The Ethical Brain:

I recently read Michael Gazzaniga's most recent book, The Ethical Brain. This is a great book by a leading neuroscientist (and friend). The book seems to have arisen from Gazzaniga's work with the National Council on Bioethics, animated in substantial part by his perception of a lack of knowledge of science among some of his colleagues there. So this book seems to be pitched at the same audience to whom Bioethics report was aimed, in an effort to provide an accessible scientific background to a number of contemporary ethical and political controversies.

The book is more a collection of essays on related topics than an integrated whole. Part III of the book may be of most interest to readers here, as it is on the implications of neuroscience for law, including related questions such as memory. There are some terrific points in here. He surveys many of the currently-available "truth detection" tests that are out there. He discusses the promise and difficulties of some of the technologies out there for truth detection, such as fMRI machines. Toting it up, as I read him, he seems to conclude that perhaps the one with the most promise is one that focuses on facial expressions, which he concludes is quite difficult to fake.

He also has a fascinating discussion of the unreliability of many of the conventionally-used courtroom techniques, such as eyewitness reports. One amazing example he gives is of a woman who was assaulted while watching television, and then later confused her assailant with a person who happened to be on television at precisely the same instant. He recounts other situations where false memories hinder investigations and the like. For instance, he recalls the "DC sniper" from a few years ago, where it was thought that the guys were driving a white van. Instead, an eyewitness had simply seen a white van at the scene of the crime, and misidentified it as the sniper. Later witnesses then also thought they had seen a white van because the media kept reporting the white van, but it was largely imagined. His overall conclusion is provocative--many of the courtroom techniques we use today are terribly flawed, and there are alternatives out there that are much more reliable.

He also discusses a wide range of ethical issues that arise from various issues surrounding brain sciences, such as the use of drugs that make us smarter, as well as issues of aging and other questions. Given that abortion is somewhat in the news right now, I'll mention one provocative argument he offers that I hadn't previously seen. In one section of his book he describes the life cycle of a fetus. The goal here is to try to focus on certain developmental milestones to address the question of when a fetus becomes a "person" for moral purposes, and perhaps legal purposes. So, for instance, he argues that there is no reasonable basis to claim that moral personhood arises at the moment of conception, or more specifically, before 14 days of gestation. The crux of his argument is that both twinning and chimeras (two embryos spontaneously reconverge and become one again) occur during this period. His conclusion about this is, "it is hard to ascribe the sense of what is happening to the uniqueness of the 'individual' or 'soul' that is supposedly being formed at the instant of conception." (p. 12).

He also has an interesting chapter on religion, where he describes how the brain reacts during religious experiences and the psychological experience of religion. One interesting point he makes in passing is that it turns out that scientists are just attached to their particular theories as religious believers, and in fact, scientists are just as reluctant to surrender their beliefs about science when confronted with contrary evidence as are religious believers. He notes (p. 146):

Nowhere does the human capacity to form and hold beliefs become more stark than when clear scientific data challenge the assumptions of someone's personal beliefs. It would be easy to spin a story line about how a particular person with a set of religious values resisted the biological analysis of this or that finding in an effort to reaffirm his or her belief. There are many such stories, but they miss the point. Scientists themselves are just as resistant to change a view when confronted with new data that suggest their view is incorrect. All of us hold ot to our beliefs, and it now appears that men are even more tencious about not letting go than are women.

He adds (pp. 146-47), "Interestingly, it turns out that scientists are slower to change their views in the face of new data than are preachers."

Overall, quite an interesting book that covers a wide range of modern controversies in bioethics. It is also quite accessible. It is also short (178 pages) and in a few instances I felt that it was too short, in the sense that some of the discussions could have been developed in greater depth. Nonetheless, it is highly recommended.

One testament to Gazzaniga's influence on popular discussion of these issues is that it is reported that he was the prototype for the character of the neuroscience professor in Tom Wolfe's book, I Am Charlotte Simmons. In fact, Gazzaniga is mentioned by the professor in Wolfe's book during one of his lectures.