Saturday, November 06, 2004

When science is a friend

It's always pleasing as a conservative to be vindicated by modern science.

Take the issue of sex differences. The very first manifesto of feminism, Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1791), was based on the idea that women are only feminine because of their upbringing.

Wollstonecraft was particularly upset with the philosopher Rousseau for giving "sex to a mind" - for believing that there are natural differences in the psychology of men and women.

More than two hundred years of scientific research later we know that Wollstonecraft was wrong. Sex hormones have been identified as naturally influencing male and female behaviour, and it's known that there are physical differences between the male and female brain.

So the mind does have a sex after all! This is good news for conservatives, who have always argued that social roles for men and women have to take account of natural differences between the sexes.

For liberals, the scientific advances are a philosophical headache. Liberals want us to be creatures of our individual will and reason, not of our sex. It can't be pleasant for a liberal to learn that masculine and feminine characteristics are hardwired into us.

Which brings us to the next bit of cheering scientific news. A group of 33 children's doctors, research scientists, and mental health professionals have collaborated to write a report titled Hardwired to Connect.

The report presents scientific evidence that not only are we biologically "programmed" to connect to others, but that our level of nurture within "authoritative communities" can influence, amongst other things, the healthy development of brain circuitry.

Such findings from neuroscience reinforce the conservative belief that humans are by nature social creatures, and that it's important to uphold the deeper forms of human connectedness.

It's interesting to observe how some liberals have responded to the report. Liberals generally emphasise an ideal of individual autonomy, rather than social connectedness. You might think, therefore, that they would be unsympathetic to the findings of the report.

However, an article on the report by Anne Manne in the Melbourne Age was very approving. She chose to accept the latest scientific findings, noting that:

Neuroscience, too, is showing that all humans from earliest infancy need, seek and flourish in long-term, stable, close attachments.

To seek other human partners is an instinctive, evolved human behaviour. It is, to borrow the report's rather cyborg metaphor, "hardwired" or "pre-programmed" into brain circuitry. Violate these deep human needs and the risks rise.

We now have a heightened awareness of the way enduring, nurturing, stable attachments in early childhood shape a life in a positive or negative direction. (Age, 11/10/03)

These comments, however, don't mean that Anne Manne has suddenly converted to conservative orthodoxy. In fact, when it comes to the question of how you actually create the authoritative communities in which children can flourish, her left liberalism becomes more apparent.

Twice in her article, Anne Manne quotes the views of the Australian of the Year, Professor Fiona Stanley. Professor Stanley believes in following "the kinds of policies that have worked in other countries, like the Scandinavian countries."

The Scandinavian model appeals to Professor Stanley because of the emphasis on social welfare, which means the provision of professional services by a high taxing state. Both Anne Manne and Professor Stanley contrast this model to the economic rationalist one in Australia (and other Anglosphere countries) where expenditure has to be justified in terms of measurable outcomes.

The problem is that the Scandinavian model hasn't worked. For instance, Professor Stanley quotes a rise in male suicide rates in Australia as evidence of what is going wrong in this country. However, when you compare the average rate of suicide in the five left-liberal Scandinavian countries with that in the five more right-liberal OECD Anglosphere countries you find that the Scandinavian countries are actually doing much worse.

The male rate of suicide is 21% higher in the Scandinavian countries, whilst the female rate is 59% higher (which is particularly notable given that the Scandinavian countries are considered to be closest to the feminist ideal).

In fact, the report specifically cautions against the Swedish model. It notes that Sweden has devoted considerable resources to try to improve the economic and material conditions of single parent families. Despite this, a major research project has found that Swedish children living in single parent homes still suffer double the risk of psychiatric illness and suicide and three times the risk of drug abuse.

So what would conservatives suggest as a means to build "authoritative communities"? I won't attempt a detailed answer, but two suggestions spring to mind.

First, there is a need to more actively maintain a culture of family life. This means placing less emphasis in Western culture on independence and autonomy, and more on the fulfilments of family life; it also means openly recognising gender differences and finding balanced and complementary relationships between men and women within a family.

A second suggestion would be to allow the existence of institutions in which adult men can transmit a healthy masculine culture to boys. It's difficult to do this though when associations for boys (even boys' only sports teams) are outlawed by "sex discrimination" regulations.

I won't be holding my breath waiting for these things to happen while liberalism reigns supreme. I will, though, await the further results of scientific research in the field of social connectedness with considerable interest and optimism.

(First published at Conservative Central 12/10/03)

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