Capital punishment defendants unlikely to benefit from neurolaw

Recently, I have noted Baylor neuroscientist David Eagleman's new "neurolaw" book, Incognito. The basic idea, driven by evolutionary psychology, is that criminal law would improve if we dropped the illusion that people are responsible for their behaviour. Perhaps social justice minded supporters hope it will bring about prison reform, an end to capital punishment, or such. They hope in vain.

Here's my MercatorNet article in which a defense lawyer who specializes in capital punishment explains why that probably won't happen: 

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Ape researcher: Moral code merely “controlling system”

 In “Going ape: Ultraviolence and our primate cousins,” New Scientist’s News Editor, Rowan Hooper, reviewing a book on ape violence, riffs,

Josephine Head, also of the Max Planck Institute, describes how she tracked a trail of blood from where chimps had been vocalising loudly the night before, and made a horrible discovery: the spread-eagled body of an adult male chimp, his face battered and bruised, throat torn open and intestines dragged out. "I feel as though I am looking at a person who has been murdered in a savage attack," she writes. As she takes this in, the band of chimps return to the corpse, and the biologists retreat to watch.

Afterwards, Head's team finds the dead male's penis and testicles some 30 metres away – ripped off, she speculates, as part of an emasculation ritual. The incident was so human in so many ways that she wonders: "Is our 'moral code' nothing more than a controlling system that humans have invented to keep some order in society?" The answer is surely yes. (6 June 2011)

Shout-in responses: How about, the answer is surely: No. A sense of justice – sharp or dull – is a human trait, and codes exist to, well, codify it.

On the other hand: This guy could be right. Naw.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

Does “recursivity” make us human?

Here, Liz Else (New Scientist, (3 June 2011) tells us, that “recursivity” or “thoughts within thoughts” make us human:

Chimps, bonobos and orangutans just don't tell stories, paint pictures, write music or make films – there are no great ape equivalents of Hamlet or Inception. Similarly, theory of mind is uniquely highly developed in humans: I may know not only what you are thinking, says Corballis, but also that you know what I am thinking. Most – but not all – language depends on this capability.

Actually, no, other sources say,

these qualities don’t make us human. They identify us as human. They are a key characteristic, and not the only one, that we expect of humans, and would expect of intelligent space aliens.

The emerging point is that recursion developed in the mind and need not be expressed in a language. But, as Corballis is at pains to point out, although recursion was critical to the evolution of the human mind, it is not one of those "modules" much beloved of evolutionary psychologists, many of which are said to have evolved in the Pleistocene. Nor did it depend on some genetic mutation or the emergence of some new neuron or brain structure. Instead, he suggests it came of progressive increases in short-term memory and capacity for hierarchical organisation – all dependent in turn on incremental increases in brain size.

This is a critical insight in non-materialist neuroscience: The ability to think, not some supposed module in the ocean of the brain, explains such matters as language and religion. That said, a Mark Hauser retro-man will surely come out shortly with a study claiming to have found it in chimpanzees. But to see it, you’d have to be him.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

Probing the mystery of psychopathy

"A Psychopath Walks Into A Room. Can You Tell? (NPR May21, 2011) Arresting title, that, for an interesting proposition:

"Robert Hare, the eminent Canadian psychologist who invented the psychopath checklist, … recently announced that you're four times more likely to find a psychopath at the top of the corporate ladder than you are walking around in the janitor's office," journalist Jon Ronson tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Of course, some allowance should be made for the fact that bosses are noticed/hated much more than other folk, and big bosses are larger than life.

The effect one comes away with is that psychiatry has not done a better job than traditional wisdom in explaining things like: Why do the wicked prosper? Also, diagnosis about personalities is not better than judgment about actions in deciding how to think about such problems. Put another way, what's the point of saying "Hitler was a psychopath" as if that explains something that the catalogue of his known atrocities doesn't?

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.