Gawker published a piece on the neurological problems which might result in pedophilia, and naturally a lot of shock and disgust was triggered. The piece is titled Born This Way: Sympathy and Science for Those Who Want to Have Sex with Children. This isn’t something you want to click through to lightly. So fair warning. The neurobiological material did pique my interest:
“There was nothing significant in the frontal lobes or temporal lobes,” says Cantor. “It turned out the differences weren’t in the grey matter. The differences were in the white matter.”
“The white matter” is the shorthand term for groupings of myelinated axons and glial cells that transmit signals throughout the gray matter that composes the cerebrum. Think of the gray matter like the houses on a specific electricity grid and the white matter like the cabling connecting those houses to the grid.
“There doesn’t seem to be a pedophilia center in the brain,” says Cantor. “Instead, there’s either not enough of this cabling, not the correct kind of cabling, or it’s wiring the wrong areas together, so instead of the brain evoking protective or parental instincts when these people see children, it’s instead evoking sexual instincts. There’s almost literally a crossed wiring.”
The good news, according to Cantor, is that it if they can figure out how the wiring gets crossed, they might be able to suggest ways pregnant mothers can help ensure their baby is unlikely to be born a pedophile. “It is quite possible that one or more components of the process are related to prenatal stresses like poor maternal nutrition, toxin exposure, ill health, or poor health care,” he says. “If so, then improving health and health care in general may reduce the numbers of people vulnerable to developing pedophilia, as well as other problems.”
Fair enough as far as that goes. I think it is important to look at controversial and explosive topics objectively. You don’t always need to be objective about the issue at hand, or lack opinions, but you need to step back and analyze in a value-free manner on occasion. For me the confusing thing is that to my knowledge Gawker today takes conventionally Leftish stances on “nature vs. nurture” type issues. Would they post something by Steven Pinker defending the concept of robust behavioral differences between the sexes? So why are they sticking their necks out here?
In any case, I think the problem with the Gawker piece is that it doesn’t really come off as a cold and rational assessment. Rather, there is genuine sympathy for people who are afflicted with the mental disease of pedophilia. The author finishes:
The old adage is that the true mark of a society is how it treats the weakest in its ranks. Blacks, women, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and others are still in no way on wholly equal footing in America. But they’re also not nearly as lowly and cursed as men attracted to children. One imagines that if Jesus ever came to Earth, he’d embrace the poor, the blind, the lepers, and, yes, the pedophiles. As a self-professed “progressive,” when I think of the world I’d like to live in, I like to imagine that one day I’d be OK with a man like Terry moving next door to me and my children. I like to think that I could welcome him in for dinner, break bread with him, and offer him the same blessings he’s offered me time and again. And what hurts to admit, even knowing all I know now, is that I’m not positive I could do that.
I’m not a professed “progressive.” I can see where the author is coming from probably (and so can Jonathan Haidt)…but can my progressive readers get into his mind here? Does being progressive mean you can not take into account probability to any extent? That you need to treat people as singular individuals in even the most extreme cases? For example, in the case of a pedophile who has never acted upon their instincts one presumes that they could find social acquaintances who were childless. Many biological dispositions aren’t deterministic, they’re probabilistic. That means controlling or channeling them in non-destructive ways entails changing the situations and contexts one is placed it. That’s not unjust, that’s just common sense. You aren’t a bad person to think it is prudent that someone with pedophile urges should avoid developing close friendships with people with young children.
Many of my liberal readers and friends have expressed the position that if a hereditarian position was true for a range of issue that that would result in a lot of unpleasant normative and political downstream consequences. I’m generally skeptical of this position. I have plenty of hereditarian ideas, and believe it or not I’m not a hateful Nazi. But the response above to the possibility that pedophilia has a biological basis does make me reconsider. I’m not a neo-Freudian, so I had always assumed that this behavior and tendency had neurobiological roots. That didn’t make me any more sympathetic to individuals who committed unmentionable acts. The world isn’t fair, unfortunately.