Over at Daily Nous and Practical Ethics, there are posts about this interesting piece by Peter Kramer and Paola Bressen entitled, "Humans as Superorganisms: How Microbes, Viruses, Imprinted Genes, and Other Selfish Entities Shape Our Behavior." Here is the abstract:
Psychologists and psychiatrists tend to be little aware that (a) microbes in our brains and guts are capable of altering our behavior; (b) viral DNA that was incorporated into our DNA millions of years ago is implicated in mental disorders; (c) many of us carry the cells of another human in our brains; and (d) under the regulation of viruslike elements, the paternally inherited and maternally inherited copies of some genes compete for domination in the offspring, on whom they have opposite physical and behavioral effects. This article provides a broad overview, aimed at a wide readership, of the consequences of our coexistence with these selfish entities. The overarching message is that we are not unitary individuals but superorganisms, built out of both human and nonhuman elements; it is their interaction that determines who we are.
Here is a table from the paper (also posted over at DN):
I have a longstanding interest in toxoplasma gondii (here is an old post of mine over at the Experimental Philosophy blog from all the way back in 2005!)--especially the controversial claim that the "manipulation hypothesis" purportedly applies to humans and not just other animals (see here and here). Needless to say, as a skeptic about free will and moral desert, I find the suggestion that we are not unitary agents but rather superorganisms intriguing when it comes to our agency and responsibility. From the manipulation question to the issue of whether we have a unified self, the data summarized by Kramer and Bressen seem relevant to the issues we explore here on this blog.
It's no surprise that this issue has peeked the interest of scientists who are interested in free will. For instance, here is a piece by Cristoff Koch in Scientific American entitled, "Protozoa Could Be Controlling Your Brain"--which begins with the following lead in/hook:
THE ANCIENT DEBATE surrounding the existence of free will appears unresolvable, a metaphysical question that generates much heat yet little light. Common sense and volumes of psychological and neuroscientific research reveal, however, that we are less free than we think we are. Our genes, our upbringing and our environment influence our behaviors in ways that often escape conscious control. Understanding this influence, the advertisement industry spent approximately half a trillion dollars worldwide in 2010 to shape the buying decisions of consumers. And extreme dictatorships, such as that in North Korea, remain in power through the effective use of insidious and all-pervasive forms of propaganda. Yet nothing approaches the perfidy of the one-celled organism Toxoplasma gondii, one of the most widespread of all parasitic protozoa. It takes over the brain of its host and makes it do things, even actions that will cause it to die, in the service of this nasty hitchhiker. It sounds like a cheesy Hollywood horror flick, except that it is for real.
Another eminent scientist (and free will skeptic) has taken a similar line. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Robert Sapolsky as Edge.org:
In the endless sort of struggle that neurobiologists have — in terms of free will, determinism — my feeling has always been that there's not a whole lot of free will out there, and if there is, it's in the least interesting places and getting more sparse all the time. But there's a whole new realm of neuroscience which I've been thinking about, which I'm starting to do research on, that throws in another element of things going on below the surface affecting our behavior. And it's got to do with this utterly bizarre world of parasites manipulating our behavior. It turns out that this is not all that surprising. There are all sorts of parasites out there that get into some organism, and what they need to do is parasitize the organism and increase the likelihood that they, the parasite, will be fruitful and multiply, and in some cases they can manipulate the behavior of the host.
As we learn more about "toxo" and other organisms that may influence our macro-behavior without our awareness, it is unsurprising that some might suggest we reevaluate the traditional way of viewing human thought, agency, and behavior. It is surprising, then, that there is no mention of toxoplasma gandii in all of the Philosopher's Index. While the aforementioned manipulation hypothesis was initially met with skepticism when applied to humans, the science has steadily pushed further towards that conclusion. Now this paper by Kramer and Bressen has compiled the findings on various other micro-organisms that (may) influence our behavior in ways that satisfy their interests while running counter to our own.
So, what say you, philosophers of action? What sense are we to make of the gathering data on microorganisms and macrobehavior? Can these findings be summarily dismissed? If so, why? If not, how should it affect what we say about agency and responsibility? If you hate headlines like "My brain made me do it," just think of how you'll respond to "My toxo made me do it"! For skeptics, this is just more grist for the mill. But for the rest of you? You may have some explaining (away) to do...