“It all changed when I learned about the prairie voles”

Yes, I’m the most reductionistic philosopher on campus, but even my eyebrows went up when I read this article about the moral significance of oxytocin:

“It all changed when I learned about the prairie voles,” [philosopher Patricia Churchland] says — surely not a phrase John Rawls ever uttered.

She told the story at the natural-history museum, in late March. Montane voles and prairie voles are so similar “that naifs like me can’t tell them apart,” she told a standing-room-only audience (younger and hipper than the museum’s usual patrons—the word “neuroscience” these days is like catnip). But prairie voles mate for life, and montane voles do not. Among prairie voles, the males not only share parenting duties, they will even lick and nurture pups that aren’t their own. By contrast, male montane voles do not actively parent even their own offspring. What accounts for the difference? Researchers have found that the prairie voles, the sociable ones, have greater numbers of oxytocin receptors in certain regions of the brain. (And prairie voles that have had their oxytocin receptors blocked will not pair-bond.)

“As a philosopher, I was stunned,” Churchland said, archly. “I thought that monogamous pair-bonding was something one determined for oneself, with a high level of consideration and maybe some Kantian reasoning thrown in. It turns out it is mediated by biology in a very real way.”

Well, at least in the case of voles, let us admit. Should we then infer that all that moral reasoning we go through is really just the sloshing of oxytocin? That’s quite a jump.

Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

8 thoughts on ““It all changed when I learned about the prairie voles””

  1. First, oxytocin doesn’t influence moral reasoning, it influences behavior (and through that, various strategies that promote or degrade survival and reproduction). The monogomy and paternal investment of one species of vole relative to another does not represent a moral choice, simply reproductive strategy that is moderated by chemical receptors (and in turn, presence and expression of genes, or the absence there of, which in turn is moderated by selective forces of evolution). Deciding that one vole is more moral than another for that behavior is entirely arbitrary – the real reason they are that way is because at the moment given their circumstances it is evolutionarily beneficial to do so (or at least not significantly determental). Once that strategy is selected against at any appreciable degree the behavior will start disappearing. No morality to that.

    Additionally, we shouldn’t assume it is all oxytocin – there are a fair number of hormones that interact or counteract each other to influence behavior. For example, aggression and propensity towards violence is strongly influenced by testosterone and testosterone receptors in specific regions of the brain.

    It’s pretty well known among biologists (and to a lesser extent, psychologists and psychiatrists, though they are still haunted by their pseudo-science origins) that the interplay of your hormones and their associated receptors have a huge impact on behavior. It isn’t just voles that have their bonding behavior mediated by oxytocin (though to be clear, it is bonding behavior and not specifically monogomy that is mediated by it) – its fairly conserved between animals, from amphibians to primates (including ourselves – I think you might be surprised at current human subject research on the hormone). A great deal of our behavior is a lot less conscious choice than we realize or are probably comfortable with – though I by no means take the stance that we are not responsible for it regardless, or that conscious choice can’t override chemical/structural reactions.

    I think modern philosophy, if it wants to remain relevant, needs to be a heck of a lot more educated on topic appropriate science, otherwise it is producing conclusions that may be logically pure but practically useless (see – any Aristotle proof on motion, chemistry, astronomy, or really any other topic applicable to the real world. It wasn’t just wrong, it was blattantly wrong in the light of the simplest observations). If you really read up on various modern research into biologically/chemically driven behavior you would find that the little vole parable above is one of a hugely populace collection of such things. That’s why if you get a behavioral endocrinologist or similar biological specialization to say anything at all about morality, they will talk about it in light of social tactics rather than if it was some immutable and removed concept (they also will tell you there is no such thing as pure altruism).


  2. Josh – I agree with you that biochemistry plays a huge role in determining our behavior. It’s just that I think reasoning and deliberation probably play a role too, at least sometimes, and right now I can’t see a clear way to meaningfully reduce that to biochemistry without losing relevant content in the explanation. It’s not just lack of biological knowledge that causes the problems here; what’s required is deep rethinking of our basic conceptual framework, if physicalism is going to succeed at all. It’s the distinction between reasons and causes.

    Modern philosophers are all over this biological reductionism stuff – note that the person the article is about is herself a philosopher, and her husband is also a leading neurophilosopher. What’s rare, though, is to find scientists who take the trouble to do any of the basic reading of the philosophers that have been handling these questions for a long time. I’m betting – and tell me if I’m wrong – that you haven’t really studied any Aristotle, given your claim that his views are “blattantly wrong in the light of the simplest observations.” That sounds more like third- or fourth- hand knowledge of the guy. Alas, you are not alone!


  3. While I am no scholar of Aristotle I do have an amature familiarity with his work -and I admittedly have read the summarized version of his ideas rather than the formalized arguements for them. However the summaries all point at ideas fairly divorced from reality:

    His deductive model for motion arrived at a conclusion that an object follows a straight vector relative to the vector of launch until such time as it ceases to have potential (though admittedly trying to actually get at the heart of what is meant by potential given the very convoluted original concept and subsequent translation complexities has left me somewhat unsure of what was actually meant) at which point it follows a straight vector to the ground. A five year old throwing a rock can refute that – thrown objects follow a blattantly obvious parable that is utterly incompatable with his model.

    Attacking a geocentric viewpoint is easy. There are any number of easy observations from the naked eye that render such a model dispoven.

    Democritus, years before Aristotle, proposed a building block model for matter that his student Leucippus refined to conceptually be similar to modern chemistry, though significantly more primitive. Their observations that different matter could combine to produce novel new matter could have jumpstarted chemistry 1.5 millenia early – but Aristotle detested such a messy model preferring the clean 5 elements model and the strength of his name pretty much shut down the more accurate inquiry.

    His distinction between matter and form I find to be equally nonsense. His notions of inherent properties of an object distinct from its actual composition can be forgiven because of the relative ignorance of the time, but are no less wrong. All of the examples of “inherent properties” that I have seen presented are better explained by cognitive and linguistic weakness in conveying concepts than in immutable properties of objects.

    And the list goes on (I generally think Social Contract theory is the first accurate stab at explaining society, though biological mutualism theory does a better job of it in that it actually describes mechanistic causes – and Aristotle couldn’t exactly be described as a founding father in Social contract). I don’t have an exhaustive knowledge of his work, but the problem is that every idea that I have been exposed to by him is wrong. It also doesn’t help that I detest him for the same reason I detest Sigmund Freud – in their respective sciences they were completely and utterly wrong but by strength of their name far more accurate ideas were surpressed, and with it the progress of human understanding. I have a fairly irrational hatred of him for the retardation of physics, chemistry, and astronomy that were the result of his models being given undeserved weight.


  4. All of that said, I will admit that I am a pathological empericist and that does color my reaction to a great deal of philosophy – I believe that if you can’t actually confirm that a notion of reality actually reflects reality, then the pursuit is nothing but an intellectual exercise for its own sake. So I guess I would ask you, is there a form of philosophical thought that allows confirmation against reality, but is distinct from observation inquiry?


  5. I’ll keep my comment brief, since the topic is too big for this space. I think the complaint you’re raising – “Aristotle was so obviously wrong, and people should have seen it!” – could be an excellent tool for opening up some historical inquiry: namely: why didn’t people see the errors? (It can’t just be a mypoic, 18-century-long worship of A’s authority.) For a start, I recommend Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which helps to explain why we hold onto theories despite their basic problems – even today. Also, his “The Copernican Revolution” explains in more detail why it took so long to come up with a decent heliocentric theory. To really get a feel for the intelligent ways in which smart people were grappling with the problems of Aristotle’s physics, I’d recommend DesChene’s “Physiologia”, though that is a much denser read. An easier read which helps show the power of A’s hylomorphism, as well as his psychology, is Lear’s “Aristotle: the desire to understand.” Upshot: all of this is a bit more complicated than you’re saying.

    Let me also add: all the great scientists, from Kepler to Planck, were pretty lousy readers of their own philosophical traditions, so I wouldn’t claim that anyone needs historical understanding in order to to good science. My original complaint was merely the modest one, that if someone wants to make philosophical claims, it would be good to have done some real studying of philosophy first. Unfortunately, many contemporary scientists (physicists especially) don’t follow my advice!

    Your last question, “is there a form of philosophical thought that allows confirmation against reality, but is distinct from observation inquiry?”, is one I’m not sure I understand. Most philosophers hold their theories up to observation to test their validity. Sometimes, particularly among the Platonists or German idealists, they hold their theories up against something they call “pure reason”, but most of the rest of us sort of roll up our eyes at that!

    Oops, went on longer than I intended.


  6. While your reply went on longer than you might like Huenemann, I appreciate the time it took you, as well as the content.

    Having brought the topic up to my wife last night, since she specifically studied behavioral endocrinology in voles, and specifically as it relates to reproduction, apparently I fell prey to some of the simplifications that others have. Specifically prairie voles are socially monogomous, but not genetically so – i.e. they will spend their time with a specific partner that they do mate with and pair rear offspring, but the offspring may not necessarily belong to the partner. If a vole of either gender happens to come in contact with a vole of the opposite gender (say, while both are out foraging) neither gender is entirely immune from a bit of infidelity – it won’t always happen, but it happens enough that biologists don’t consider the species genetically monogomous. The explination is that while they have sufficiently high oxytocin levels to generate fairly strong bonding behavior, it is not so high as to always be immune to the compulsions of the sex hormones.

    A question I have is not whether the biochemistry has an impact on what we consider moral behavior, but rather whether we feel it is moral to exploit that knowledge. For example, if a husband is prone to casual infidelity, would society (at least our society – there are plenty of societies that don’t consider patriarchal infidelity amoral to begin with) consider it moral for the husband to willingly take oxytocin suppliments, or chemically modify oxytocin receptors in specific brain structures (which is probably safer considering oxytocin also causes smooth muscle contraction) to suppress the urges towards infidelity?


  7. Thanks for the vole update! I think the question you raise is a vital one. As we gain the power to reshape human abilities, and block our weaknesses, what gives us our compass? How do we decide what to strengthen and what to diminish? The moral norms we have we probably inherited from ancestors in very different circumstances, and it’s not obvious why we should be beholden to them now. Nietzsche infamously suggested that we breed ourselves in the direction of power and health, but do we dare?


  8. Vince, the problem I have is something like the following. Suppose someone asks me, “Why did you steal the money?” No doubt some causal story is possible, with details of my neural states and chemicals and environmental stimuli and so on, but a great big story like that won’t give us the kind of answer we want or need. We want something like, “So that I could buy food for my family” or even “I wanted the attention.” There must be *some* sort of link between these high-altitude psychological explanations and the low-level neural ones, but I don’t see reason for thinking the link will be easy to articulate. Similar psychological states can be crop up in subjects who have different kinds of neural events going on. And, more to the point, the neural explanation simply doesn’t get at what we want. It’s providing causality, when we really want reasons.


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