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ASA Forum for Public Discussion and Debate
Misconceptions of Our Social Brains
David D. Franks, Virginia Commonwealth University, Chair of ASA section on Evolution, Biology and Society
In 2000 Douglas Massey gave a presidential address saying we have gone too far in privileging the social over the biological. Nonetheless, a problematic distrust of the latter remains. What follows are reasons why such distrust is based on misconceptions of the way the biological is used in “neurosociology”.
Perhaps most important is that the biological is seen by many sociologists as reductionist as well as deterministic. But many neuroscientists do not see it this way. For example, leading neuroscientist Antonio Damasio rejects the kind of reduction that minimizes the importance of social processes and assumes that we are nothing more than their parts. He says:
I am not attempting to reduce social phenomena to biological phenomena, but rather to discuss the powerful connection between them. It should be clear that although culture and civilization arise from the behavior of biological individuals, the behavior was generated in collectivities of individuals interacting in social environments. Culture and civilization could not have arisen from single individuals and thus cannot be reduced to biological mechanisms, and even less, can they be reduced to a subset of genetic specifications. Their comprehension demands not just general biology and neurobiology but the methodologies of the social sciences as well. (Italics added by this author)
Edelman (1992:166) a Nobel Prize winner, uses more direct language about the matter:
To reduce a theory of an individual’s behavior to a theory of molecular reactions is simply silly, a point made clear when one considers how many different levels of biological and social interactions must be put in place before higher-order consciousness emerges. (Italics by this author)
While the fact that the human brain is seen as encapsulated in the individual’s head is obviously true, neuropsychologist Leslie Brothers told us long ago that “while our individual brains are singular and self-contained, the processes on which they depend for functioning are social ones…. The functioning brain is social in the sense that any given brain is completely dependent on other brains for its development..”
In Matthew Lieberman’s book, titled Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (2013), he tells of confederates who were waiting for an experiment to begin and started throwing a ball to each other. They also included a naïve subject. Then they stopped throwing it to him and just threw it to each other. In all of these experiments, results included lowered self-esteem for the subjects and increased conformity to group norms. An important finding by Lieberman is that that the social brain is never at rest. When the person is at rest the default part of the brain is still busy, and it is unconsciously thinking about other people. I rest my case!
- Brothers, L. (1997). Friday’s footprint: How society shapes the human mind. New York: Oxford.
- Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error and the future of human life. Scientific American, 271(4), 144.
- Edelman, G. (2004). Wider than the sky: The phenomenal gift of consciousness. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Franks D. (2010). Neurosociology: the nexus between Neuroscience and Social Psychology. New York: Springer Press.
- Lieberman M. D. (2013). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. New York: Crown Publishers.
- Massey, D. S. (2002). A brief history of human society: The origin and role of emotion in social life: 2001 presidential address. American Sociological Review, 67(1), 1–29.
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