Was Jerry Sandusky Really Hard-Wired to Be a Pedophile -- Couldn't He Have Stopped Himself?
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But this kind of thinking presupposes a weird dichotomy. We can't help our individual swirls of biological yuck and squishy brain parts filled with genes and hormones and neurotransmitters. But somewhere within each of us, perhaps in some secluded corner of the brain, a command center exists that is independent of biology. And this completely separate part of us enables us to resist abnormal urges that have arisen from an abnormal brain.
A lovely thought, but that's not how it works. Self-discipline, impulse control, gratification postponement and emotional regulation are all just as much products of biology as anything else that emanates from the brain. The same types of evidence that allowed us to understand the role for biology in such things as abnormal sexual urges have also demonstrated a role for biology in giving in to those urges.
Consider these examples: There's a part of the cortex that, when damaged, produces someone who knows the difference between right and wrong yet still can't control his behavior — even murderous behavior. There's a gene that influences risk-taking and sensation-seeking behaviors. There's a microscopic parasite that can burrow into the brain and form cysts that cause people to become more impulsive. There's a class of stress hormones that cause neurons to atrophy in a part of the brain that is central to executive function and long-term planning; by early elementary school, children raised in poverty tend to lag behind in the maturation of this brain region.
Findings like these present a huge challenge in reconciling the criminal justice system with what brain science is teaching us. I sure don't know how to do it. We can't simply lock up people because their brain chemistry suggests they are predisposed to criminal acts, nor can we exonerate people who've committed crimes simply because of their brain chemistry. But the more we understand about these things, the clearer it is that we can't just ignore them.
I, for one, am glad that increasing numbers of legal scholars, theologians and neuroscientists are working collectively to consider these questions. But the issue even transcends such a large and consequential topic, challenging each of us to reconsider how we think about our triumphs and failures, our own peaks of self-discipline and troughs of self-indulgence. Ultimately, findings like these force us to touch something that you wouldn't want to touch with a 10-foot pole, that big ol' philosophical elephant in the room — the issue of free will.
It cannot be that our thoughts, emotions, urges and itches are the exclusive province of biology, while what we do with them is entirely in the biology-free province of good and evil. If we are going to incorporate biology into thinking about human behavior — as logic demands we do — then we have to consider how it applies to all our domains of behavior. There are no separate categories.
Robert M. Sapolsky is John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University. His most recent book is " Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals ."