Just about anyone who has come into contact with popular neuroscience and psychology has surely heard of the trendy notion that our brains are "hard-wired" in certain ways. A simple search of "hard-wired" in Google News demonstrates how pervasive this idea is:
Let's dig into that last link. Here's a quote:
"It makes more sense to see traits such as cooperation, egalitarianism, altruism, and peacefulness as natural to human beings. These were the traits that have been prevalent in human life for tens of thousands of years. So presumably, these traits are still strong in us now."
This is the classic argument so often presented: that although the world around us has changed drastically in the last 5,000 years, our brains haven't, and that is why we are ancient brains living in a modern world.
It's easy to see why this argument is so popular. For one, it's intuitive. Evolution occurs incredibly slowly. That's why it took so long into human history to discover it, and it's one of the many reasons people today deny its existence. If evolution occurs slowly, then our biology is likely extremely similar to the biology of ancient humans.
But I also think these "hard-wired" arguments are popular because they subvert our responsibility for our own behavior, and it can go both ways. For behaviors we feel guilty about (such as prejudice and racism), "hard-wired" arguments offer excuses for immoral behavior. Similarly, for behaviors like altruism, "hard-wired" arguments let us point fingers away from ourselves and instead at systems and institutions which have supposedly betrayed our natural tendencies.
A common thread in the above links is that the trait which is supposedly "hard-wired" is whichever trait fits a narrative—it's racism if we're talking about mass incarceration or it's cooperation if we're looking to inspire institutional change.
Yet, in my view, none of these "hard-wired" arguments seem to have any respect for our developmental potential, our changing brain, and the complexity of human behavior.
Our Changing Brain
It's probably obvious to most that a child's brain has the capacity to change, develop, and adapt to their environment. As just one example, a child's prefrontal cortex, compared to adults, is very underdeveloped— therefore, a typical child is less effective at making complex, long-term decisions.
Yet, in the past few decades, neuroscientists have begun to have a much deeper appreciation for the adult brain's capacity for change—a term known as "plasticity." For example, we now know that adults, too, grow new neurons in some regions of the brain and that the brain undergoes profound differences throughout one's lifetime.
Imagine for a moment that the neurons in your brain are a series of connected roads, crisscrossing and linking to each other like a complex city. The neurons in your brain change in two prominent ways.
First, the intersections between roads are either formed or lost in a process called synaptic plasticity. Some intersections become stronger and more efficient, such as a cloverleaf interchange between highways. Others become weaker—maybe a four-way gravel road with a flashing red light.
Second, the capacity of each road can change; some become 6-lane highways and others two-lane streets through a process of myelination that is performed by the supportive glial cells. (Written about in an article of mine, here.)
These processes are happening constantly throughout childhood and into adulthood. It's believed that plasticity influences our effect, character traits, and of course, behavior. None of what I described is compatible with the notion of "hard-wiring" in our brain.
It’s time to give up our supposed evolutionary baggage
The problem with the "hard-wired" argument is that it is inherently rigid and, I think, potentially dangerous. From Barbara King at NPR:
"A big problem with words like "hard-wired" and its familiars is their fuzziness, particularly in regard to what they might imply about the human capacity for learning and change."
One common argument amongst evolutionary psychologists is that our brains are hard-wired to feel more empathy toward people within our own tribe—our own social status, race, sex, etc. This trait stems from an ancestral world in which it would be advantageous to vigorously protect your own group and be suspicious of difference which may introduce conflict. Indeed, I can understand this line of thinking—it is very difficult to extend compassion beyond our close inner circle, people who share our experience.
But this fact doesn't abrogate me from the practice of intentionally mixing with groups from different backgrounds and certainly doesn't provide any evidence of a "hard-wired" opposition to difference. Feelings of love and hate are "triggered under given circumstances, facilitated or hampered by social conditions and structures" (Anthropologist Patrick Clarkin).
In fact, there is strong empirical evidence of our social group's influence on our view of others — not our brain's hard-wiring. Psychologists Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp carried out an extremely extensive meta-analysis of over 1,400 papers that analyzed the effects of intergroup contact and found that an astonishing 94% of the studies showed that increased intergroup contact was associated with less prejudice. An association is, of course, not exactly a causal link. Yet, impressively, the study ruled out the possibility of a reverse causal sequence, publication bias, and other alternative explanations to put forth the most substantive evidence to date that it is our social structure, not our inherent biology or "hard-wiring," which influences our prejudice.
It goes without saying that this is an extremely complex and nuanced topic. Certain aspects of human nature are inherent, such as those embedded in the genetic code itself. Yet my point is to simply urge you to think critically about popular arguments that attempt to portray your brain as already formed, ancestral, and incapable of change. If 2020 has shown us anything, it's that we don't have a choice—we need to change ourselves for the better.