Monday, August 12, 2013

A significant point

Benjamin Fong in the NYT:

The real trouble with the Brain Initiative is not philosophical but practical. In short, the instrumental approach to the treatment of physiological and psychological diseases tends to be at odds with the traditional ways in which human beings have addressed their problems: that is, by talking and working with one another to the end of greater personal self-realization and social harmony.

In “Biology as Ideology,” Richard Lewontin points to the profound difference between the fact that one cannot get tuberculosis without a tubercle bacillus and the claim that the tubercle bacillus is the “cause” of tuberculosis. Registering that tuberculosis was a disease common in sweatshops in the 19th century, Lewontin contends: “We might be justified in claiming that the cause of tuberculosis is unregulated industrial capitalism, and if we did away with that system of social organization, we would not need to worry about the tubercle bacillus.” Having narrowed their view of “cause” to the biological realm, neuroscientists today are effectively chasing tubercle bacilli, drawing our focus away from the social practices and institutions that contribute to problems of mental health.

We know, for instance, that low socioeconomic status at birth is associated with a greater risk of developing schizophrenia, but the lion’s share of research into schizophrenia today is carried out by neurobiologists and geneticists, who are intent on uncovering the organic “cause” of the disease rather than looking into psychosocial factors. Though this research may very well bear fruit, its dominance over other forms of research, in the face of the known connection between poverty and schizophrenia, attests to a curious assumption that has settled into a comfortable obviousness: that socioeconomic status, unlike human biology, is something we cannot change “scientifically.” That it is somehow more realistic, “scientifically,” to find a way to change the human being itself than it is to work together to change the kind of environment that lends itself to the emergence of a disorder like schizophrenia.