Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Radio Lab

This week's This American Life podcast featured an excerpt from Radio Lab a cool show out of WNYC. Radio Lab has some very unique production methods such as narration that talks over interviews. The production tends to make the show engaging, but the content is the thing, of course, that makes at least the current episode stellar. The current episode is on morality, and how a moral sense is most likely ingrained in our our brain structures as well as in the brains of some other animals. As a research scientist Dr. Joshua Greene states of a genetic disposition to morality: "We think of basic human morality as being handed down from on high, and it is probably better to say that it was handed up from below--that our most basic, core, moral values are not the things that we humans have invented, but the things that we've actually inherited from other people. The stuff that we humans have invented are the things that seem more peripheral and variable" (Radio Lab, "Morality," 12:28-12:48).

Fascinating stuff.


  1. Loved that show. I love TAL period. I find that life makes more sense when I listen to my "inner ape". I had a discussion with someone about this recently who felt the evolutionary explanations for human behavior was far too deterministic. What do you think?

  2. I tend to feel the same way--biological arguments tend to become far too essentialist. It is far too easy to make broad sweeping generalizations based on a lot of theory and too little evidence. There is one book that was excerpted recently in Psychology Today that particularly chapped my hide. Everything that we humans do was reduced completely to procreation. I understand that the need to procreate prevails, but I think we don't do everything just to get laid.

    Anyway I felt the work represented in Radio Lab was a lot more provocative and not really that essentialist. I find the notion that morality derives from our genetics to be compelling. That would make us inherently moral creatures.

  3. This is really interesting, because I listened to about half of that piece and HATED it. I've been listening to a bunch of TAL podcasts while I drive around the Freeway System here and I got through my errand as that piece was getting going, but never finished.

    But, yeah, it felt forced and I didn't like the goofy interplay between the two guys and the Sound FX Library sounds of trains and collisions and cartoon voices screaming. The production effects were intrusive... I didn't like them talking over the subjects and cutting the subjects responses together rapidly. To me, it felt like reality TV instead of a documentary.

    The material was interesting, but I didn't like the "voice" of the presenters... felt that it was inconsistent with the laid back documentary feel of TAL and was more like a presentation for a high school philosophy class or something.

    That said, I will revisit it and give it a complete listen through and an honest chance.

  4. Good point. I've been listening to quite a few of them over the last couple of days, and have been annoyed at times about the over-use of sound effects. I will say, however, it gives what is essentially a science show an artsy feel. I hadn't really considered the amateurish aspects of it, mostly because Robert Crowich (sp) is pretty well-respected. I think they are going for a science show that engages listeners on the same level of TAL. I'm not certain they are succeeding in with their style, but their subject matter is smack on engaging--and well-researched too boot. I think I've learned more about the human mind in the last couple of days than I have in the last couple of years (and that is even with listening to Science Friday, ahem, religiously.)

  5. Oh and I think they are trying to go for the conversational style--like meeting these two guys for coffee and talking about weird science, except they know what their talking about. Again, I think it is all about engaging their audience in a way that traditional science programs don't.

    I can't imagine, for example, sitting down with many scientists and discussing their work and yet still having a good time.

  6. dare I ask how you feel about "car talk"? goofy interplay extraordinaire. I have little interest in cars, yet I listen when I can. Although, I have to admit, I have become increasingly bored with their antics. I wonder if the showmanship of the radio lab guys might also attract those who might not otherwise be so inclined. Science is often intimidating to those with a nonscience background. They are ambassadors of a sort. Mainstream folks might expect science to be like eating rice cakes, this has a little more "pizazz". Annoying perhaps for the cultured taste, but appealing to the mainstream consumers. I'm glad science is becoming more mainstream, fanfare at all. More science means less superstition and less supernatural. ie...Moses got the ten commandments from a burning bush vs. we come hard wired with morals, similar to how we come hard wired for language, and sex, and I don't know...pooping comes to mind. I wonder how prescience man explained that one! What is this thing! coming out of my ? A curse from God occuring every morning after eating a fiber rich breakfast. Imagine the idea that moral behavior might be just as "natural". I hadn't thought of it before but it makes perfect sense to me. After you cut away all the goofy esoteric parts of various religions, they all seem to overlap on some fundamental issues, (don't kill, be honest, um, that kind of stuff.) Maybe those fundamentals are biologically ingrained. hmmm...what a concept!

  7. What we are talking about, of course, has roots in philosophy. The old schoolers would argued continually about how we might be either doomed (or fated) to be a certain way vs. the inspiration from some god who would save us from ourselves. Complicating all that is the "law" (either from Solon, Moses, or Hamurabai) that claimed their notions were from on high--God. What is implicit, however, is that those very codes are ingrained in our structure and are "natural." These laws are a complication because they are proclaimed to be from on high, yet they are really just a basic set of behaviors that many animals, along with man, abide by.

    We humans are disturbed by the notion that our basic good behavior could be coming from our "inner selves" (note I don't believe in that concept) since our "evil" ways also derive from that same place. So, the way is to put our good, morally correct selves in the hands of some abstract entity while our sinful, evil selves are left solely to us or the devil (but that concept has spent its force.)

    We've seen this conflict working itself out in Western culture for some time: the Protestants dislike (mostly) the notion of original sin (aside from the whacko fundametalists) and strive to show the basic goodness of man.

    Science is just interested in where this is all coming from. I'm intrigued by the notion that we all might be hardwired to be good because that makes one wonder why there are bad people. Why are there hurtful people.

    Natural selection in a Darwinian sense might be overloaded with the concept that the good is always going to survive or that the fitest are always going to survive.

    The scary proposition is that the most evil most lazy most whatever might survive.

    Thus we are back where we began: are we fated to live a certain existence? Certain essentialist biologist articles I've read lately apparently beleive that is the case.

    All I got to say is: I don't give a crap if my DNA survives. Where does that leave me? Am I a pointless creature.


    Signifying nothing? Yeah right.

  8. You wrote. "We humans are disturbed by the notion that our basic good behavior could be coming from our "inner selves" (note I don't believe in that concept) since our "evil" ways also derive from that same place."

    Do you not believe in the concept of the inner self or the concept that our good and/or bad behavior comes from it?

    Its the classic struggle between good vs evil...Spiderman vs Doc Oc...Superman vs. Lex Luther (for the record, I prefer Batman, he is far more complex and contradictory) We struggle with this within ourselves and it is mirrored in the larger society. Religion uses this same script...Devil vs God...Natural Man vs Man Reborn in Christ. In fact, I dare say the primary role of religion is to take on this struggle and to win. Both to win our individual souls and to win us over in groups.

    And yet, reality is rarely so black and white. Interesting how humans have used this same vehicle for good (religion) to accomplish some pretty dastardly deeds. (the Crusades come to mind) Good example of how contradictory we are. I think the problem comes when we give ourselves over to the moral voice of society and downplay the moral voice inside. Or when we let the larger voice interpret the inner voice. We are given a name for it...the Holy Ghost or the Light of Christ...it is explained and externalized. We are told in fact that it really isn't us..it is some amorphous guy floating around inhabiting our bodies testifying that whatever happens to be playing in front of my eyes is the real truth. Bullshit. It pisses me off just thinking about it. I feel robbed. I feel lied to. They took the beautiful part of me and gave it to God and told me that my nature was essentially evil, not to trust me, and the only path was to follow someone's interpretation of this higher authority.

    Whew. I get all hot and bothered thinking about it. Think I'll go eat a popsicle.

  9. Amen to that Spontaneous Expressions. I kind of like the idea that our morality has gone through the evolutionary process and has had to stand the rigors of natural selection. It gives me a grounded sort of feeling in knowing that morality in some way has been going through the test of time and is not just thought up on a whim.