Thursday, December 29, 2011

Blame The Brain

Thomas Riggins

Why do people commit atrocities? What is responsible for brutality and the cold blooded murder of innocents carried out by Nazis, the Hutu in Rwanda , or the United States against the Vietnamese people and more recently much of the civilian population of Iraq? Some scientists believe they have found the answer.

ScienceDaily reports ("Brain's Failure to Appreciate Others May Permit Human Atrocities," 12-14-2011) that the part of the brain responsible for social interaction with others may malfunction resulting in callousness leading to inhumane actions towards others. Scientists at Duke and Princeton have hypothesized, in a recent study, that this brain area can "disengage" when people encounter others they think are "disgusting" and the resulting violence perpetrated against them is due to thinking these objectified others have no "thoughts and feelings."

The study, according to ScienceDaily, considers this a "shortcoming" which could account for the genocide and torture of other peoples. Examples of this kind of objectification can be seen in the calling of Jews "vermin" by the Nazis, the Tutsi "cockroaches" by the Hutu, and the American habit of calling others "gooks" (as well as other unflattering terms).

Lasana Harris (Duke) says that "When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds [do they have more than one?]. Sometimes, we fail to do this, opening up the possibility that we do not perceive the person as fully human." I wonder about this? What is meant by fully human? Surely the Hutu, for example, who had lived with the Tutsi for centuries did not really fail to infer that they had "minds."

Practicing something called "social neuroscience" which seems to consist of showing different people pictures while they are undergoing an MRI and then drawing conclusions from which areas of the brain do or do not "light up" when asked questions about these pictures, the scientists conducting this study discovered that an area of the brain dealing with "social cognition"-- i.e., feelings, thoughts, empathy, etc., "failed to engage" when pictures of homeless people, drug addicts , and others "low on the social ladder" were shown.

Susan Fiske (Princeton) remarked, "We need to think about other people's experience. It's what makes them fully human to us." ScienceDaily reported that the researchers were struck by the fact "people will easily ascribe social cognition-- a belief in an internal life such as emotions-- to animals and cars, but will avoid making eye contact with the homeless panhandler in the subway."

I don't think many people, at least if they haven't recently watched "Herbie", really think cars have an internal emotional life. The reason people avoid eye contact with the homeless is not, I think, because they don't see them as fully human, but because they do and they know, deep down, that they are in what Sartre called "bad faith" with respect to not helping or being able to help a fellow human being.

What seems to be unaddressed in this study is the "cause" of the objectification of others. Suppose brain area X is responsible for empathy and it does not "light up" in Nazis when they are around Jews. is this the reason that Nazis engage in inhumane acts? Is it a brain malfunction? Or is it perhaps the case that people who have been educated as Nazis, who have been subjected to intense Nazi propaganda and have been led to believe the Nazi world view will then have brains that won't respond to empathy to those considered hostile to Nazism? It is not a brain malfunction but a normal brain response to educational conditioning. This is, by the way, why ruling classes seek to control the content of public and private education and de facto censor views and individuals they view as "subversive."

This is an interesting scientific study, but I do not think the answer to man's inhumanity to man, at least with respect to large political and social movements, is to be explained by college students (the test sample) looking at pictures while undergoing an MRI.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Capitalism in a Fish Bowl

Thomas Riggins

Capitalism can sometimes be very confusing to figure out, especially with the complex interrelations of the world economy and the the different banking laws and corporate structures and all the national forms economies take. It would be helpful if we had a very simple way to look at it and figure it out. A simple model of how this system works which we could extrapolate to the whole system to understand it the better. I propose to discuss what is happening to the fish in the seas and to suggest that their fate under capitalism is just a smaller version of the fate that awaits us all if we allow this economic system to continue to dominate our lives and our planet. My information is taken from a ScienceDaily online article from December 5, 2011 entitled "Marine Predators in Trouble."

As we are well aware the world's oceans used to team with sea life and great flotillas of fishing vessels have scoured the seas to catch this life and bring it to market to feed a hungry world [at least a hungry rich northern world] and to make a profit-- especially a profit-- and if a particular species of fish could bring in a good profit it would be fished to extinction to obtain that profit rather than be allowed to recover to be fished again some day in the future. It is not a sustainable food supply that capitalism seeks to create-- but immediate profits on its investments. This is, by the way, why humane farming laws are difficult to enact and almost impossible to enforce.

At any rate, the SD article reports that scientists at the University of British Columbia have published a study that shows since the 1950s large marine predators such as marlins, swordfish, tunas and sharks have declined by 90% and have practically been wiped out in the northern Pacific and Atlantic by commercial fishing. These commercial fish, having been hunted to near extinction in the northern Hemisphere, are no longer sought in great numbers in the north by the fishing fleets. After sweeping them out of the coastal areas of the northern continents and islands, the fleets scoured the the open seas and have now headed to the southern Hemisphere where they intend to continue their unsustainable fishing methods to maintain their profits; pillaging the coasts and the open waters of the Indian and South Pacific and Atlantic oceans as well as the Antarctic Ocean.

One of the researchers mentioned in the SD article and lead author of the study, Laura Tremblay-Boyer, was quoted as saying: "Species such as tuna have been seriously exploited because of high market demand. A constant theme throughout of global marine ecosystems is these top predators are today prey for human beings, assisted by some serious technology. Top marine predators are more intrinsically vulnerable to the effects of fishing due to their life histories. Bluefin tuna, for instance, cannot reproduce until age nine." But the demand for fish from the markets of the north has not ceased. And now, the same shortage are beginning to appear in the southern oceans.

"After running out of predator fish in the north Atlantic and Pacific," co-author of the study Daniel Pauly said, "rather than implementing strict management and enforcement, the fishing industry pointed its bows south. The southern hemisphere predators are now on the same trajectory as the ones in the northern hemisphere. What happens next when we have nowhere left to turn?"

A good question. This is exactly the same behavior we have seen the capitalists engaging in with respect to climate change. Cancun, Copenhagen, and now Durban. No binding agreements-- infact the major world leaders didn't even bother to show up for this conference (Durban)-- and it is breathable air and temperatures compatible with life that is the issue. What does happened next when we have nowhere left to turn?