On Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the United States will conduct its 58th quadrennial presidential election. Voters will select presidential electors, who in turn will vote for a new president and vice president through the Electoral College.
This week features interviews with Albert Somit, Professor Emeritus and Member, Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University, and a statement from Dr. Simon John Simonian, is a three-time nominee for the Nobel Medicine Prize.
An Interview With Professor Albert Somit
In 1987, the Southern Illinois University Board of Trustees named Albert Somit a Distinguished Service Professor, making him only the second teacher at SIUC to be so honored. He had served as the university’s president since 1981, but subsequently returned to the classroom to teach and conduct research in political science.
The interdisciplinary study of biology and political science is the application of theories and methods from biology to the scientific understanding of political behavior. The field is sometimes called biopolitics, a term that will be used in this article. The field can be said to have originated with the 1968 manifesto of Albert Somit, who is sometimes called “the father of biopolitics.”
SBB: Professor, how did you become involved in biopolitics?
AS: Originally planning to go into law, I chose history and political science as my undergraduate majors. Then, deciding on academia instead, I continued on for a doctorate. I was increasingly troubled, however, by the inability of political science, which insists that all social and political behavior is learned, to explain the consistency of that behavior throughout human history.
Thus, for perhaps the past fifteen thousand years, our species has lived in hierarchical political structures entailing dominance and submission, huge differences in status and access to the necessities of life, and constant conflict, violence, and warfare over religion, race, language, culture, and ethnicity.
Contrary to orthodox political science, evolutionary theory insists that our behavior is the product not of learning alone but of the interaction between learning and our genetically transmitted behavioral tendencies. We must realize, however, that some of these tendencies, evolved over millions of years to meet the challenges of a profoundly different environment, are now obstacles to solving the problems of the world in which we live today.
SBB: “Profoundly different environment. . .” How does that affect politics or political leadership now?
AS: Over many, many thousands of years and hundreds of generations, the gene(s) conducive to this behavior became part of our species’ genetic legacy. This fear and dislike of the strange and the different can often be observed in young children and, in many societies, among the adults as well.
Religious—and political—leaders frequently take advantage of this tendency.
SBB: How would biopolitics be used as an informational tool in the up and coming elections? And, based on that, what do you think is the voters’ focus point on selecting candidates?
AS: Two good questions:
- A biopolitical approach could provide pretty good assessments, based on an increasingly informed understanding of human behavior, of the likely outcomes of proposed policies in many (but not all) areas of domestic and foreign policy. The electoral discussions could then be primarily concerned with the relative desirability of those outcomes.
As the present presidential campaign testifies, we focus far more on the alleged personal strengths and weaknesses of the candidates, the self-serving and surely unpatriotic objectives of their opponents’ supporters, and the allocation of credit or blame for past political actions, to mention but a few of the favored topics.
- Political leaders can be chosen by hereditary succession, by force, and by formal election. Elections, almost by definition, entail discussion of the candidates, the issues, and the merits of competing policy options.
SBB: What can biology, in general, and human development, in particular, contribute to issues in ethics and religion?
AS: Fair warning: My colleagues in biopolitics may not agree with some, most or even all of my answers. To begin, can a better understanding of human behavior provide a sound basis for a system of ethics? No, not without assuming that what is (or what has been) is necessarily the best guide for what should be. There was the Holocaust where millions of people were deliberately killed on the pseudo-Darwinian justification they were sub-human—and could be treated accordingly.
Turning to academia, most social scientists have understandably been quite reluctant to challenge, let alone abandon, the long-dominant Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) in which they have been trained and built their careers. As many readers will remember, that model is based on Emile Durkheim’s dictum that social facts can be explained only by other social facts—and biological factors could and should be ignored. The and rhetorical equivalents such as the neo-behaviorist tradition and the tabula rasa view’ undermine their own much-vaunted rigor. The SSSM is now giving way, slowly, slowly.
SBB: So biology, the brain, emotions and political decisions . . .
AS: Biologists and social scientists have joined forces to conduct research on how brain activity may be a clue to thought and emotion. Here, though, caveat emptor (buyer beware).
SBB: Thank you, Professor.
AS: Thank you, Shelley
An Interview with Dr. Simon John Simonian
Dr. Simon John Simonian, is a three-time nominee for the Nobel Medicine Prize. He was part of a three-member team that created the freeze-dried smallpox vaccine, which was used by the World Health Organization to eradicate smallpox in 1977. He has 8 pages of biography in Marquis Who’s Who in the World, a still standing all-time record. He has also served on the advisory boards of Oxford and Harvard Universities.
SBB: Good to be talking with you again Sir.
SJS: Good to be talking with you Shelley, you and I have talked about this issue before, and here are my thoughts on this vital subject.
Because, as living beings, we have transcended our biological animal nature and created human culture (nurture), social scientists have traditionally thought our behavior, including political behavior, is entirely based on social learning, social culture, social and political groups and the social environment, transmitted and continually growing from generation to generation. They believed that our unique biological nature, our unique biological individuality, our unique genetic make-up, our unique brain nerve cells (billions of neurons), their unique connections (trillions of synapses which grow with each behavior), played no role at all.
But during approximately half a century of research and new knowledge in the uniqueness of the individual in biology, genetic make-up, the brain, neuroscience, nerve (neuron) chemical manufacture and transmitters (such as, acetylcholine for muscle contraction and movement, serotonin for relaxation and sleep, endorphin for pain relief, dopamine for self-reward, and prolactin for well-being) the current belief among social scientists has evolved and is more accurate and true. Behavior, including political behavior, is now believed to be a complex, diverse, multidisciplinary, interconnected, interdependent, integrated structure and function of all the above, in each unique individual human being: genetic make-up and social make-up combined.
In 1968, the research-based manifesto on biopolitics of Albert Somit and the research of many other scientists, both biological and social have helped to bring about this more real and true evolution and integration of knowledge. Individual human political behavior is the result of the integration of two factors: one’s unique (evolving) genetic make-up (biologic factors) and one’s culturally learned (evolving) social make-up.
SBB: And is this part of the Meta-Darwinism theory, what is Meta-Darwinism?
SJS: Meta-Darwinism Evolution is Beyond-Darwinism Evolution or Transcendent-Darwinism Evolution. Darwinism or Neo-Darwinism Evolution is associated with survival of the fittest, in competition of limited resources in the environment. The fittest and most adaptable to change survive. The less adapted perish. Natural selection. Top-down descent from a common ancestor with modification or mutation of the genetic make up for new offspring to emerge or evolve. Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism is descriptive with no experimental evidence for how and why.
Meta-Darwinism, in contrast, is based on cell-biology, from a relatively more recent knowledge from experimental evidence of cell-biology. Darwinians who are descriptive are not trained in cell-biology methods as experimental Meta-Darwinians are. Single cells can come together, horizontally, democratically, equitably, not top down or dictatorially, and form colonies of cells thereby creating new organisms in evolution. Cells create chemicals. Cells communicate with other cells, to and fro, with these chemicals, to solve their individual and common problems, and adapt to survive and thrive to changes in their environment, and create or develop new colonies or organisms as necessity makes it desirable for their evolution.
At the same time the environment the cells create is “homeostatic,” or harmonious, or loving and not competitive, for the benefit and good of all. Our human body has 50 trillion cells. The surface membrane of a cell is like a microchip which can be programmed with the communicating chemical information from neighboring cells. These chemicals in turn can change the genetic makeup within the nucleus of the cell (epigenetics) with new evolutionary consequences.
SBB: Thank you, Dr.
SJS: Thank you, Shelley
Reflections: Human Development and Politics and the Brain
Neuro-marketing gurus now can now map the political terrain of the human brain, and the new campaign trail is the Cortex orbitofrontalis, the part of the brain area that influences electoral decisions.
Recent studies conducted at the Montreal Neurological Institute have found the region of the brain that is associated with integrating information about candidates in order to vote properly. If that part of the brain is damaged, they just vote based on surface qualities, like the candidate’s appearance.
And as Pierre Salinger (June 14, 1925 – October 16, 2004), who was a White House Press Secretary to U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, told the author, “Shelley, the public votes visually, that’s why I told Jack, go on TV and do the debates, let the voters see you and you will win, just let the people see you.”
Furthermore, a “leadership” gene, known as rs4950, has been discovered that “appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations,” said Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, University College London, School of Public Policy, in an article in “Leadership Quarterly.” “The conventional wisdom—that leadership is a skill—remains largely true, but we show it is also, in part, a genetic trait.”
If human beings are genetically and physiologically, equipped for politics, leadership, and community, can this “equipment” allow us to be explorers of our unlimited social-political possibilities? Can we be the architects of our civic potential? Will our past shape our decisions or can we design our own social and political future? We do not have to be who we were if we know what we can be.
The real dynamic of human development is the monumental creation, the human brain.
It is the literate brain, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to your computer manual. It allows us to study the past and sign our name to the future.
Capable of resetting its own support potential, it is an exploratory tool and can contemplate, comprehend and respond to such subjects as politics, spirituality, war, faith, love. It can contemplate contemplation. It can be used to read about the brain and its potential for shaping our future, and we can read about who we were and who we are now, or we can consider that it is not about who we were or where we came from.
We now have the means and the abilities to become who we can be, and who we want to be.
And who are we? We are a part of this wondrous adventure that we presumably call the humanities.
Shelley B. Blank has worked with major national and international newspapers as a journalist as well as a corporate executive. He has produced programs for Public Radio and lectured on modern multimedia communications and technology.