Why We Kill

Question: What are the two most fascinating things about human evolution yet to be explored? 

Richard Wrangham: How it is that a pre-human ape became a human. And it's a question that Darwin had no idea about really, and that we've had only some rather simple ideas about until recently, and I think we still have a long way to go. And until we have a sense of the continuity in an evolutionary sense and the biological factor responsible for something like a Chimpanzee standing upright, becoming what we are today, then we will always have this sense of anthropocentrism. We will always feel just a little bit divorced from the rest of the universe. And that's one big question. 

I think another huge question is about the evolution of human nature with respect to the biggest use of cooperation, processiality, altruism, and on the other hand, violence, aggression, a willingness to kill. We are an unusual species because we have such an extraordinary mix of these two aspects. We show them both to extremes. We're amazingly more cooperative than almost any other species and we're extraordinarily destructive compared to most species. And grappling with the extent to which that is a product of culture and biology and to the extent of why we should have biological position to go in both of those directions remains one of the huge questions. Which again, is something, of course, that is hard to reconcile with the rest of nature in many ways and for that reason, people resort to religion and they resort to all sorts of naturalistic point of views, strange belief systems to grapple with the question of good and evil. 

Question: Are humans predisposed to behave violently? 

Richard Wrangham: Well, to talk about inherent aggression in us sets off alarm bells for some people because it sounds biologically determinist, it sounds pessimistic. So, I wouldn't want to quite put it in that term. But, I do think that there's all sorts of evidence that humans have got a predisposition to behave with violence in certain contexts, that yes.  And it's a great thing to be aware of it and the more we're aware of it, then the more we can do about it. 

You know, it has nothing to do with whether or not one is optimistic, or pessimistic about the future. And I'm a firm believer in the fact that war is not a necessary feature of human life and that there has been a rather impressive decline in the amount of killing that humans as a species do over the last centuries and millennia, and that the future can be expected to be increasingly rosy. But none of that is to deny that within the human heart there is a dangerous side. 

Question: How can we overcome this? 

Richard Wrangham: We can carry on doing the kinds of things we are doing, which is to think deeply and carefully about anticipating violence. About setting up institutional systems that enable us to anticipate when there is a threat of genocide in the country, when there are threats of war between states and for other states to be prepared to intervene. I mean the great thing nowadays is that, whereas in recent decades and centuries, when two countries declared war on each other, the others just stood by and watched. Nowadays, everyone is very scared and alarmed about it. And doesn't want this to happen and there is intervention just flowing all over the place. You know, we try to get involved in Darfur, we try to get involved in the Congo, we try to get involved in Bosnia. And as a result, things change. 

Question: Where are we headed now in terms of aggression and war? 

Richard Wrangham: The size of the groups that are political units has just been growing, not exactly steadily with leaps and drops, but have been growing over the millennia. And surely the way in which the human species is ultimately heading is towards a single group.  And to me one of the great questions of the future is whether or not that group will be achieved by unanimous pooling of the decision to unite into conquering some of the great problems of the world, such as climate change, or food shortage, or the threat of aggression, or whether or not the gloomy view would be that the single united human group will be achieved by domination. And I think that's, on the whole, unlikely. 

I think that the great value of the technological advances that have been happening in the last decades is that people communicate enormously better than they used to so that when there is a problem in Fiji, then the whole of the rest of the world knows about it. When there is an earthquake in Haiti, then within a few hours, everybody in the world knows about it and is rushing to help. And one of the consequences of that sort of communication, or ability, is that the dispossessed get a little bit more power. 

So, in the general sense, I feel that the world is becoming increasingly democratic. There are more voices to those that traditionally had very little power, indeed. And that's the kind of dynamic that will help avert a hegemonic move towards a single world government, and instead something more like what's happened in Europe, with countries just saying, it makes sense for us to work together. 

Recorded on March 5, 2010

There is evidence that humans are predisposed to behave violently in certain contexts. But the more we're aware of it, the more we can do about it.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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