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What do you mean: ‘hardwired’?

In a previous post I talked about some research which was (mistakenly, I think, and so do the original researchers) presented as revealing ‘hardwired racism’ in the brain. Whatever that research means about racism, or, however weirdly, what racists think it means, that started me thinking about what ‘hardwired’ might really mean. Here’s an online definition:

hard-wire (härdwr); tr.v. hard-wired, hard-wir•ing, hard-wires
1. To connect (electronic components, for example) by electrical wires or cables.
2. To implement (a capability) through logic circuitry that is permanently connected within a computer and therefore not subject to change by programming.
3. To determine or put into effect by physiological or neurological mechanisms; make automatic or innate: “It may be that certain orders of anxiety are hard-wired in us” (Armand Schwerner).

The first meaning is almost literal, though ‘hard’ metaphorically implies more permanence than just ‘wiring’ as a verb by itself; the second meaning is metaphorical, in that there are unlikely to be any actual wires involved, but still factually follows on from the first. Even here, some of the ‘wiring’ could actually be logic programming, but programming which isn’t accessible to change. So it’s ‘harder’ programming than the ‘firmware’ in your camera, which can be changed, but is left unchanged in normal use, and the software I’m using to write this (though strictly speaking Windows and Word are firmware, from the description I’ve just given).

The third meaning here is completely metaphorical, and it’s always necessary with metaphors to be very careful to work out where the metaphorical meaning stops. Metaphors are innately dodgy and misleading, as Terry Pratchett has Carrot Ironfoundersson point out: “…Going Up in the World is a metaphor, which I have been learning about, it is like Lying but more decorative” (Pratchett, 1989, p183).

Also there are two different meanings under 3): a) to put into effect by physiological mechanisms, and b) to make automatic or innate. I don’t see that b) follows from a) and I’ll argue that through below.

I think there are two kinds of hardwiring that neuroscientists and psychologists talk about. One kind derives from the basic physiology of certain sensory and mental processes, and is likely to be shared with other animals, because that’s just the way these things have evolved to work. Basic visual processes in humans are like this, as is the link between brain activity, the hypothalamus, the adrenal glands, the release of adrenaline/epinephrine into the blood, and at least some of the effects of that release. It is easy to see how some of these basic mechanisms could be evolutionarily modified from a basic plan from species to species. Since Pavlov’s day, we’ve been learning more and more about the physiology and neuroscience of eating and satiety, and probably all mammals share some of the same basic processes, but it would make sense if it were balanced differently for continuous eaters like pandas and shrews, the complex feeding patterns of grass-eaters, or opportunistic omnivores like humans, and we have a hard-wired explanation of obesity built round this*. That roughly corresponds to 3a), and does certainly contain some automatic and innate mechanisms.

The other idea about hardwiring is sociobiological and is evolutionarily vaguer. Certain patterns of behaviour are more likely to lead to the production of reproductively successful offspring, and so are naturally selected. This only works in Darwinian terms if that pattern of behaviour is innate and automatic, such that it can be genetically transmitted and maintained. Other patterns of behaviour which are equally advantageous could be passed on culturally, and might well be selected and maintained, but here we’re talking about memes and behaviour that isn’t innate and automatic, that it can still evolve by a process of cultural selection. So how can you tell which is which? In some cases, like the excellence of traditional music, the evolutionary success of the book, and the story of the rat bone in the restaurant meal, it’s pretty clear that this is memeic (is that the right word?) evolution, but in others, like altruism, reciprocity, and male promiscuity** it seems to me that it could logically go either way. Sometimes the argument seems to me to be circular: how do we know it’s naturally selected? Because it’s a common feature of human behaviour? Why is it a common feature of human behaviour? Because it’s been naturally selected! I think this logic applies almost as well to using books instead of clay tablets as it does to behaviour in prisoner’s dilemma games.

More convincing supporting evidence might come from studies that show similar social/psychological processes in non-human mammals to those in humans, especially those which can be neatly fitted into evolutionary advantage arguments. Patterns of behaviour which can be described as reciprocity, cheating, and grudge-bearing, as discussed by Dawkins (1981) would be an example. What doesn’t count as supporting evidence is fantasies of the lifestyle of pre-human or early human hunter gatherers, where ‘hardwired’ gender differences are held to derive from the habits of cavemen going out hunting mammoths (and having a bit on the side, as shown by the well-known principle that ‘what happens on the hunt stays on the hunt’), while the cavewomen (cavegirls?) stayed home, gathering berries and digging roots – and caveyouths demonstrated their breeding fitness by rites of passage which involved wrestling with dinosaurs, probably.

There is a useful discussion by Thomas Martin of the background to the hardwired metaphor and what it might mean for human nature from an anarchist point of view here: It’s worth reading the first part for a summary of where the idea in sociobiology/psychology comes from and then, as he points out in the intro (below), the implications that might have for our understanding of the nature of human nature:

In these first years of the new century anarchism, as a philosophy and as an ongoing praxis, is faced with a number of disconcerting adjustments. Chief among these is the growing evidence that we, along with most other ideologies on the Left, have based our theory on a mistaken concept of human nature. We have learned over the years to distrust words like sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and above all that dreaded buzzword, “hard-wired” — yet we can no longer ignore the fact that these sciences are probably right about human nature. It does exist; it has biological roots; and while it does enjoy a large measure of free will, its most basic drives and emotions are indeed hard-wired. The Left has long resisted and denied these facts, on the grounds that they might justify discrimination based on heredity, or that they militate against the possibility of radical social reform, or both. I hope to demonstrate that these fears are groundless.
Martin (2006: intro)

There are some bits of Martin’s account I disagree with strongly, especially the idea that genes might ‘want’ to do anything, which he raises later, and you might not want to get into the anarchist thinking at the end, but it does discuss some of the problems that this idea gives to psychologists – and recognises that we may have to accept some inbuilt, evolutionarily selected, forms of behaviour.

But even if you accept that some aspects of our psychology are, metaphorically, hardwired, that doesn’t mean that they’re rigidly fixed. One of the most clearly hardwired bits of our behaviour is the ability to see yellow. In our retinas, we don’t have receptors for all the different colours of light. All we have are cells which are most responsive to red light, to green light, and blue light. So we can’t detect yellow light as such. Pure yellow light that falls on the retina stimulates both the red sensitive cells and the green sensitive cells to roughly the same degree, and when we get this ‘equal red, equal green’ signal, we see it as yellow. But we get the same signal if equal amounts of red and green light fall on the retina at the same time, which is why the television screen, which only shows red, green or blue light, can show us what appears to be a bright clear yellow. Now, we know about the ‘wiring’ of this. We can identify the colour sensitive cells, and we can even track the signals through to where they are combined in the brain to generate a ‘yellow’ channel. This goes beyond vague metaphorical hardwiring: if nerves be wires, then we know what the wires are. We can also trace the evolutionary background to this ability by comparing our visual system and retina with that of other mammals. But, although hardwired, this isn’t a fixed, rigid system. Old-fashioned incandescent room lighting is much yellower than sunlight, but when we are in an incandescently lit room we don’t see the yellow bias, and we see the range of colours that we might see in sunlight. Our responses to the signals from our retina are substantially shifted to compensate for the changed colour of light – without realising it. You can see how big the shift is by taking a photo with a camera in incandescent light (with ‘auto white balance’ turned off). It looks distinctly yellowish, where to us the scene looks as though it was illuminated by white light. As we get older, the fluid in our eye becomes tinged with yellow – so the whole world becomes yellower as you get older – but we’re not aware of this. The only place it shows up is where older people find difficulty in making out white letters on a yellow background, or vice versa.

OK, that’s unconscious, cognitive overriding of hardwiring – maybe by other systems which we might regard as being hardwired too. But here’s another example of how hardwiring can be modified and overridden by cultural and individual variation.  Our bodies have evolved to cope with ethanol, a naturally occurring poison which has a range of damaging effects. Our livers can remove it from the bloodstream and we have an enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, to support the breakdown of alcohol to less dangerous substances. I guess if you’re being picky, you could say that this is hard-moleculed rather than hardwired. But since we enjoy some of the toxic effects of alcohol, we found ways of supplying alcohol in sufficient quantity to temporarily overwhelm this system, and cultural patterns to encourage, reward and control this overdosing. And metabolism fights back, as it’s well designed to do, by increasing the amount of alcohol dehydrogenase in the system, but the determined drunk just ramps up the input. We quite quickly develop the technology to move from 5% alcohol to 15% to 80%, and also provided a cultural overlay which makes Bollinger and Laphroaig more expensive and more desirable than straight 13% and 40%. OK, there are genetic (hardwired) differences in people’s ability to metabolise alcohol, but it’s clear that cultural factors are important in the role alcohol plays in our lives.

*I’m not sure that this is quite the same as saying that individual differences in obesity are ‘genetically determined’. My first interpretation of the genetically determined explanation was that it must derive from rapid evolutionary change, so that, sometime, in the twentieth century, there was an environmental/cultural change such that fat people got much more sex than thin people, so fatness was rapidly selected for, rather like the way the colour of the peppered moth changed with pollution levels over the last two hundred years. In retrospect, I think I’d oversimplified things, but I’m still in favour of lots of sex for fat people.

**The gender difference here might be overplayed. Traditional wisdom sometimes has it otherwise: see Willie McTell’s Married Man’s a Fool (If He thinks His Wife loves No-one Else But Him), evolving into the Ry Cooder version: On the other hand, it’s traditionally well-known that All Men Are Bastards, but that probably covers more than just infidelity.

Martin, Thomas (2006) Anarchism and the Question of Human Nature Social Anarchism Issue 37

Pratchett, Terry (1989) Guards! Guards! London: Corgi


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