About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Republican brains, Republican genes

by Massimo Pigliucci

There has been much talk of, and much furor about, a spate of research into the biological bases of the differences between people who are politically conservative or liberal. Chris Mooney has a new forthcoming book provocatively entitled The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality (a follow up to his previous The Republican War on Science). Republican commentators, predictably, are not happy. (Though I didn't hear them complaining when Jonathan Haidt's research hinted at the possibility that conservatives have more moral dimensions than progressives — if one can seriously consider issues of “purity,” unconditional respect for authority and unreflective nationalism as part of the moral sphere.)

Chris has published a series of posts on his blog and at the Huffington Post about both genetic and neurobiological research purporting to explain why Republicans think differently from Democrats, and has even invoked evolutionary explanations underlying these differences. The research is certainly interesting, and some of the findings intriguing, if preliminary. The general idea is that conservatism is ideologically “defensive,” while liberalism is “exploratory,” and that accordingly different personality types are attracted to the Right or the Left.

For instance, a study conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has shown that conservatives react very negatively and very strongly — from a physiological perspective — to images of Bill and Hillary Clinton, as if engaging their fight or flight response against a perceived threat. Liberals, somewhat predictably, reacted positively to the same images, as if they were exposed to an appetitive stimulus (no, we are not talking sexually appetitive). The more interesting finding of this type of research, however, is that the responses of the two groups are not symmetrical. For example, conservatives dislike President Obama much more than liberals like him, and while liberals showed themselves willing to read news from a variety of sources, including Faux News, conservatives concentrated almost exclusively on the latter, pretty much ignoring stories labeled as originating from CNN or NPR (this is regardless of the actual content of the story).

Research highlighted by Chris indicates that these distinct behavioral attitudes map to differences in the way their brains react to stimuli, and that these in turn are associated with genetic differences between the two groups. Now, Chris is careful in stating that “to study the biology or genetics of political differences is not to embrace determinism,” and rightly so. But a good number of his readers aren’t quite so nuanced, judging from the tenor of the comments his posts receive.

Instead, people seem to jump the gun from the (very preliminary, somewhat cursory) evidence to the two classical fallacies of biologization: 1) if it’s in the brain it’s “biological” (as opposed to cultural), and 2) if it’s genetic it can’t be changed. The first fallacy is part of the recent trend that Julia and I labeled "neurobabbling" (and that Raymond Tallis less charitably refers to as neurotrash), while the second one is as old as the controversies over the heritability of IQ during the second part of the 20th century (and repeats the same mistake of creating a false dichotomy between nature and nurture).

(There is a third problem with this line of inquiry, which comes into play when people invoke evolutionary, usually adaptive, explanations to account for complex cultural traits of modern societies. While there likely are discernible traces of our evolutionary past in pretty much everything we do, it is just too easy to make up stories about that past, and too darn difficult to find a shred of evidence to actually test those stories. Not that this seems to be of any deterrence when it comes to selling books or writing sensationalistic articles, of course.)

I have recently touched on the problem with correlative analyses of brain and behavioral activity here at Rationally Speaking. Of course we will find, always, a neural correlate of any human behavior. That’s how humans behave, through actions that are rooted in the functioning of the brain. That said, it certainly is interesting to discover that the brains of liberals and conservatives look different in an fMRI scan, but to go from that observation to building a solid causal scenario isn’t that easy. Brains are things that grow and change in response to myriad environmental stimuli, from before we are born to pretty much the end of our lives. It is very difficult — and certainly hasn’t been done by the recent flurry of studies — to disentangle genetic, environmental, and developmental effects for any human behavior, let alone for something as complex and context dependent as being conservative or liberal in 21st century United States. It’s not just that we don’t know whether having a certain brain predisposes someone to be a Republican or whether being a Republican molds our brain responses in a certain way. It’s that the very question doesn’t make much sense because the causal pathways are complex, interrelated, and full of feedbacks.

Similarly with the issue of genetics. Genes don’t make us think or vote. They just make proteins. There are huge layers of complex causality separating a given strand of DNA and your decision to watch Bill O’Reilly or Jon Stewart, so that discovering genes influencing a given behavior (many, many other things being equal) is interesting, but constitutes only a tiny fraction of the puzzle, and one that is particularly apt to be misunderstood by the public and exploited by demagogues.

And here is the crux of the problem: again, the science of any human behavior is intrinsically interesting (to humans), and certainly worth pursuing. But the history of this type of research is fraught with sloppy experiments and hasty interpretations on the part of scientists themselves, and has the potential to lead to disastrous social attitudes and policies (if you want just one example, think of the infamous eugenics laws enacted by a number of states in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century — with support from progressive intellectuals, I might add — and which led to 60,000 people being forcefully sterilized because of sloppy science twisted in the service of ideology).

The risk we face in the case of this new trend of biologizing politics is that — regardless of Chris’ and others’ careful disclaimers — many people will conclude that there is no point in engaging “the other side” because, you know, they can’t help themselves, they are the way they are because of their brains, their genes, and their evolution. Chris ends one of his pieces (on the alleged evolutionary roots of the political divide) by saying: “the lesson for conservatives? Well, here it is tougher. You see, first we’d have to get them to accept something they often view as aversive and threatening: The theory of evolution.” Nice quip, but as it turns out plenty of conservatives accept evolution (and global warming, etc.), and there is a good number of progressives who believe in coocoo notions about vaccines causing autism, 9/11 being the result of a government conspiracy, and of course the perennial favorite, quantum mysticism.

The reality is that we are the product of both biological and cultural evolution, that we are constrained by our genetic makeup, and that everything we think and do is mediated by our brains. But our political opinions do change, both over our lifespan and sometimes from an election to the next, and they change because we can be persuaded through a variety of means, some of which even include rational discourse! So, let us certainly look at the science of politics, but let us also not neglect to engage each other on the issues whenever possible, and as reasonably as we can manage.


  1. I'm sorry, if Chris had any intention of being as cautious as you say he is, he would not have called the book "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality". It is hard to imagine a more ridiculously provocative title. In fact, the suggestion that a group of people "denies reality" is obviously calculated to produce exactly the sorts of responses he is getting. I refuse to read or engage with the arguments of authors who "sell out" to the kind of money-driven sensationalism that plagues science writing.

  2. Although, as a most-of-the-time Republican, I must take issue with some of these pejorative characterizations, instead of throwing a fit, let me just present an alternative model.

    Although few of us are believers anymore in psychoanalysis or its various progeny, I think that we – especially liberals - are still thoroughly captivated by its categories. As a result, Western culture tends to think in favor of “neuroses and social programming” instead of “sin” (even though now some of our deterministic thinking is driven by genetics).

    The spin-offs are profound. Consequently, with the “social conditioning model in hand,” the liberal is more ready to excuse anti-social behavior as simply the result of the upbringing and to establish programs to counteract the social conditioning. Indeed, they are more adventurous, because they think that all we have to do is to eliminate the “bad guys,” who enforce the system, and the system will change and people will be better. Meanwhile, conservatives are more likely to espouse a religious model that understands that the problem isn’t in a broken society but in broken people.

    Conservatives are therefore less ready to start a revolution or to impose a top-down solution to cure our very intractable problems or to allow some utopia-minded government to raise our children. I tend to think that we see our own evil hearts with greater clarity. This tends to keep us grounded.

    1. Maybe it's just my liberal biases speaking, but I think most of my fellow liberals - almost all, really - *do* believe in moral responsibility. But I think it's also important to understand that people do draw a lot of influence from their upbringing, and people don't have some kind of innate moral compass from birth - nor should they be expected to. We're not trying to make what Sartre would call "deterministic excuses" - we're trying to understand why people do what they do, and that leads us to the not-entirely-unexpected conclusion that people are shaped heavily by their environment and by their genes.

      Thinking about sin is, from a legal perspective, useless. If you believe in a God or gods of some sort, they'll take care of sin. That's not the legal system's job. The legal system isn't here to punish people gratuitously - it's here to make society work better. Sometimes that requires punishing people, but that's not what really matters.

    2. "The legal system isn't here to punish people gratuitously."

      I don't see how you would derive such a conclusion from my remarks. I think that the concept of "sin" actually reinforces what you wrote! It places the responsibility on the individual and away from his parents and upbringing.

      I would even add that "sin" dignifies the individual, communicating that we are morally responsible beings despite the many deterministic factors that impact our lives. Perhaps we're talking past one another?

    3. I think you and I still disagree on something, though. We agree that people are morally responsible and (in some sense) free, and also that there are strong deterministic constraints and influences. But our disagreements are a matter of degree. To me, the effects of genes and the environment are very important and impossible to ignore. And so I do assign moral responsibility to people, but as a matter of pragmatism; I don't think "sin" is a useful concept for the justice system, designed as it is for whatever higher power may or may not exist. So to me, a consequentialist approach seems more humane. To some context-dependent extent, I think, "the system" may really be much of the problem.

  3. One question this raises for me is how "liberal" and "conservative" are defined in these studies. It's an oft-repeated claim that political views in the United States skew more to the conservative side of the spectrum than views in Europe. If that's actually true in some meaningful sense, it could be that moderates are more likely to identify themselves as "liberal" in the United States. But depending on the design of the experiment and the culture within which it is performed, that could mean that more centrists are included in the category of liberals.

    In that case, it could be that these studies have more to say about the difference between political centrists and political extremists than about the difference between liberals and conservatives. And indeed, it seems very plausible to me that extremists (on either side of the spectrum) would be more ideologically defensive, while centrists would be more ideologically exploratory.

  4. I don't think you need to even mention the shaky brain and genetics research to punch a hole through this marketing campaign. (I guarantee Mooney thought about excerpting material at a HuffPo-blogpost level of length and sophistication as he wrote the book.) "They"? Couldn't use a few more letters to repeat Republicans? Or maybe use "conservatives" instead? Niche publishing to be sure.

    Cultural factors (family of origin, life events, friends, even chance encounters) influence political attitudes, including whether one has any, much more than biological factors. George Lakoff has a simple and highly relevant model in "Don't Think of an Elephant". Conservatives = strict father family, liberals = nurturing family (not only feminine). If Mooney's whole book can explain preferences more than this, I'd be shocked.

  5. Similar to what Scott wrote, I must always shake my head about how parochially American this is framed. As if all the political positions of human beings throughout history and all over the planet could be neatly sorted into liberals and conservatives!

    For starters, in nearly all countries of the world, the word liberal is used to denote what Americans would call libertarians (e.g., Germany) or conservatives (e.g., Australia). But much more importantly, would it have made sense to group people into conservatives and liberals in the USA of 1780? Would it make sense to do it for today's Russia, China, Bolivia, Portugal, etc.? If not, what does that tell us about the advisability of analysing the issue from an evolutionary perspective in the first place?

    In truth, the USA is an outlier no only for its bizarre political terminology, but also for what the principal coordinate of the political spectrum is. In most other countries of the world it is not primarily about culture wars and ignoring science but primarily about income distribution, labour rights and the role of the state in the economy, so wondering how somebody reacts to spiders or how strong their fight-or-flight reflex is is much less relevant to figuring out where they stand politically and why.

    1. Here in the US, it's mostly about the economy, too. Science and culture wars don't come up that often.

  6. I agree with most of these comments but I am just as annoyed by something like "The science of why..." showing up in the title as well. The first thought when I saw this post was pretty much in line with your third problem with this line of inquiry.

    I tend to agree with you when I see this research and find it interesting. I am glad that the author is being careful about how he presents his research because, from what I have seen, this isn't being done when scientists try to mix science with the humanities. But, from such a sensationalized title, I question why a book whose author is being cautious with his research would have a title that portrays itself as overreaching in its explanations.

  7. Nick has it, in a nutshell.

    There are interesting conversations to be had on the subject of measurable physiological characteristics of brains that correlate well with beliefs and behaviors of their people, but Mooney's book is highly unlikely to serve well as a starting point for many of them. That said, if any online community can make it happen, I'll bet this one can. If it does, however, I think it will be accomplished to the degree that Mooney's book is discarded as the conversation's touchstone.

  8. Scott raises a good issue on how politics differs from culture to culture, even within the modern western world. We know brains don't evolve that fast, so that alone undercuts Chris' claims of the title.

    That said, why DO the GOP act so different, even from conservatives elsewhere in the Western world? It's not likely that even epigenetics has any real role, so it must be almost entirely cultural.

    If neuroscience of the future can do any good here, it might be to show how cultural associations strengthen different parts of the brain more in different groups. Since we can (unless conservatives fight that) tailor education if we know something like that, this would be an actual insight. Until then, nothing.

  9. So... political opinion correlates with personality, and personality correlates with biology. Shocking.

    Also, what Alex SL said.

    1. "For example, conservatives dislike President Obama much more than liberals like him."

      Apples and oranges. The real comparison comes in when we ALSO find out whether liberals disliked Bush more than conservatives liked him (that answer is also yes, I bet).

    2. True. The statement, "the responses of the two groups are not symmetrical," does not apply to the example provided. Rather, the asymmetry was in the comparative mechanism.

      But I don't think the entire discussion can be boiled down to your original comment. Identifying a correlation is a beginning, not an ending.

  10. Alex, I understand and agree with what you're saying, but be careful not to let it shroud the larger point, which is that if there are differences in brain structure that correlate strongly with different, for lack of a better term, thought modalities, then investigating the relationship between these phenomena holds intrinsic value in the realm of augmenting our understanding of ourselves, whether the named categories that describe such modalities are broadly representative or not. Indeed, such inquiries may conceivably lead to identifying principles that underlie those modalities, and could even point the way to what could be termed a proto-political vocabulary from which more parochial models stem.

    I guess what I'm saying is, yes, you've identified the poor framing. Having done so, why not let the next step be to expand the dialogue beyond the poor soil of its beginnings?

  11. The Humanist religion is becoming a theme here. How about a critique of Humanism. It has been in the news lately. It would be interesting to explore whether or not the embrace of the growth of Humanist religion is like a rebound marriage. It seems that there are many who, upon leaving the faith in which they were raised....have a rebound response...and embrace anther religion....One which can give justification to the moral feelings that were carry-overs from their lost religion....but now find a home in a new religion.

  12. perspicio,

    well, the thing is, if you frame it more cautiously like that, it becomes kind of ... trivial? Not worthy of publishing a book about? Or, at the risk of becoming circular, what Ian Pollock wrote in his first comment. Political allegiance is partly based on personality. Personality is partly based on genes. Thanks for telling me, Chris Mooney, I would not have possibly been able to work that out myself.

    1. Alex, I may be mistaken, but the tone of your initial comment seemed to suggest (to me) that you found the book as presented trivial and not worth publishing.

      That aside, though, I'm not sure how you interpreted what I said as a more cautious framing of your point, which, while valid, merely acknowledges something that is more or less recognizable as trivially true, and as such tends to truncate conversation.

      My point was that it usually only takes appending a simple question to a trivial observation of the way things are to open up avenues of discussion instead of shutting them down. For example:

      Can we see similar trends in other cultures, or is the phenomenon itself the primary parochial element, and not the language used to describe it?

      If we can see such trends in other cultures, do the physiological aspects of the correlations seen in the US line up well with the trends seen elsewhere, or are there many distinct physiological trends that vary by culture?

      Such incremental questions constitute the fine grit that robust scientific models are made of.

  13. Well, as the purveyor of a blog entitled "rationally speaking" I can see where research suggesting that some people are much less capable of considering evidence in a fair, coherent, and thorough manner would be a very unwelcome development. But let's consider the evidence: some large percentage of the population seems incapable of consistently considering evidence in a fair, coherent, and thorough manner. How do we explain this incapacity? I think the best explanation for this persistent feature of human thought is, more or less, that this is how the organ of thought operates.

    There is a large literature on persistent personality factors that can be summarized with the "The 5 Factor Model." One of the "big five" is "openness to experience." The opposite end of this dimension is "need for cognitive closure." People on opposite sides of this dimension have very different attitudes toward evidence. This seems to me a parsimonious and empirically well supported finding which contributes to explaining much public disagreement over science: (evolution by natural selection, climate change, vaccine safety, GMO agriculture, etc.). It's not the whole explanation but nothing ever is in the social domain. It helps to make sense of the way people treat evidence.

    This openness to experience vs. need for cognitive closure dynamic does not neatly map onto liberal vs. conservative political orientation. Nevertheless it is the same kind of dispositional explanation that I gather Chris Mooney details in his book. If there are dispositional features distinguishing political orientation why shouldn't we investigate them too and see how they correlate with political behavior in the social policy domain? Such dispositional 'explanations' must always be compared and contrasted with competing 'situational' explanations but there is no reason why both kinds of explanation cannot obtain simultaneously (though it makes causal modeling much more difficult).

    I began this little disquisition because I thought that Massimo might be unreasonably reacting to a threat to rationality represented by certain dispositional features of human thought. But that implies that rationality is a kind of default for thinking that we must all share equally as a default capacity. I don't see it that way. Rationality is a set of norms that we are differently disposed to endorse and follow. It should not be a matter of defending rationality against the march of social and cognitive neuroscience but of finding ways of encouraging norms of rationality in all people, especially given that they certainly seem differently disposed to follow them. Rationality and irrationality exist on a continuum and it's up to those wishing to promote rationality to explore the (social and biological) landscape of this continuum in the hope of finding ways of moving people's dispositional and situational settings in the direction of rationality. It seems to me that an exploration of the biology of rationality is a crucial part of this project, one that Chris Mooney is contributing to, albeit with a political bent.

    1. thw--
      You seem very conversant with this research but I do not understand why you say that the "openness to experience vs. need for cognitive closure dynamic does not neatly map onto liberal vs. conservative political orientation." All my research and reporting suggests that it most certainly does.

      I want to thank Massimo for this post and I've started to respond here, but there is much more to say

    2. Thanks Chris for the reply.

      I'll try to defend my comment. Openness and need for closure certainly correlate highly with political orientation but it's not a 'neat' 1 - 1 correspondence. As someone who spent time in a humanities dept. you must have encountered plenty of dogmatic 'conservative' liberals of the priestly post-modern sort who are militantly anti-science in a very close-minded way. The Sokal Affair comes to mind. There are also the Jenny McCarthy's of the world out there dogmatically shooting down science. Now Erin Brokovitch is jumping into the hysteria outbreak in upstate NY. And Robert Altemeyer mentions that there are authoritarians on the left--Stalinists and Maoists (although it's complicated by the status quo status of those groups at the time). People can be dogmatic and closed minded about their pro-social/communitarian motives even though this seems much less common than being dogmatic and closed minded about pro-self/individualist motives. Also, Frank-Zappa-fan Jon Huntsman may be a candidate for open-minded conservative.

      My 'evidence' is anecdotal but it seems pretty convincing to me. You only need one counter-example to falsify a perfect correlation. Political orientation may be a proxy (although a pretty good one) for other kinds of dogmatic commitments that are in tension with science. I like, for instance, Corey Robin's view on the Reactionary Mind as a reflexive attempt to maintain hierarchies and inequality as a good explanation for much anti-climate change sentiment and commitment. Dan Kahan will surely discuss hierarchy with you as the 'grid' dimension in the 'grid - group' state space for political motivation. Those 2 dimensions produce 4 'quadrants' of political orientation, by the way, only one of which seems very open to all of the deliverances of science: low grid, low group--egalitarian individualists. Low grid, high group--egalitarian communitarians--can produce the post modernist, science studies, anti-vaxer, anti-gmo science denialists of the liberal world.

      Perhaps the problem is that openness and closed-mindedness map in complicated ways onto the grid-group conception of political motives. Being high on grid (hierarchy) or group (community) can involve high need for cognitive closure. I prefer to divide conservative-liberal along the grid dimension (authority vs. egalitarian) whereas many people divide it along the group dimension (individualist vs. communitarian). But there are plenty of liberal communitarians, no? Michael Sandel(?), Barack Obama, etc.

    3. addendum: my last sentence should have called attn to conservative communitarians like Rick Warren, Mike Huckabee, etc. Just because they are community-minded doesn't mean they aren't conservative. So individualist doesn't necessarily mean conservative... I think it is more salient that they identify as hierarchists. All conservatives are hierarchists, some of the individualist stripe (Rockefeller, Romney), others of the ('social' conservative) communitarian variety like Huckabee and maybe Santorum.

      It also is complicated by errors in self-identification, so people like Santorum simultaneously promote individualist and communitarian values which are in tension with each other. Individualism as self-reliance is paradoxically promoted as a community value (which you can make some sense of because a norm can promote anything while still a norm of a community).

    4. Oh, my effing doorknob. If Chris thinks favorably of what Sam Harris has done in neuroscience research, I'm sorry, I mean "research," he's off the deep end, or headed there. And, Massimo, knowing how much you "love" Harris ... is a new response/blog post forthcoming?

    5. Chris also, I would guess, ignores that definitions of who is "conservative" and "liberal" shift over time. (Today, Nixon would be called a liberal by many in the GOP.) He also ignores that neither "liberal" nor "conservative" is monolithic. And, that a two-dimension graph might force such monolithic definitions.

      Finally, arguably, there's a bit of irony at work. Such tight categorization (outside the natural sciences) is arguably a conservative trait.

      Don't get me wrong; the research data is interesting. And, there's more concrete evidence that we can be "primed" differently by different things. But, again, that's culture not nature.

    6. Gadfly,

      yes, I was a bit disappointed by Chris' response. I don't see how on earth this kind of research "supports" the New Atheists' approach, unless one reads Harris as a simple minded biological determinist...

  14. "apples and oranges. The real comparison comes in when we ALSO find out whether liberals disliked Bush more than conservatives liked him (that answer is also yes, I bet)."

    I don't know but I would think and bet that it is not. Conservative tendencies for opposition to things like abortion, contraception, same-sex rights, evolution and tendency for association with religiosity... would suggest that their actions are more driven by emotional factors(the stronger uncontrollable instinctive feelings), than rational arguments, this would also address the tendency of many to be immobile to reason in debate, and their tendency to fluctuate their acceptance of things like evolution and climate change irregardless of the evidence and in accord with the whims of the party.

    It doesn't take much imagination or intelligence to realize that the status-quo is FAR FAR FAR away from the ideal world that is possible... thus the conclusion to do away with the suboptimal for the optimal quickly emerges... and conserving or preserving the status-quo becomes no more than a joke of a position... in the end if the posthuman state is possible they will have no say in the evolution of society towards the ideal.

    "Conservatives are therefore less ready to start a revolution or to impose a top-down solution to cure our very intractable problems or to allow some utopia-minded government to raise our children. I tend to think that we see our own evil hearts with greater clarity. This tends to keep us grounded."

    There have already been shown to be genetic influences to resliency when faced with abuse, such that even if abused the individual turns out fine. Should we find safe and effective genetic alteration methods, and genetic changes that ensure say 95+% chance of a law abiding citizen. Some would be willing to try the change in small scale and if successful(say crime rate is brough to virtual 0% in a county or region selected for this) bring it about in the large scale. Would the conservatives tend to accept the rational choice, or would they oppose it because it is "playing god", not "natural", and other ridiculous babble, opposing it every step of the way?

  15. Tis a virtue to be able to recognize one's own rhetoric as rhetoric.

    1. What if it isn't one's own rhetoric though, but only appears to be?

      DUM DUM dummmmmmmm!

    2. Well...If it was easy, it wouldn't be a virtue.

    3. With that link, I was actually taking aim at the idea that our ideas are ever fully our own.

      Most would agree that what we think, believe, and say is influenced by our environment. We take this as just part of the territory. But what if part of that environment consists of physiological alterations caused by other living organisms that literally live inside our brains? Is that kind of influence meaningful in a way that more indirect ones - for example, succumbing to and subsequently parroting propaganda - are not?

  16. perpsico
    That depends on whether the organism living inside our brains is parroting propaganda....or is acting randomly....or is a rational genius, etc. Motivated rationality is rhetoric. Most of our rationality is motivated. The question of whose rhetoric gets used in our attempts to satisfy our motivations is difficult to discover. But, the origin is not as important as the effectiveness of the rhetoric.....and it may or may not be a virtue to always be able to recognize whatever or whoever's rhetoric as being merely rhetoric.

    1. OK, DJD, I'm sure I misconstrued your original point, so I have gone back and whited-out any inclination I had to believe I understood it. So...I get that you're not as interested in the origin or proprietary chain of rhetoric as much as the recognition of it as such. However, I gotta admit I'm not really following your point about it beyond that, because it seems to me that you directly contradicted yourself or else inexplicably backed off from your original position. Is it, or is it not, in your view, a virtue to be able to recognize rhetoric as rhetoric?

      In any case, I wasn't suggesting that a microbe would be directly responsible for generating rhetoric itself. I was just exploring the implications of the idea that such an agent, acquired through contact with cat feces, could be the proximate cause of neurophysiological changes that may influence the particular rhetoric that resonates with a person.

      I suspect that most people would consider such an organism parasitic or infectious, and in many cases, their sense of "purity" would be offended. As a result, I believe many people would view those individuals as sick, in a manner of speaking, which in turn would tend to evoke some measure of sympathy and/or revulsion. And it's difficult to argue that they'd be entirely wrong.

      But by contrast, what if it were conclusively shown that almost all people alive today host a particular organism that has an effect on both thought modality and behavior, such that those without it tend to be readily identifiable as deviant from, and sometimes even subversive to, the dominant culture? Who is now sick? How should the hosts deal with the purity sensibilities that this scenario triggers? Do they then begin to see the organism as beneficial instead of infectious?

      This, incidentally, is a way in which I believe issues of purity do have standing in the moral sphere.
      One's sense of purity may not be rationally derived, and as such may at times lead us to irrational conclusions, but the same is true of any of our other senses and sensibilities too - yet we use them extensively in our behavioral calculi. In essence, I think there's a great deal of embedded wisdom in our evolutionary heritage, but we are not very cognizant of it, and we invite disaster if we suppose we can supersede our intuitive judgments and achieve reliably better results by applying a "purely" rational model.


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