The Golden Rule: Q&A with Donald Pfaff

Author of The Neuroscience of Fair Play

by Nicky Penttila

December 5, 2007

Donald Pfaff, Ph.D., is head of the Laboratory of Neurobiology and Behavior at Rockefeller University and the author of many scientific articles and books. But his new book, The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule, is written for the general reader. In it, he explains the streams of brain research that lead him to conclude that ethics is a hardwired function of the human brain.

How did you come to write the book?

  The Neuroscience of Fair Play feature 
About 25 years ago, I was spending a lot of time in the Sarah Lawrence College library. I'd usually bring a lot of work to do, but one Sunday evening I ran out of work. And so I started looking around, and I found out they had an excellent comparative religion section. I looked among a tremendous number of books over a period of weeks in their comparative religion section. I probably covered 25 religions or so. And I couldn't find any that didn't have some kind of statement of the Golden Rule. Sometimes it was stated as positive, sometimes stated as negative, sometimes a little indirect.

On top of that, I was aware of Kant's categorical imperative; which is like a statement of the Golden Rule but outside of a religious context. And on top of that, a couple of years later I read a paper by William Hamilton and Robert Axelrod in which they could train computers to behave in according to what you could call "reciprocal altruism," a fair‑play principle.

Many social behaviors have a very local context—like, say, the colors of gang shirts on the south side of Chicago. These local social habits are not likely to reflect deep, underlying principles of brain research and brain science. But an ethical universal seen across lots of centuries and all the continents that people live on might indeed reflect an underlying principle.

So two things struck me after that, for what seemed to be a good theory to make a good book. The first is that it occurred to me—really, I was just home in my study—that in order to have people behave according to this principle, theoretically you did not have to assume all kinds of special abilities and spiritual capacities. All you had to do was to be able to forget and to be able to distinguish things.

Most everyone can forget, and tell one thing from another.

Right. It's parsimonious, even elegant. And then I said, OK, under this theory, what would be the process by which a person would make an ethical decision in an ambiguous situation?

Let's say the person's holding the gun in a scary situation and deciding whether to fire or not, and to hurt somebody else. What would be the series of steps that the person would have to go through? The first thing is, the person has to represent his action to himself. He has to say, "What is it I'm about to do?"

And the reason that that step appealed to me is that I knew, from a long history of neurophysiological and behavioral scientific research, that representing one's actions to one's self is something we have to do all the time. For example, if you move your eye to the right, how do you know that the world did not move to the left?

I predicted it.

Right. The reason is that we represent our eye movement to ourselves before it happens. In a variety of other motor‑control tests, we represent our actions to ourselves. So all I've done is to extend something that we already know happens in neurophysiology and behavioral science, and I've extended that into the realm of social behaviors.

That gave me the running start on the theory. One, represent the action to yourself. Two, envision the target of that action. Three, blur your images—the image of the target with your image of yourself. Four, make the decision. If it's good, do it, if it's not good, don't do it.

So that's the history of the theory from a long time ago. But I put it aside, because I'm a working neuroscientist, and I didn't have time, frankly. I wrote books, but I wanted the books to reflect my laboratory research. And so this idea got put aside until I decided that it would be so much fun to see if it really worked out the way that I said.

Was there anything that surprised you or took you in a different direction when you were doing the research and the writing?

Here was the main problem: I was so enthused with the notion of coming up with a parsimonious theory, a theory that made no special assumptions, that I kind of forgot that I was going to have deal with the problem of evil.

I mean, I didn't face it seriously until I actually had to make an outline of the book. And then I thought, "Holy smoke, people are going to think this is ridiculous. Because here's this little schmuck from New York saying that we're wired for altruism, that we're wired for reciprocity. And we have so many examples of problems. At the social level we have genocides, at the individual level we have crimes; so many black American men between a certain age range are in jail.

And so I had to split my consideration into things that I thought neuroscience could address—that is, normal biologically‑ regulated explanations—and to admit neuroscience's shortcomings in trying to understand how normal regulated aggression, controlled aggression for specific biological purposes, could explode into violence, either at the individual level or the level of the collective. And I just can't explain that.

So what I do in the book is to pay due recognition to all of the other scholarly disciplines, like history and sociology and even some anthropology, as they have tried to explain where violent behavior comes from. But the average neuroscientist is at a loss there.

Do you think neuroscience will come up with an answer? Are we looking in a certain direction that can help us?

Not soon. I suspect that people who study aggressive behaviors in non‑human primates will be our leaders. People who study Rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees, both of which species can be quite violent and quite aggressive. They'll probably help us out a lot.

Where were you when you were writing it when you heard about the New York subway story?

About Wesley Autrey? I was more than half‑done with the book. Then I went back and added it to the introduction. And the book finishes up with a wonderful quote from the president of Chile. A medical doctor, a woman whose father had been tortured by one of the dictators there but who nevertheless at her inauguration speech had quite a story of forgiveness to tell.

Do you think that because there are so many different varieties of families right now has that changed to our detriment, or has it helped us?

Well, I tend to believe along with certain classical geneticists that all social behaviors have their most primitive, fundamental root in sexuality. In species that take care of their young, the next level of complexity is what I'd call parental behavior. You could call it maternal behavior and then it would be in most cases mammals because the mother has to nurse the young.

But some species are bi‑parental and it's always been recognized that humans are bi‑parental; fathers and mothers. So, there's a large variety of family situations now. Let's say it's a female medical doctor—this is an individual case of a relative of mine—a female medical doctor who is on call but the male, the father, is a creative writer and also a good cook. That's of when we first broke the 1950's American pattern.

Now we have gay people and adopted children, and we have in‑vitro fertilization, and every possible combination. But I think that none of them contravene the basic principles of parental behavior, as it's rooted deeply in the human brain.

How would you describe the book?

The book has been edited so that it should be understandable to any person with a college education. That is, it is a scientific book and there are real descriptions of nervous system mechanisms, hormonal mechanisms, and behavioral experiments. But we really tried to avoid jargon. We really tried to avoid obscure abbreviations. And we've tried to skip any details of the science that aren't relevant to the main storyline.

I would say that the book has a rhythm to it. It has an introduction just like the first notes of a sonata, and then it builds to a climax where we explain the theory. But then it has to start with a new movement, and confront the problem of aggression and violence. Then the resolution is in what we think determines the temperament of any individual, which obviously is going to be a balance between pro‑social—that would be loving, affiliative, civil behaviors—and anti‑social—that would be harmful, aggressive behaviors. A balance between those instincts because we all have to have both. Whenever you are going to take a test and you want to do better than the other students, then that's a form of aggression. But it's regulated and useful.

So in the normal case, we recognize different persons have different temperaments and highly different balances. I might be more shy, you might be more aggressive, and so forth. In the abnormal case, when something has gone wrong, well, then, that's a problem for medical science.