America’s culture wars appear to be invading the world’s most prestigious scientific journal, Nature. The lead editorial in the June 14 issue is a combative rebuttal of an op-ed in the New York Times by US Senator Sam Brownback. In it he contended that evolution provided welcome insights into nature. But, he said, it had to be rejected if it undermined the notion that man is made in the image and likeness of God, as it says in the book of Genesis.
Not content to let the matter rest there, Nature commissioned a freelance science journalist, Dan Jones, to survey evidence that many moral judgements stem from visceral reactions of disgust. According to Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser, disgust is a sensation that has an adaptive value in the face of natural selection; it enables distinctions between an in-group and an out-group, us and them. Disgust fosters greater cohesion within groups. “Where core disgust is the guardian of the body, moral disgust acts as the guardian of the social body — that’s when disgust shows its ugliest side,” says a psychologist of disgust, Jonathan Haidt, of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
And who shows more irrational disgust? Here’s where Nature lobs its culture war grenades into the trenches of the enemy. According to psychologists from Yale and Cornell Universities, interviewed by Jones, it is “conservatives”, notably opponents of abortion, gay rights, cloning and stem-cell research. Questionnnaires apparently show that self- identified liberals are motivated largely by the empathetic and rational virtues of concern for harming others and for fairness. Conservatives, on the other hand, while they, too, had these motivations, are also influenced by more primitive-sounding emotions of group loyalty, respect for authority and spiritual purity.
Disgust is more or less synonymous with “repugnance” and Jones gleefully deploys this recent research to pull the rug from under America’s best-known “conservative” bioethicist, Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Kass coined the phrase “the wisdom of repugnance” and used it to question the case for cloning. “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder,” he wrote.
Primitive stuff, it seems. According to Jorge Moll, a Brazilian cognitive neuroscientist, disgust, and presumably repugnance, reside in the lateral and medial orbitofrontal cortex. What we need to do is cultivate the liberal virtues of tolerance and empathy to counteract “the toxic effects of disgust”. ~ New York Times, May 31; Nature, June 14