In the feverish race to understand what makes us tick, genes have been getting considerable attention recently. With millions to be made on patenting DNA sequences, it’s little wonder that scientists, universities and biotech companies are nailing down the mechanics of life left and right. Genomics entrepreneur J. Craig Venter has declared that in three years the complete human genetic code will be in hand, or at least in his hands, to be used for good or for ill. [Update 9/07: Venter's own genome has been sequenced, and he says, debunking genetic determinism, that "...the norm is an impressive array of large sets of genes together with environmental conditions that will determine life outcomes." The point being it's not just genes that determine us.]
All this has left us a little nervous, since it raises the question of whether there’s anything about Homo sapiens that isn’t mechanics, however intricate the process proves to be. After all, thorough explanations of behavior inevitably challenge the long-standing presumption that we possess free will, the capacity to choose our acts independently of surrounding influences. This scientific invasion of the self, what Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett has called "creeping mechanism," seems to threaten our role as autonomous agents, and along with it much we hold dear: personal responsibility, control of one’s destiny, spontaneity, perhaps our very souls.
To take a recent, all too vivid example, it’s clear that plausible explanations of school yard massacres involve a host of causes, among them biologically-based personality disorders, parental neglect, ostracism by peers, a culture that encourages the expression of violence, and the availability of guns. Not once in the myriad analyses of what went wrong in Littleton or Jonesboro or Taber, Alberta have we heard that the real reason for the atrocities lies in the free, self-chosen will of the shooters. Yet when we assign responsibility for a crime, it is with the understanding that most individuals, no matter how they’ve been influenced, act freely in just this sense.
The manifest conflict between science-based, deterministic explanations and free will has led some, such as Stephen Pinker, to conclude that we must carefully compartmentalize science and morality, lest we undermine the traditional justification for blame and punishment. As he puts it in How the Mind Works, "Science and morality are separate spheres of reasoning. Only by recognizing them as separate can we have them both..." (Pinker has since modified his view on this, see chapter 10 of The Blank Slate.) Others, such as Alan Dershowitz in his book The Abuse Excuse, are worried that juries may acquit defendants on the grounds that they too are victims, of the circumstances that caused them to commit their crime.
But must we acquit murderers if it turns out they don’t have free will? Do our moral judgments really need to be safeguarded from science? Perhaps accountability and dignity don’t need a foundation in something outside the net of causal explanation, or at least some have argued recently. There might even be positive consequences in reconfiguring our sense of self to coincide with our ever-growing knowledge of the springs of action.
Among those challenging the orthodoxy of free will is sociologist James Q. Wilson, who in his book Moral Judgment takes pains to show that justice can indeed co-exist with science. He disputes the idea that "the law rests, of necessity, on a convenient fiction, that of free will, and could not operate if it did not embrace that myth." We hold criminals accountable not because they choose, independently of their genetics and upbringing, to misbehave, but to teach them (and the rest of us) that bad choices have consequences, and so encourage obedience to "the essential rules of civilized conduct." Wilson puts to rest Dershowitz’s worry about the abuse excuse: just because behavior is fully determined doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons - deterrence, safety, moral education, and rehabilitation - for sanctions against offenders.
Robert Wright, Time correspondent and exponent of evolutionary psychology, also makes peace with determinism in his book The Moral Animal. Wright predicts that the increasing success of scientific explanation will compel us to admit that "we are all machines, pushed and pulled by forces that we can't discern but that science can." But, he argues, it is through understanding these forces, not denying them, that we might become truly moral animals and responsible citizens. Virtue, like crime, has its roots not in a mysterious freedom of choice, but in concrete social circumstances which we can learn to control. While making his case, Wright points out that Charles Darwin never bought the free will myth either, although he kept quiet about it.
Not surprisingly, however, Wilson and Wright’s prescription to abandon free will is a very tough sell, since most of us resent the seemingly drastic drop in status implied by full-bore determinism. Few of us want to concede our souls to mechanism.
For example, consider that commentaries on the new genetics often include reassuring references to a human exemption from causality. On these accounts, the environment, or character, or perhaps some non-physical personal essence, gives us a special freedom. Determinism is restricted to what is clearly biological, leaving wiggle room for the self-made self.
Cases in point: At a conference on genes and society in Cambridge last year, a speaker worried that we are succumbing to genetic determinism, the idea that DNA shapes nearly everything about a person. But such determinism is false, he argued, since the environment too contributes heavily to behavior and personality. The soothing implication was that environmental influences are somehow less constraining than genetics.
Similarly, in a Time magazine profile of DNA researcher Dean Hamer, J. Madeleine Nash wrote that "What people are born with, says Hamer, are temperamental traits. What they can acquire through experience is the ability to control these traits by exercising that intangible part of personality called character." Here again, experience (read environment) and character come to the rescue, overriding the mechanistic clockwork of our genes.
However, it’s been clear for some time that environmental influences are no less determining than genetics, and that character is set by circumstances as much as biology. As B. F. Skinner’s work in behaviorism showed, the molding effect of the environment is powerful and often predictable, and recent research on the neural "reward pathway" in the brain has laid the groundwork for understanding precisely how the self is shaped by experience. Science holds that we are, in toto, the products of a prodigiously complex dance between nature and nurture, which means that it banishes the self-originating self just as surely as ghosts and goblins.
But even scientists who realize that the environment offers no refuge from determinism will sometimes flinch, and offer the traditional reassurance that we might be miniature first causes. Speaking at another conference on genetics, Francis Collins, director of the National Center for Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health, said "Even when we completely understand all of the genes, what happens to us will be a result of interactions of genes, environment, and free will, which won’t go away as a consequence of understanding our biology" (emphasis added).
Some hope to find free will lurking in the indeterminacy of quantum physics, or in the unpredictability of chaotic systems, but it seems strange to suppose that people should be held responsible for what befalls them haphazardly. Others will insist that, like God, we have powers of self-creation that transcend science and the natural world. But as British philosopher Galen Strawson reminds us in a Times Literary Supplement piece on free will, no finite creature – whether material or ethereal – can literally bootstrap itself into existence.
Even though determinism presently disturbs us, as science progresses we might eventually get used to the idea of being very complex, but non-mysterious organic mechanisms, or "meat machines," as artificial intelligence guru Marvin Minsky so unpoetically puts it. We’ll see, following Wilson and Wright, that we are still gripped by morality and that the law doesn’t lose its teeth. Nor, just because we admit that we haven’t built our motives and character from the ground up, will we become any less unique, or creative, or committed in what we do. Cravings, ambitions, and altruistic concerns will still have their way with us.
However, we might become a little less egocentric in taking credit for our accomplishments, and a little more wary of piling on blame for "failures of will." By dropping the idea that people essentially create themselves, we’ll likely pay more attention to fostering the social and economic conditions which bring out the best in us. And to the extent that the notion of uncaused free will fuels the desire for retribution, support for the death penalty and other needlessly harsh punishments should diminish.
Of course there’s no telling exactly how things might change, were we to accept the fact that it’s not just genes that determine us, but our surroundings as well. But if we find ourselves regretting the loss of what now seems an illusory freedom, we are more than compensated by knowing that to have what we want – even poetry – we need not be more than we actually are.
© Thomas W. Clark