Transcript for Patricia Churchland -- Is Genocide in Our Genes?

Jim Fleming: When we talk about violence, the subject of nature vs. nurture often comes up. Are we hard-wired with the capacity to commit violent acts, or is toxic upbringing to blame? Or is it some combination of the two? Patricia Churchland has some thoughts on the subject. She's a pioneering neurophilosopher and the author of the book "Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain." Steve Paulson talks with her.

Steve Paulson: I want to talk about some of the specific issues that you explore in your book "Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain." For instance, you raise the question, "Is genocide in our genes?" What made you think about this?

Patricia Churchland: Well, I think there were two things. One is that there is a kind of tendency when people see a behavior that is common, to say, "Well, it must be in the genes!" And very often the behavior in question can be highly modified because the brain is so changeable as a function of experience. That the behavior is highly modifiable by the environment and by the way experience impinges on the brain. One of the things that you want to think about when the question of genes comes up is, "Okay, let's just take that idea seriously and let's roll up our sleeves and see what the heck is really there." Now many people have argued that war is in our genes. So that was one of the cases where I thought, "Let's just find out what we actually know about genes and aggression." And that led me to this work on fruit flies that I talk about. Now you might think, well, fruit flies... How, you know... Except that if you can't get a simple genetic story of the relation between genes and aggression in the fruit fly, what makes you think you're gonna get a simple story in mammals, or especially in humans?

Paulson: Yeah. Churchland: So the story in the fruit fly is that there are many, many, many genes that play some of role, unknown, in aggressive behavior in fruit flies. It's mainly in males who compete for females and they fight. It's actually kind of interesting to watch. But it turns out that there are many genes and there is no simple relationship. That genes form these complicated networks with each other and they interact with the environment to change gene expression which also changes then what growth and development happens in the brain. So there's this wonderful interaction between genes, environment, and brain structures that remains to be understood and unraveled. But I think, "Well, there's a gene for moms to stay at home and take care of babies." Or, "There's a gene for not having abortions." Well, you know, probably not. It doesn't work like that.

Paulson: Yeah, and there's also been this effort to look to various peoples who are not part of modern civilization. Just sort of see, okay so, are they inherently violent or not?

Churchland: Yes, yes.

Paulson: You write, for instance, about two very different cultures. The Inuit and the Yanomamo, and they have extremely different behaviors, especially when it comes to raiding and war. Can you spell out these differences?

Churchland: Yes. Genetically, the Inuit who live in the arctic, and the Yanomamo who live in Brazil, genetically they're as indistinguishable as they would be from me. But the Yanomamo appear to be fairly warlike. They go on these raids to neighboring camps and kill people and steal women and cause havoc and so forth. And male children are brought up to be part of that. And they dress themselves up in these ways that signify that they are warriors and they learn to use spears and so forth. So it's really a part of the way they are. The Inuit, by contrast, probably because their ecology is so harsh and they have to be so careful, are not warlike at all. Now, they are certainly capable of killing others if they have to, but there is a cultural downplaying of aggression within the group. And it's really frowned upon and as a consequence people find other ways of easing tensions and dealing with competition within the group and so forth. And when they come together with others in these big summer festivals, they manage to get along fairly well. Now it doesn't mean that there's never murder and it doesn't mean that they never kill one another. But they never do seem to engage in warfare.

Paulson: And you're saying this is basically because of the radically environments that they live in? One environment being kind of arctic-like, very barren, harsh, and the other, the rainforest?

Churchland: Yes! Let me just put in slightly crude terms. In the rainforest, you've got lots of foliage and trees and you can sneak around without being seen. Whereas in the Arctic, their settlements are spread out and you're going to be seen if you go trekking from your settlement to the neighbors'. Why? Well, there's no trees and the dogs are going to set up an alarm, and it's very easy to see somebody from a very long distance away. So it would be hard to do any sneaking around and it's also not clear what the benefits of warfare would be. I mean, what would you do? What's it for? Well, in the case of the Yanomamo, they would get goods as well as females and they would feel good about the revenge for previous infractions. In the case of the Inuit, until very recently, they didn't really have much worth stealing. So there wasn't really much point in raids between settlements, but keeping competition and violence within the settlement at a very low level was of primary importance because you could endanger the whole group. And these people were, until very recently, always living on the knife's edge of starvation. So to do stupid things like kill other members of the group who are good hunters is not in your interest.

Paulson: You write about, I don't know if I'm saying right, the "Chippewayan" people of Northern Manitoba? Churchland: Ah, yes, yes. Paulson: There's a sort of a startling story that you tell, can you tell us that story?

Churchland: Yes, the story comes from a novel written by, oh my God, what's his name, Joe Boyden?... called "The Three Day Road." And in the story one of the events that happens is that not uncommonly in the North when the winters are very harsh and the Aboriginal people like the Chippewa and the Cree and so forth had to struggle to survive through the winter. And sometimes they would be lucky and there would be game and other times they would starve. And the weak of course were the ones who would die. In the story of "The Three Day Road," what happens is that the game is very low, people are on the verge of starvation. The woman who has recently had a child finds that her milk is drying up, and one night she and her husband leave the camp and wander off through the birch trees elsewhere. She comes back alone in the spring with the baby and the baby is very strong and healthy. Indeed to be wondered at, given the nature of the harsh, harsh winter. Well it's obvious to everyone in the camp with the husband gone and the baby and the wife looking so healthy and well-fed, it's obvious to them what has happened. And because cannibalism is really frowned upon for generations upon generations and well-recognized not to be acceptable, it comes to pass that she is rather shunned and she sort of recognizes what ultimately must happen. And eventually the chief of that particular group kills her by suffocation and also kills the baby. And for those of us that live in real luxury and are well-fed every day and never have to worry about starvation in the winter, this story can seem... terribly cruel. But it needs to be put in the context of the ecology that the people had to suffer. And the fact that over many, many generations it was very important that cannibalism not be acceptable. And it was also clear that if the baby was saved it would always be tainted by the story that it had fed on its father's flesh.

Paulson: That's one of the questions that comes from the story, this haunting, sad story. You certainly could justify what the mother did, but on the other hand, it's sort of horrific that the baby... Why did the baby have to die?

Churchland: Why did the baby have to die? And as I said I think within the culture it was felt that he would always be tainted, wrongly perhaps, but remember these are small groups of fifty to seventy people. Everyone would know and it would inevitably be passed on to the children and their children. Everyone would know and he would never be treated the same and he might himself grow up to be very corrupt. That was the fear. And it may well have been rooted in fact of some kind, generations earlier where the story would be passed on and passed on. But the point that I kind of wanted to draw from this story, because it really did sear me, was that it's very easy to feel confident in the rightness of the moral practices of your own group and very easy to criticize those practices of a different group. And that we have to not be foolish about accepting any practices as good as any other. But we also have to be very judicious about recognizing the role of environment and ecology in certain practices coming into existence -- certain moral practices coming into existence.

Fleming: Patricia Churchland is the author of "Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain." She spoke with Steve Paulson.

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