The New Cartographers of Human Experience: how neuroscience is colonizing all other academic fields, implications on race/gender/nature v. culture debate

Posted on July 26, 2010


Brain is the new Black. Neuro is the new New.

It seems like every academic field is trying to stick the prefix neuro- onto what they do these days. From neuroanthropologists who study the interaction between neural physiology and culture, to neurotheologists who search for the neurobiological basis of religious feelings and spiritual phenomena, to comparative literature scholars who are applying neuroscience to textual analysis – neuroscience is the New World of plenty, and everybody is trying to colonize their share.

With the improvement of neuroimaging technologies, the functional mapping of the homunculus has also began to trample upon the territory formerly delegated to philosophers: epistemologists, ethicists, and metaphysicians. Questions that have plagued mankind for centuries are coming to light with the neo-holy stamp of empirical objectivity, such as debates about Free Will (which neurobiologists increasingly deny human beings as having) and Fate, and the Binary Dualisms between Mind and Body, between Rationality and Emotions, the age-old cultural categories that Western Civilization has comfortably sat upon, and nursed for millenia.

Neurobiology, the fastest-developing field of scientific inquiry, is currently unraveling the questions of philosophy and is engaging on a formidable invasion upon the territory of the social sciences. With current research indicating the biological basis for moral behavior, which underminines our conceptions of free will, civic responsibility, and criminality, and with a burgeoning field of psychopharmological solutions for every possible mental abnormality, which seems to bring us ever closer to an Orwellian postmodernity of meta-involvement in our personal assemblage, allowing our fetishization of the web 2.0 displayable self to be horribly empowered by mental self-tweaking, and subsequent tweeting. Neuroimaging technology, alongside the other electronic revolutions of our age, creates new culture as it tramples upon old paradigms.

But culture fights back. Neuroanthropology and sociological neuroscience are subfields that seek to deconstruct the way in which scientists go about formalizing new knowledge about the human brain. Among these cultural philosophers of science who question scientific method, there are many who criticize the use of flimsy statistical analysis in culturally-biased ways to prove causation when only correlation is justifiable. Many social scientists question how any kind of inductive generalization can be made based on the relatively weak neuroimaging techniques in this pubescent field. In particular, anthropological critical theorists argue that the practice of science is always nestled within a cultural paradigm containing sociological biases that will always influence the direction of research and the interpretations of its findings.

One example of such a critic is Emily Martin, who wrote about how biologists use the culturally-constructed gender metaphors of the sperm as active warrior and the egg as passive princess (waiting to be rescued), to narrate the sexual process, which, upon closer examination, does not follow those social constructions at all. (In fact, the egg is very active in the process of selecting the sperm that enters its membranes, and the so-believed powerful flagellations of the sperm are not as influential in determining its trajectory as conveniently canonized.) Therefore, our scientific analyses are flavored by cultural metaphors, which contain sociological and cultural significance that are not perfectly “objective.”

The discourse on gender and sexuality is particularly sensitive to new neurological implications, which often contradict the feminist paradigm constructed in the 1960′s, which seeks to distinguish the performance of gender as a cultural construction irrevocably separate from the biological definition of sex. Guided by the political mission of emancipation and equalization of opportunity, all “scientific” inquiry about generalizations that can be made on the basis of race, gender, class, or nationality, is made unwelcome in the Academy, and perhaps rightfully, pragmatically so. The lessons learned during the era of Eugenics and universal application of Social Darwinism, and the human atrocities justified under the name of biology, make further inquiry into these areas dangerous and perhaps wasteful, for any new knowledge might only bring the potential for human suffering.

However, the spirit of inquiry could never suffer the pragmatism of such a limitation. Current politics seems to be taking a swing back towards center, as academics question the limitations imposed upon science by Politically Correct review boards, and question whether political objectives only serve to tarnish academic objectivity. According to Karafyllis and Ulshofer, in the introduction to their 2008 collection of neurosociological writings, entitled Sexualized Brains: Scientific Modeling of Emotional Intelligence from a Cultural Perspective,

“Racism, like sexism, is making its way back into scientific journals.”

Sounds scary, does it not? The authors cite J. Philippe Rushton, professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, who wrote in a paper entitled Race, brain size, and IQ: The case for consilience (Rushton 2003), which was published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, that because African Americans have smaller brains than Caucasians, they may objectively have lower cognitive abilities, and this equation may be applied to womens’ brains as well.

Of course, this bold and taboo statement shocks everyone indoctrinated in the liberal academy, which has learned the supremacy of the Bell Curve and its outliers, from day one in freshman seminar, as well as experienced with defensible pride the affirmative action policies that universities have adopted to place a handsome handful of Diversity amidst of the intellectual and socioeconomic elite.

It is pivotal within the coming century, with the growing use of biology to justify social phenomena, that greater clarification is demanded when it comes to the neurophysiology of generalized intelligence. Correlations does not justify induction of causation, and every experiment must be carefully examined for biases. The media, in particularly, needs to be vigilant before reporting sensational case studies.