Steven Quartz, Brains, and Meaning

I recently came across this post from Edge: The World Question Center, where Steven Quartz, a neuroscientist also interested in anthropology, answers the following question: “What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?”  

He opens his letter to “the president” with the following summary: “Studies of our biological constitution make it increasingly clear that we are social creatures of meaning, who crave a sense of coherence and purpose. Yet, our modern way of life seems to provide fewer and fewer opportunities to engage in the group life that satisfies these human needs—indeed, many of its structures and institutions stunts these very needs.”  

In the body of the article, there is a verging-on-radical statement (for a neuroscientist, at least): “it’s my hunch that modernist culture is based on a profoundly mistaken view of human needs. The upshot is a deeply flawed view of human happiness as the private pursuit of self actualization.”  You mean, we don’t all need to train our mental will power muscle?  (Well, I had to make a little fun of my last post, didn’t I?)  

Even better, Quartz basically endorses what this site is about, except he gets the word wrong!  (So just insert neuroanthropology): “I would initiate a program at the intersection of science and culture to investigate what modern brain science reveals about human needs and how such an understanding can be applied to create both ways of living and a culture that better satisfies them—for lack of a better word, I’d call this ‘neurosociology’.” 

However, he does go a bit over the deep end with praising science, for “our civilization, to sustain itself, we require a culture that is built on the core values and insights of science itself, one that endows human life with the meaning we all crave.”  I don’t see science as having this role, and though I might think anthropology has its own additions to make, we have, at least, a fundamental recognition that the power of culture is already out of our hands. 

Or the power of life, to turn again to the ending to my Why Love post (an ending, of course, I rather liked, so I’ll repeat it; but the real difference is, I’ve met that craving in my real life and not in any science): “Like gravity, our everyday lives are all around us.  Not attraction and repulsion, and things falling to the ground because they are heavy, but the gravity of what we do, what we experience, what we want.  What we live.”

One thought on “Steven Quartz, Brains, and Meaning

  1. I have to agree with the sentiment of the letter, if not all of the content. I also like the definition of neuroanthropology. Our collective interpretation of behaviour is rapidly and irreversibly resolving to mechanisms, brain architecture, and neurochemistry. We find ourselves in the position where emotion, pleasure, pain, esthetics, and maybe even fundamentals of “free will” are artifacts of neurobiology. Our culture is in the midst of a huge philosophical paradigm shift that it has hardly yet begun to grasp.

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