Kingsley Amis, the British novelist, once explained that everything that had gone wrong with his country in the second half of the last century could be summarized in the word “workshop.” His point is sound. No two syllables better conjure up the mandatory “sharing,” the regimented bonhomie and bogus cheerfulness, the mincing
and posturing, the smiley-faced Maoism that descended upon corporate and academic culture a generation ago and show no signs of abating. The word alone suggests a string of horrifying cognates: “team work,” “role playing,” “brainstorming,” “trust building,” “leadership” . . . Brrrr.
I think I’ve found a workshop Amis would have approved of, however, if only because it wasn’t like a workshop at all—no falling backwards into your colleagues’ threaded arms, no happytalk about building your brand. Its title, “The Uses and Abuses of Biology,” referred to a series of papers commissioned by the Faraday Institute at St. Edmund’s College of Cambridge University and presented there in late September. The purpose was to discover how evolutionary biology is used to illuminate economics, sociology, education, religion, ethics, philosophy, and other academic disciplines, and whether it can illuminate anything beyond itself. The conclusion was surprising and uplifting.
Evolutionary biology is imperialistic, overtaking entire fields of endeavor simply by attaching the prefix bio- or neuro- to their names: bioethics, neuroeconomics, even, God help us, neurotheology. Its logic is deployed against hapless laymen as a bully’s truncheon or an argument stopper. A famous example of biological imperialism was offered by one of the greatest biologists of them all, Francis Crick, who believed his discovery (with James Watson) of DNA had exposed all philosophical problems, from free will to the nature of the self, as meaningless.
“You,” he wrote, “your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”
For 50 years this reductionism has been a prevailing view among biologists and their publicists in academic philosophy and science journalism. It’s particularly common when the subject turns to neurobiology, the biological study of the brain. All of neuroscience has been greatly aided as a popular topic by magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs. With their familiar shapes and pretty colors, brain scans provide editors and art designers with dynamic, off-the-shelf images to illustrate stories about how the brain determines what we do and why we think we do it. The complexities of the brain often come off as quite simple, forming a tidy causal link from brain to behavior: If your amygdala is turning magenta, you must be in love. Further, if you’re in love, it’s because your amygdala is turning magenta.
“Everybody’s interested in the brain and likes to talk about it, because everybody’s got one” said Duncan Astle, a researcher at Cambridge’s Cognition and Brain Science unit. But the popularity of neuroscience, along with the loose talk of journalists and other popularizers, has led to a large number of what Astle called “neuromyths.”
Not surprisingly, educational institutions, which are staffed by education majors, are especially vulnerable. School districts in the United States and the U.K. have spent millions of tax dollars on “Brain Gym” and other programs said to specialize in “neuro-sculpting,” “brain training,” and “mental fitness.” The idea is that specified physical exercises can increase student learning far beyond the undoubted aerobic benefits. Try this: Massage your chest just below the clavicle with your extended thumb and second finger while rubbing your navel with your other palm. Feel smarter? Maybe you’re not doing it right.
There is no persuasive evidence supporting the claims of the neuro-sculptors and brain gym coaches, just as there isn’t any support for the popular, and allegedly scientific, belief that “right brain learning” is somehow different from “left brain learning.” “We use both sides of our brain for most tasks,” Astle said. Nor has any experimental basis been found for the theory of the three learning styles—auditory, visual, and tactile—that many educators now accept as dogma. “Everybody pretty much learns the same way,” Astle said. The idea of learning styles, pounded into children from an early age, can even impede learning. If you convince a child over years of schooling that he’s an auditory learner, he won’t learn as well if he thinks you’re teaching him visually—even though the teaching style is the same.