Retraction: Brains, Politics, and Essentialism

In three previous blogs (here, here, and here), I made statements I can no longer stand by. (I should have made this post a long time ago, but until a conversation in the past few weeks, I had forgotten I made these statements, and I got a bit too excited about the “easy” explanation. I have long discussed the problems with trying to connect gender and sexuality to any notion of being “born this way,” for example.) In these articles, I discussed research that (article example here with links to research studies) and argued that political differences, mores, and world views can be explained by and are caused by biological differences in the brain’s anatomy. Such a view uses essentialism, relies on dated binary-based thought and structuralist thinking, and promotes bad science.

Essentialism is a philosophy that finds (or rather, creates) biological–rather than cultural–origins and explanations for human differences and human culture. Essentialist views would suggest that there have always been people who were liberal and people who were conservative, for example. (Clearly, today’s–United States, 2010s–political labels and issues are unique to our time and place.) This binary doesn’t leave much room for the spectrum of human behavior or for people who have views that fall into both categories. (There is often little specific logic to what is considered “liberal” and what is considered “conservative.”) 

If people were actually “born” with innate world views (concern first for self and family or first for the community, as argued in this problematic research), you would never have people who changed their views. And we’d live with an even greater sense of helplessness if we don’t have agency and we can’t change. 

Any attempt to connect any examination of the body and its parts to culturally-guided human behavior is very quickly problematic. To even begin to maybe rely on such research, one would need precise definitions that every one agreed to, an examination of identity vs. behavior, and focus groups that included billions (truly, billions) of people.

I absolutely stand by statements made many times that humans are “animals” and are still very “uncivilized.” We haven’t evolved enough, in general, to be truly kind, selfless, and open-minded. But you don’t need an examination of the body to say this. 

But just as brain scans or any other medical measurement cannot predict or determine gender, sexuality, race, religion, etc., they cannot determine one’s ethical views or one’s politics. Why do we try to explain differences and problems by biology? Why do people neglect culture? In part, pointing to biology is the “easy” way out and an “easy” way to dismiss the unpopular group (or minority group) in any given situation. 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda