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The Neuroscience of Altruism

In The Altruistic Brain, neurobiologist Donald Pfaff makes the case that humans are hard-wired for good. But, Noah Berlatsky argues, that good is frequently defined and distorted by culture.
(Photo: Jim Wallace/Duke University)

(Photo: Jim Wallace/Duke University)

"We are good," Donald Pfaff declares early on in The Altruistic Brain. By this he means that all humans are innately moral, not in a philosophical/religious sense, but as a matter of objective science. "[T]he human brain is wired for goodwill," he argues, "which propels us toward empathic displays of altruism." The human brain is altruistic, and altruism is good; therefore humans are good. It's a neat syllogism—but, unfortunately, reducing moral questions to syllogisms doesn't work as well as Pfaff wants it to.

This is not to denigrate neuroscience, nor to dismiss Pfaff's insights altogether. The book is most useful as a scientific refutation of the idea that human beings are innately selfish or innately cruel. Pfaff musters a great deal of evidence to show that the Christian notion of original sin—and the capitalist notion of human self-interest as a sole motivating force—are both unsustainable, at least in their more simplistic forms.

First, Pfaff points to the importance of altruism and social connections in human evolutionary development. Humans are born "'prematurely' in comparison to our closest ape relatives," he writes. That means that we need lots and lots of care—and so evolutionary success and survival has depended not just on caring mothers, but on caring fathers, grandmothers, and other relatives as well. Pfaff quotes evolutionary psychologist Micheal Tomasello: "To an unprecedented degree, homo sapiens are adapted for acting and thinking cooperatively in cultural groups, and indeed all of human's most impressive cognitive achievements—from complex technologies to linguistic and mathematical symbols to intricate social institutions—are the products, not of individuals acting alone, but of individuals interacting."

Humans’ propensity for altruism can be used for good, or it can be used for evil. The road to genocide can be paved with mirror neurons.

Pfaff then moves from evolutionary research to a discussion of brain functioning. His central argument is that altruism is rooted in the fact that the human brain tends to blur the distinction between other people and the self. This blurring is achieved through "an increase in the excitability of cortical neurons, such that when the nerve cells representing the other are firing signals, the nerve cells representing self are also firing." Pfaff also points to the so-called mirror neurons, which activate either when I raise my right hand, or when I see you raise your right hand. Mechanisms like this, Pfaff argues, mean that when we act, "instead of literally seeing the consequences of the act for another person, we automatically envision the consequences as pertaining to our own self!"

Pfaff believes this conflating of self and other explains altruistic actions, such as the heroism of first responders at 9/11. It also explains why we don't perform non-altruistic actions, such as murdering the person who is taking up so much time in front of us at the grocery checkout line. Most humans, most of the time, see themselves in others at a neural level. We are like the rats in the experiments of Polish scientists Ewelina Knapska and Tomasz Werka, who found that the animals reacted with anxiety and distress when they saw their own being shocked. We feel for others. Altruism is built in.

OR IS IT? PFAFF doesn't seem to realize it, but the Knapska/Werka experiment can be read in a less benign fashion. Yes, the rats experienced distress when they saw the shock. But Knapska and Werka didn't, apparently, feel any distress when they shocked those rats—or not enough distress to stop shocking them. In order to prove our basic goodness, Pfaff points to a study which involved systematic torture of other living beings. Isn't that a contradiction?

Of course, Pfaff might argue that rats aren't human; our neurons, perhaps, restrict their empathy to members of our own species. But that rather glosses over the fact that humans have historically been very good at defining some other humans, over there, as animalistic—whether it's the Nazis referring to Jews as vermin and filth, or Americans referring to black people as apes. Studies in fact have shown that police officers who see black people as animals are more likely to use force against them. Some people, it seems, are seen as human and worthy of empathy and altruism; others are not.

Pfaff does acknowledge that empathy, or altruism, can be restricted to particular in-groups. For example, he talks about the way in which bribery rests on the same kind of neural and social basis as altruism. He also discusses gang membership, in which strong intra-group bonds can lead to a cycle of revenge killings when one member of the group is hurt or killed by a member of another group. Pfaff characterizes such phenomena as a "corruption" of the altruistic brain.

But "corruption" here seems misleading. The problem is not that a naturally altruistic brain has been corrupted for antisocial purposes. The problem is that the brain is not in fact hard-wired for altruism. It's hard-wired for socialization. Pfaff's research and argument certainly show that we're social creatures. But social doesn't always mean altruistic. Sometimes, as, say, in the South before the Civil War, being a successful member of a certain society can mean saying that certain people aren't human and should be enslaved.

Pfaff conflates altruism with being pro-social. As a result, his ethics are focused mostly on fitting antisocial individuals to society, rather than on contemplating the ways in which societies themselves can be unfair or unequal. He celebrates the rats who feel empathy rather than criticizing the society in which they are tortured; he manages to have a discussion about gangs with not a single mention of institutional racism. When he says his insights can be "deployed to help bring antisocial individuals into the mainstream," it's difficult not to think about the long history of psychologists attempting to fix homosexuals, transgender people, or, for that matter, women, after they were declared to be out of the "mainstream." Which brain neurons are at fault: those of the Ferguson protestors, or those of the people who think that the shooting of an unarmed teen doesn't require protest? You can't define the mainstream or the margin in a vacuum; those are cultural, political designations, not objective scientific truths.

Pfaff doesn't seem to realize that, though. He points to the Golden Rule—"do unto others"—as a universal truth, endorsed by all world religions, and rooted in our neurons. But reducing all ethical pronouncements to one statement tends to lose a lot of nuance. "Do unto others" is a dictum that can be interpreted in many different ways in many different situations. For example, should the United States invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein? Some people might say, well, Saddam is an evil dictator, and I would not want to live under him, therefore, yes, bomb the stuffing out of him. Others could respond, I do not want to have bombs dropped on me, therefore, the people of Iraq do not want bombs dropped on them, let us leave well enough alone. Both of these arguments are based on altruism. And, indeed, most political arguments are based on altruism, up to and including Hitler's insistence that the Jews had to be killed en masse in order to protect the rest of the world. Humans' propensity for altruism can be used for good, or it can be used for evil. The road to genocide can be paved with mirror neurons.

PFAFF ARGUES THAT WE can make the world a better place by realizing that we are innately good and trustworthy, and acting accordingly. Most of his recommendations fall under the moderate technocratic liberal boilerplate and have the requisite strengths and weaknesses. His suggestion that people should think carefully before performing unethical acts seems like common sense. His tentative argument that we could use neuroscience to "increase the performance of the brain's neuronal circuitry ... responsible for good behavior" seems less convincing. Who gets to define "good behavior" here, after all? Are we going to muck with the brain chemistry of kids who refuse testing? Or what?

But whatever the merits of individual suggestions, Pfaff's overall claims are suspect. The Altruistic Brain neither "can explain why we are good" nor does it seem likely to "help make us better" in any straightforward way. The failure here is not exactly in Pfaff, but in the brain itself. Humans, as Pfaff shows, are social creatures—our brain is wired to tie us together in a web of intricate social bonds. But that means that the truth of the brain is not actually in the brain. Pfaff's own evidence suggests that the most human bit of us isn't in the skull, but in the way we interact—in the amazingly complicated culture that those skulls make by thinking together.

Pfaff might argue that the cultural criticism of his work here isn't science—but I'd argue that his science itself cries out for a morality based in cultural criticism. Goodness is not defined by the mirror neurons; rather, those mirror neurons mean that goodness is defined between people who have, collectively, an enormous capacity for good and an enormous capacity for evil. Acknowledging the first is certainly important, as Pfaff says. But eliding, or erasing, or pathologizing the second isn't scientific, nor will it make us more moral.