But Wolfe’s political biases may have served him well when considering one of the most contentious debates of the day: the role of biology in understanding violence. He mentions the Violence Initiative, a US government project to study the genetics of violent behaviour in inner cities. Already controversial, it was abandoned after the lead researcher gave a jaw-dropping speech that referred to the evolutionary basis of violence in monkeys and compared inner cities to a “jungle”. Wolfe rightly described this as being “the stupidest single word uttered by an American public official in 1992”. The racist overtones compounded legitimate concerns about the project but it strengthened a long-held liberal suspicion that any research on the biology of violence was eugenics in disguise, something Wolfe thought absurd. Twenty years later, he has largely been proved right and the neuroscience of violence is now relatively uncontroversial, a matter of debate not protest. The pendulum swung in the other direction for a while, with overblown claims about a “warrior gene”. Now, biological factors are accepted as present but so complex that attempts to make political capital out of them quickly stumble. These days, anyone using simple reductionist biology as either an axe or a foil marks them out as scientifically naive.
Actually, that sort of nonsense is still talked up all the time, as the best pop science has to offer. But one mustn’t interrupt.
Perhaps Wolfe’s most astute observation was cultural: how the collapse of Freud and Marx had pushed people into using the language of cognitive science for explanations of human behaviour. He also noticed that the link between the actual science and the conclusions people drew from it were often tenuous, and his article foreshadowed an explosion of dubious media stories about brain centres for infidelity, neural circuits for political orientation, and chemical imbalances for mental illness. More.
See also: “The evolutionary psychologist knows why you vote — and shop, and tip at restaurants”
There’s a gene for that… or is there?
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