to microbes.  Only about 10% of the various types of cells our bodies require to flourish are human.  The rest are microbes.  Although most of the microbe studies cited by Kramer and Bressan were conducted on mice, it seems clear that the decisions humans make—how we vote, whom we marry, whether we commit a crime—depend upon which microbes dominate our internal ecosystem at the time.  Thus, we can lose our identity—the person our friends know us to be may cease to inhabit our bodies—not just through a lobotomy, but also through some combination of antibiotics and probiotics which irreversibly tip the balance of power among the microbes within us.

Such microbes might be called parasites of our bodies, but they cannot be parasites of our selves, for they are an essential part of who we are.  Kramer and Bressan would argue that our rights belong to our entire internal ecosystem, including those microbes.  Laws to protect you must therefore take the form of laws to protect an ecosystem, not necessarily protecting particular microbes, but protecting balance among them.  This sets the stage for shocking reform of our legal system and conception of human rights.

The hypothesis that we are not unitary individuals also seems to entail that our identities/souls can copy into other bodies.  That could happen through transfer of microbes, like spread of a disease, or by imposing environments (e.g. diets or medications) which favor certain kinds of microbes over others.  Just as culture can persist for many generations—maybe even forever—thus might our souls.
Periodic TableThis article responds to the research highlighted by Kramer and Bressan by showing how unitary individuality can exist functionally, if not materially.  Models of evaluative interdependence (e.g. GRIN) mark-out persisting unitary souls much as the periodic table we memorized in chemistry class marks-out persisting unitary elements.  Chemistry focuses on elements rather than particular atoms—it is about the software, rather than the hardware of matter—and the research highlighted by Kramer and Bressan likewise justifies focusing psychology away from the material brains/consciousnesses and toward functional souls.

What is Freedom?

The microbe issue highlights the difference between your soul (i.e. what sets your values and preferences) verses your consciousness.  Suppose a doctor were to replace the values and preferences that manifest in your body with her own values and preferences by gradually shifting the frequencies of different kinds of microbes in your body.  Unlike murder, this procedure would leave no tell-tale corpse—instead, it would leave a person who claims to be you and who will testify in court that the procedure cured him/her of a mental handicap.  That person would have your memories and your consciousness, but it would not have your soul—it would have the soul of the doctor.

Your consciousness and body are the container for your soul.  That container would persist through the doctor’s process of replacing its contents with a sort of clone of herself, but your soul (your values) would not persist—at least not in that particular container.  If you would consider such a process a violation of your freedom—as I assume you would—then you identify with your soul rather than with your consciousness.

Given that you would not identify with the consciousness that would remain in your body, it would be absurd to allow that consciousness to retain rights to vote in elections.  To allow that would produce a government which awards power to whomever can afford to turn the most people into clones of him/herself.  Such a government would be more aristocratic than democratic.  Winning hearts through biological warfare is not the same as winning them through arguments and inspirational speeches.  The former path to power violates freedom, so true democracy must assign voting rights to souls rather than to bodies or consciousnesses—that is admittedly a flaw in democracy as practiced today.

Note that perfecting democracy would require more than merely outlawing medical manipulation of other’s values.  We must also account for accidental replacement of values—especially in bulk, such as with the development of a popular medicine that turns-out to have unforeseen consequences, or the outbreak of a naturally evolved virus that produces the same outcome.  The difficulty here, of course, is that many modern voters may already have been victims of such events, and therefore we might not deserve the voting rights we currently exercise.  How could one sort this out?

At the center of this mess is the problem of determining where in the gradual shift of relative microbe frequencies identity loss has actually occurred.  Are there “tipping points” between relatively stable persistent configurations, or do souls exist across a continuum, coming into existence for but a brief moment before being replaced by another?

This is where I may disagree with Kramer and Bressan.  I see a universe that has tipping points at many levels.  At the subatomic level, there is a tipping point when a bottom quark becomes an up quark.  At the atomic level, there is a tipping point when a hydrogen atom becomes a helium atom.  At the cellular level, there is a tipping point when a stem cell becomes a neuron.  At the ecosystem level, there is a tipping point when a predator becomes a manager.  All of these tipping points divide the universe into unitary functional types (e.g. quark-types, elements, and cell-types).  Evidence that the underlying material mixes and flows in non-unitary ways does not undermine such concepts.

Let’s take elements as an example.  It is plausible that no two atoms of a given element are exactly alike.  Each atom is constantly changing, and may never again be exactly the same as it was at a given point in time.  However, each atom tends to keep returning to something close to an average of what it was in the past, and this average is shared by all other atoms of that element.  One might think of that average configuration as the atom’s home or normal state, even if the atom spends most of its time venturing away from it.

For an atom to transition into another element means for it to pass a tipping point and get a new home.  At the moment of transition, the atom will be far from its new home state, but we nonetheless classify each atom in the entire universe as being of one of the 118 known elements.  We have great faith that the atom will approach one of these remarkably few home states because that’s what other atoms have done in the past.

Analogously, to copy the doctor’s soul into your body means to transition the home state of your body and consciousness to match the home state of her body and consciousness.  Again, we are talking about home state (expectations about the future) rather than about actual state.  The supposed clone of the doctor would actually be unique—it would have its own memories and circumstances—but would have become far more likely to agree with the doctor where evaluative diversity previously would have produced disagreement.  The two bodies would both be the doctor in the sense that two atoms can both be helium, two cells can both be neurons, or two organisms can both be predators.

Putting this another way, the number of souls among a population of consciousnesses is like the number of elements in a population of atoms.  The periodic table aims to list all the elements from which an entire planet of atoms might be built, and one might similarly strive to construct a table of all the souls from which an entire society of consciousnesses might be built.  The GRIN model lists only four souls, which is certainly more than the two implied by the simple conservative-liberal dichotomy, but is probably just a beginning for this scientific project, as additional souls may be discovered or fabricated.

The Battle for Souls

Where does the functional conception of identity leave freedom?  Violating another’s freedom is not the only way to reach agreement with that person.  People of different souls can reach agreement on particular issues without losing their souls, so long as neither passes the tipping point.  If there were no tipping points, however, then freedom would constantly be violated—in other words, freedom wouldn’t exist.  Thus, the functional conception of identity is what makes rigorous conception of freedom possible.

This brings us to offer a rigorous definition of what it means to “let people be themselves”: It means creating an environment which minimizes the number of transitions to different souls in the general population over the long-term.  Other terms for this aspect of an environment include “stability” and perhaps “peace,” even though a consciousness which retains a single soul may nonetheless be very dynamic.

venus flytrapsAn analogy may help clarify: Imagine a Venus flytrap plant.  It grows on a particular plot of land, but change in the climate of that plot of land may cause it to be replaced with grass.  In this analogy, the plot of land represents a consciousness , and the set of all Venus flytraps (or all predators) represents one soul, while the set of all grasses (or plants that absorb nitrogen from the soil) represents another soul.  Kramer and Bressan have made a compelling case that consciousnesses, like plots of land, are not individual units; at a level typically beyond notice, the plots are composed of various particles, fluids, and creatures which churn like a river (but slower).  Nonetheless, the plot has a character, and a tipping point is crossed when it shifts from Venus flytraps to grass.  “Letting people be themselves” means minimizing climate change so that Venus flytraps and grass flourish in their current plots.

It is important to note that letting people be themselves does not necessarily mean promoting match between souls and genes.  The fact that many people tend to converge by age 50 upon values which match their genetic predispositions might be evidence that souls persist underneath mood swings and maturation, or it could be evidence that transitions occur so readily that consciousnesses are bound to return to the souls matching their genetic predispositions eventually (and genes provide the only stable patterns upon which to converge).

It is possible that some people have transitioned to souls different from those they had birth.  To make them change back might not be letting them be themselves.  Furthermore, it is possible to genetically engineer a population that would be unstable if everyone lived-out their genes, so the minimum number of transitions might be larger than zero.  Therefore, rather than measure our success at letting people be themselves in terms of alignment with genes, we need to count actual transitions.

The fight for freedom or the battle for souls has often been associated with military and religious enterprises, but the current evidence suggests that the battle is one for which scientists also have essential contributions to make.  Measuring success in this fight will require counting transitions, and that will, in turn, require discovering the table of souls.  This scientific process of mapping evaluative diversity may deserve high military and religious priority.

This mapping process is a study of interdependence.  For example, we know that an atom is hydrogen because of the way it interacts with other elements.  Likewise, a neuron does not function as a neuron nor a predator as a predator except in the context of interactions with other cells and organisms.  The neuron cell-type is a stable configuration only if the environment includes muscle and bone cell-types, and predator is a stable configuration only if the environment includes plant and microbe.  The continuity of the sequence of elements we have discovered thus far suggests that elements likewise co-evolve.  They arise, not through independent invention, but through diversification of the system as a whole.

Neurons exist because it is advantageous for populations of cells (called “bodies”) to specialize into different cell-types.  Likewise, the GRIN model explains the origins of evaluative diversity in terms of the advantages evaluative diversity brings to a society.  The least-mature societies might be all of one (very flexible) soul—that soul would be the hydrogen of the table—but additional souls would become viable as the society matures.

There seems to be a popular misconception that God creates one soul for each human body.  According to the creation story I was first taught, God created only two human souls—the second because it is not good to be alone—and all other souls came from diversification of that society.  It is possible that the first two souls split into further specializations even before there were additional bodies to manifest them—perhaps elder Adam’s values and priorities were very different from those of young Adam.  Modern science certainly suggests that more than two souls exist by now, but probably relatively few roam through the seven billion consciousnesses on our planet, much as about 118 elements roams through the far larger population of atoms.

Our doctrine needs to adjust to account for the research highlighted by Kramer and Bressan.  They conclude, “It is time to change the very concept we have of ourselves and to realize that one human individual is neither just human nor just one individual.”  We have embraced division of material being from functional being in physics, chemistry, and biology, but somehow denied this division in psychology until now.  This is not science attacking religion and democracy.  It is science helping religion and democracy re-calibrate, showing us that identity, freedom, interdependence, and the soul are not as simple as previously assumed.

Kramer and Bressan warn that even the evaluative nature of a body is in constant flux.  The same is true of atoms, cells, and species.  However, the fact that a hydrogen atom is in constant flux does not mean hydrogen cannot be relied upon to bond with oxygen to form water.  Kramer and Bressan are probably right that our consciousnesses experience mood swings that come upon us like bacterial infections, but we may function as unitary souls just as much as an atom functions like a unitary element.

The appropriate response to Kramer and Bressan is not to lose faith in each other’s reliability and treat each other as wisps of smoke.  Rather, the appropriate response is to identify the aspect of ourselves that can be relied upon: our souls.  We might not be able to rely on a soul to persist in a particular body, but, because souls are functionally interdependent, we can rely upon them to persist or re-evolve in society.  In fact, because souls are interdependent, we need diversity of souls to persist in our society.  Thus, understanding people as souls, rather than as bodies, it makes a lot of sense to let people be themselves.

Measuring Support for Invisible Stigmatized Identities

Evaluative diversity is in a category of diversity known as “invisible stigmatized identities” which also includes sexual orientations, learning styles, economic backgrounds, and mental conditions. So far, we have identified three approaches to managing environments to support such diversity:

  1. We could follow the approach of ancient religions, and build humility by regularly reminding people of the inadequacies of their own personal types
  2. We could follow the approach of biodiversity, and monitor the environments we maintain, implementing interventions when measures exceed thresholds
  3. We could follow the approach of the gay-pride movement, and talk about who we are and how we feel, so that love will translate into support

The second approach may be a prerequisite for the third. Harvey Milk’s push to disclose sexual orientation was controversial in the 1960s, because ”coming out of the closet” was typically met with rejection and even abuse. Even today, young people are advised not to disclose their sexual orientations to their parents until they leave home.

On the other hand, Belle Rose Ragins has advanced the theory that humans have “a primary psychological need to create social identities that reinforce coherent self-views.” Hiding core aspects of one’s identity would frustrate the satisfaction of that psychological need. Thus, while it might be hazardous to disclose one’s identity in the most caustic environments, it might be hazardous to not disclose core aspects of one’s identity in supportive environments. I would want to know which kind of environment my children are in (and will be in) before advising them about whether to disclose their evaluative types. That requires measurement.

In her dissertation, The Disclosure Process of an Invisible Stigmatized Identity, Jessica Hudson demonstrated two kinds of measures we can use to distinguish between caustic and supportive environments: measuring perception of support, and measuring impacts of disclosure.

With respect to perception, she found significant correlations to mental health (measured using Derogatis’ Brief Symptom Inventory) for:

Such measures of perception may be a step removed from measurement of actual support, but Hudson’s research shows they are nonetheless meaningful.

Theoretically, it is even better to measure actual health impacts of disclosure. In an environment of persecution, such as an evaluativist school, church, or workplace , one would expect significant negative correlation between disclosure and mental health, since persecution more directly targets people who have disclosed their identities. However, at DePaul University, Hudson found no significant correlation between disclosure and mental health. This demonstrates reduced persecution compared to the 1960s, and, if Ragins is right, DePaul University could go even further to achieve significant positive correlation.

It is left to the rest of us to create benchmarks for schools, workplaces and churches by implementing such measures broadly. This will allow us to recognize the accomplishments of people who aim to create supportive environments. The measured success of such leaders also provides evidence which can justify following them.

Here are versions of Hudson’s measures, adapted to measure support for evaluative diversity at a university. Scores would be calculated as follows:

  • Perceived Stigma= q1+ q2+ q3+ q4+ q6+ q7+ q8+ q9- q5- q10
  • Perceived Social Support= q11+ q13+ q14+ q15+ q18+ q19+ q20+ q21+ q22+ q23+ q24+ q26+ q27+ q29- q12- q16- q17- q25- q28- q30
  • Perceived Institutional Support= q32+ q33+ q36+ q37+ q38+ 3q9+ q40+ q42+ q44- q31- q34- q35- q41- q43
  • Disclosure= The sum of q45 through q50
  • Psychological Symptoms= The sum of q51 through q103
  • Impact of Disclosure on Health= The correlation between Disclosure and Psychological Symptoms

Parking Lot Tale: A GRIN-type picture book

a parking space

Suppose you are trying to park your car; you’ve found your spot, but the other cars are shifted to the right. How you handle this situation will depend upon your GRIN-type.

Relational Parking

relational evaluation

If you evaluate relationally, you will park midway between your nearest neighbors. You might do this automatically, and might even call it “empathy”.

Institutional Parking

naturally institutional

If you evaluate institutionally, however, you will park midway between the lines. Again, this may be an automatic behavior, but you could reason that other cars come and go; assuming they park properly before you return, your position will be perfect. You are setting a trend!

Gadfly Parking

Gadfly parking

If you evaluate as a gadfly, you will likewise try to set a trend, but each gadfly may have a different trend to set. For example, you might park on less of an angle, pointing-out that the triangle in front of each angled car is wasted space. Are the cars too long to park straight? Maybe we should all buy Smartcars…

Negotiator Parking

Negotiator parking

If you evaluate as a negotiator, then you will aim to maximize the space available to open your driver-side door, so you may shift even further to the right, or, if you are clever, back into the space.

Now suppose it is your job to assign spaces in the corporate parking lot. One option is to segregate the lot by GRIN-type:

Segregated Parking

segregated

It might not be reliable to ask people to identify their GRIN-types—they might pretend to be a different kind of person so as to avoid being judged—but you could monitor actual parking behavior averaged across many days to account for shifts in mood. Then you could assign each employee a space next to other employees who usually park in the same ways.

The Institutional Section

institutional section

Segregation would rescue the naturally institutional employees from having to exit through the passenger side. They would probably appreciate the segregation very much.

The Gadfly Section

gadfly section

The gadfly section would be a mess, of course, but natural gadflies might not mind. The more serious problem with messes is that they swallow up innovation. Gadflies are likely to innovate both the very worst and very best parking strategies, all of which would be lost in the black-hole of gadflydom. This is especially a problem for natural negotiators because negotiation is competitive, and competition gets ugly when there is no supply of innovation to open new paths for competition. Competition can be beneficial, but only if all types work together.

As an example, suppose parking spaces were reassigned each day at random. Eventually, a natural gadfly with a better parking strategy would be surrounded by naturally relational parkers who would automatically imitate it. A natural negotiator driving by would notice the efficiency of the new pattern, and arrange to have all the lines repainted for the entire lot. Then naturally institutional parkers would get (almost) everyone to adopt the new pattern, which would provide a better launching position for the next innovation.

cars parking at the other slant
Parking at the opposite slant leaves an open triangle by each driver-side door

Continuous improvement is the ideal scenario for everyone. That’s what segregation kills. It is no coincidence that measures of the impact of segregation on team effectiveness have focused on design competitions. The measures find that self-segregated design teams win only half as much. Design teams need to innovate to win, so they need evaluative diversity.

The prevailing management strategy today seems to be to privilege a few gadflies like Steve Jobs, and banish the rest to a black-hole. This strategy assumes that we can predict which gadflies will produce the best innovations, but that assumption is false, so excellent innovators get lost, or, worse, promote terrorism.

That’s right—terrorism ultimately comes from segregation, which comes from our frustration with people unlike ourselves. But this frustration, this evaluativism, is all in our attitude. Ultimately, the way to eliminate the frustration, like eliminating racism and sexism, is a change of heart. That may involve disciplining ourselves with policies and education, but the source of the problem is fundamentally inside ourselves—it does not come from guns, technologies, doctrines, or leaders. It cannot be managed through mere assignment of parking spaces.

Our evaluativism—the real problem—is an attitude we nurture all day long through activities as mundane as parking cars. The most healthy thing we can do is to park in our own way but not get frustrated that others park differently. Leaders who wish to promote social health should remind us that we are part of a larger team that uses disagreement to achieve progress. If each of us is true to ourselves, we will experience disagreement that looks a lot like the typical parking lot, shifting from day to day.

Typical parking lot

That’s healthy disagreement—we need to celebrate these disagreements all day long, so we will not develop attitudes which produce segregation and violence.

Evaluativism’s Victim: The Relationship to Ageism

Evaluativism is our instinctive irrational frustration with people who have values contrary to our own. It is irrational in the same way it would be irrational for a prosecuting attorney to wish the defense attorney stopped showing up at court. Evaluative diversity makes society more successful on average, which is good for everyone (see Evaluativism 101). Thus, in one sense, evaluativism makes victims of us all.

In another sense, however, evaluativism hurts certain individuals more than it hurts others. It creates conflicts, and certain people lose those conflicts. The people most likely to win–parents, teachers, bosses–are people with privilege. This is where evaluativism aligns with ageism (and perhaps other forms of discrimination).

Variance Components by AgeThe above graph from an article by Peter Hatemi and his colleagues in the July 2009 issue of the Journal of Politics show the results of comparing the political values of identical and fraternal twins separated at birth vs. raised together. Such twin studies tell us whether our values come from our genes, from siblings’ shared environments (e.g. parenting), or from something else. For example, if the values of identical twins are more similar than the values of fraternal twins, then genes must play a significant role. Such studies have been conducted for decades and confirm that genes play a significant role in all human behavioral traits–what’s different about this graph is that it breaks-out the results by age.

The surprise here is that the significance of the role of genes (i.e., the blue bars) varies by age. It plays a minor role until the mid twenties, but becomes the dominant factor by age 50. A similar pattern is found with religious values. The values of identical twins raised apart gradually become more similar as they get older, even if they do not interact with each other.

I asked John Hibbing whether this indicated that younger people are oppressed, and he thought “oppressed” might be too strong a word. Maybe it just takes humans 20-50 years to find themselves. Maybe older people are more stubborn. Maybe society is blessed that many 50-year-olds can remember what it was like to be on the other side of the fence.

On the other hand, we wouldn’t educate our populace by forcing people to experience other races, sexes, and disabilities. Even if society would be better for it, such education would put undue stress on students. Many homosexuals do know what it was like to exhibit a different sexual orientation, but we count that as oppression, rather than as education.

Furthermore, the alignment with genes is low for the old as well as the young. It is awfully suspicious that the pattern so closely matches the ages in which people lack privilege. In fact, Hetami found that alignment of one’s values with one’s genes happens in the early 20’s only for people who leave their parental home. This suggests that the parental home, rather than age, is the trigger–that the parental home provides a kind of brainwashing that temporarily blocks people from discovering their own values.

It turns out that oppression is so rampant that it would be naive not to blame it for this pattern. Shanto Iyengar had 1021 people judge applications for a scholarship. As expected, the result proved that judges have an irrational bias against resumes that included hints of racial minority, but it also proved that they have an even stronger irrational bias against resumes that show hints of an opposing ideology (e.g., President of the Young Republicans).

Through other tests in the study, Iyengar found that this bias is instinctive and more of a hate bias against opponents than an affinity bias towards people with similar values. Young homosexuals are advised not to come-out to their parents until they are financially independent; given that parents, teachers, and bosses instinctively favor children, students and employees who exhibit their own values, it seems equally advisable for the underprivileged to temporarily adopt the values of their oppressors.

As mentioned at the top of this article, evaluativism is irrational. Parents, teachers and bosses who suppress evaluative diversity by discouraging the expression of contrary values handicap their families, companies and nations, thus ultimately shooting themselves in the foot. Ideological opponents are extremely valuable. Causing opponents to temporarily abandon their values is not equivalent to taking years from their lives, but it does greatly diminish their value to society. In that sense, evaluativism is foolish in the same way as slaughtering one’s workforce or killing endangered species.

To compensate for their instinctive evaluativism, authorities should create cultures of appreciation by demonstrating a commitment to learn about evaluative diversity. We should do this for our own sake, but also out of compassion for the underprivileged who are especially victimized. Hatemi’s results appear to exemplify intersectionality–where the intersection of two kinds of discrimination (in this case, evaluativism and ageism) produce a whole new kind of oppression (divergence from genetic predispositions). This should make us ask to see twin studies broken-out by race, class, gender, and sexuality as well.

What makes the intersection with ageism special may be that ageism is so widely experienced. All adults can recall being young, and many would resist subjecting themselves again to the authority of parents, teachers, and bosses. Hatemi’s results further warn that those who enjoy privilege now are likely to lose it in old-age. Evaluativism seems to be something we cannot avoid forever, unless, of course, we address it before we find ourselves on the receiving end.

Who’s to Blame for Disagreement? An Interview with John Hibbing

Beyond Dislike: Viewing the Other Party as a ‘Threat to the Nation’s Well-Being’John Hibbing and Kevin Smith co-direct the Political Physiology Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Their recent article in Trends in Cognitive Science concludes: “Although many people want to believe that their positions on moral, religious, and political issues are the product of rational, conscious thought, the reality is that subthreshold, biologically instantiated predispositions shape all human attitudes, leading people to rationalize their positions and actions.” John generously allowed me to interview him about it:

Chris: John, first tell us about you. What got you interested in the relationship between biology and political science?
John: I was trained as a traditional political scientist and studied Congress, elections, and public attitudes, but I increasingly came to the conclusion that surveys (in which people report their own perceptions) do not reveal everything, since humans are notoriously bad at understanding themselves. Thus I became interested in techniques that would help us understand the human condition, especially as it relates to politics, without forcing people to try to explain themselves.

The lab you co-direct with Kevin Smith is unique. What kinds of journals and departments, if any, should develop elsewhere to confirm or expand your findings?
Our lab was probably the first of its kind in a political science department, but, for some time, psychologists, neuroscientists, and behavioral geneticists have been probing the extent to which political orientations mesh with non-political aspects of our person. There is a gradually growing core of people–mostly psychologists–expanding and confirming our findings. A good indication of this was a piece we recently published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences that attracted 26 commentaries.

You have been studying the role of biological factors in explaining political variation for 20 years, and the law that all human behavioral traits are heritable has been known for well over a decade. How, then, does your work in Trends in Cognitive Science qualify as a “trend”?
I’m not sure. The editors from Trends in Cognitive Science asked us to submit that piece, so they must have thought there would be interest. There is more attention to the politics-biology connection now than there was 10-20 years ago, and I think it is only going to grow.

After acknowledging that twin studies consistently find political orientation to be strongly heritable, your article highlighted research on the particular gene DRD4. Why bother studying particular genes?
In terms of understanding the pathways through which biology affects politics, it would be quite useful to know the particular genes involved because that would indicate where in the brain to look. DRD4, for example, directs attention to the dopamine reward system.

What would it cost to identify the particular genes that make behavior heritable, and who would fund such research?
It is not that expensive these days to genotype people. The problem is that, to do the research properly, you need sample sizes of many, many thousands, and that can be a problem, especially when it is not common to collect political data along with the DNA. Our lab has moved away from doing candidate gene association studies because there is so much more to biology than just the DNA nucleotide sequence. For example, many environmental experiences can eventually become instantiated in our biological characteristics, so it is important for readers to realize that biology does not have to be genetic [to be immutable].

You also wrote about measuring biological underpinnings using EEG, the technology behind neurogaming. Does this imply that one might use a neurogaming headset to identify environments, such as particular workplaces, which are more or less likely to overwrite one’s values?
We do know that experiences, such as driving a taxi in London, can alter certain areas on the brain…

Beyond Dislike: Viewing the Other Party as a ‘Threat to the Nation’s Well-Being’The Pew Center recently reported that 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans in the U.S. see the opposing party as a threat to the nation’s well-being. How should they act on their beliefs, given the evidence that the disagreement stems from biological diversity?
Research by Shanto Iyengar shows that political differences are increasingly a reason for bias–people are more likely today than a few decades ago to say it would bother them to have their child marry someone with opposing political beliefs–while most other traits and factors (e.g., sexual orientation) are decreasingly a reason for bias. So the problem is real.

Our basic pitch is that, if people recognize that that their political opponents experience the world differently from a cognitive and physiological point of view, it should make them more tolerant of political differences, just as we became more tolerant when we found out that mental disabilities, left-handedness, and sexual orientation had biological bases. People should be less proud of their own beliefs, because hubris is a big reason we have the gridlock and terrorism that we do.

Lamenting terrorism, failed policy initiatives, and ruined family reunions, you wrote that research findings suggest a need to revise traditional views of political opinion. Care to elaborate?
Quit calling them names and thinking that they will “come around” when persuasive arguments are made. Compromise needs to be stressed more and deliberation needs to be stressed less.

 

The imperative for compromise is John’s big message. We spoke at length about how compromise might be determined, but ended up with unanswered questions. John’s insight that humans are bad at understanding themselves is demonstrated by his experiment in which the average conservative and liberal claim to have the same reactions to pictures of dead animals, but brain scans of those reactions reveal differences significant enough to identify political orientation. We also discussed evidence that genetic and self-report measures correspond differently at different ages. The average person seems to spend 20-50 years shifting his/her self-report, but efforts to mold the young tend to unravel, leaving us ultimately aligned with the diverse orientations we inherited at birth. John wanted to emphasize that schemes to control politics through genetic engineering oversimplify the way genes work. Many different genes interact, and they interact with major life events, including social reforms. His discoveries are tools less for social engineering than for giving politicians the same reverent respect for societies that medical doctors have gained for the human body.

To learn more about John and Kevin’s research, buy their book, Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, coauthored with John Alford from Rice University.

Evaluativism and the Neurodiversity Movement

The rainbow-colored infinity symbol represents the neurodiversity movement

What do you call it when someone discriminates on the basis of evaluative diversity? For a long time, I didn’t know there was a word for it, but it turns out to be “evaluativism.” In his essay defending evaluativism, Hartry Field offered the following example:

…in dealing with a follower of the Reverend Moon, we may find that too little is shared for a neutral evaluation of anything to be possible, and we may have no interest in the evaluations that the Moonie gives.

In other words, an evaluativist is someone who disregards or avoids people with whom they have disagreements grounded in evaluative differences (and Field’s example is one in which many of us would behave as evaluativists).

Yet much significant research about evaluativism seems unaware of this term. As examples:

To put it bluntly, we engage in evaluativism a lot and without realizing or naming it. Evaluativism is out of control. Where is the movement to fix it? It might have begun with the GRINfree website, or it might have begun with the neurodiversity movement.

The neurodiversity movement grew from the autism movement of the 1990s, especially from Jim Sinclairs’s essay, Don’t Mourn for Us, in which he pointed-out that autism is part of one’s identity, so a parent who wishes their child were not autistic effectively wishes that child were replaced. This sounds remarkably like evaluativism, where a mother wishes her son had not joined that church, or had not fallen in love with that girl, or become a liberal, or become a conservative, or become a materialist. To wish this is to reject the son’s identity, and the son may reciprocate. They may each disown aspects of the other by declaring topics like religion and politics “off the table” between them.

The neurodiversity movement, however, seems to be far ahead of the evaluativism movement. It has a logo (see above), a manifesto (the Holist Manifesto), a national symposium, a host of petitions (including for a neurodiverse doll, for special school districts, and for neurodiverse Disney characters), Thomas Armstrong’s book, The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain, and even a course at the College of William & Mary (Interdisciplinary Studies 490: Neurodiversity).

Yet where does the scope of the neurodiversity movement end? It is called “neurodiversity” because it includes differences labeled “dyspraxia, dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyscalculia, autistic spectrum, Tourette syndrome, and others.“ What are the others?  Does the neurodiversity movement even include advocating for more regard between liberals, conservatives, and highly sensitive persons (political orientations do correlate to brain features, as does emotional sensitivity)?

Drawing a line is a problem for the neurodiversity movement because a line would force people to get diagnoses and wear labels. The better solution is for society to appreciate the distinctions observed in individuals even before diagnosis. In other words, appreciate people for who they are, rather than for the labels they wear. But to advocate for that kind of appreciation would be to fight evaluativism.

For example, in an analysis of whether it makes more sense to label people with “Asperger syndrome” and “high-functioning autism” as disabled or to treat them merely as different, Simon Baron-Cohen pointed out that the observable differences that lead to labeling are merely how the person chooses to spend their time, their interests, what they think is relevant and important, what kinds of experiences they prefer, and how easily they are influenced by others. In other words, the differences are all evaluative. Until diagnoses are made, with their accompanying stigmas, there is nothing but evaluativism for the neurodiversity movement to protect these people from.

Here we must take care to avoid stereotypes. Not all women have the same values, so we must not portray sexism as a kind of evaluativism, yet women are more likely to be Naturally Relational, so women’s liberation cannot be achieved without addressing evaluativism. Not all Muslims have the same values, so we must not portray religionism as a kind of evaluativism, yet religionism cannot be resolved without resolving evaluativism. Likewise, John Elder Robinson points out that although autistic people are more likely to reject organized religion today (much less follow Reverend Moon), some church leaders may have been on the autism spectrum. The resolution of evaluativism may be a high priority for the neurodiversity movement, but we should take care not to equate neurodiverse identities with evaluative types.

The word “evaluativism” may be as new to you as it was to me, but members of the neurodiversity movement have always known that evaluativism is an obstacle they face. Armstrong’s suggestion that we recognize the strengths of the children we raise and teach isn’t just a way to respond to a diagnosis–its a strategy for addressing evaluativism in general.

Recognizing this connection is especially important for people who previously thought they had no personal stake in the neurodiversity movement. The truth is that evaluativism threatens every family, company, and nation, and the neurodiversity movement may be best positioned to rescue us. For your own family’s sake, please start following the neurodiversity movement, encourage its activists, sign their petitions, and invite them to address your organization.