Are people getting better? An interview with Webb Keane on ETHICAL LIFE

From inner city America to the Inuit Arctic, from evangelical Christians to ardent feminists, our increasingly diverse and global society means, as Webb Keane puts it, that “everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town.” How then, does one exercise the distinctly human tendency to take an ethical stance toward oneself and everyone else? Which values can be said to be universal? Is it innately human to apply ethics, or is it strictly a product of one’s cultural and historical context? Keane, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, took some time to answer questions about his new book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories.

Keane jacketWhat’s new about Ethical Life?

WK: This book brings together research findings across a wide range of fields that rarely communicate with one another. So one thing that’s new is the wide net it casts. It takes in developmental psychology, the microsociology of conversation, ethnographies carried out with everyone from inner city crack dealers and to hunters in the rain forest, and histories of feminism, evangelical religion, and communist revolution. Along the way, it brings philosophers into the conversation, and takes occasional sideglances to cognitive science and neuroscience. Usually when a book covers so much territory, it tries to do one of two things. One approach is to give us a kind of encyclopedia: there’s this, and this, and this. Another is to claim there’s one big explanation, like for example, it all boils down to your DNA. Well this book takes a different tack. It says that each of these different angles on human ethics tells us something that can’t be reduced to, or explained by, the others. But none of them are complete in themselves. So the book explores the borderlands where they meet each other. For instance, psychology shows us that the impulse to seek out other people’s intentions is shared by all humans, and is very deep; philosophy tells us why intention-reading is essential to ethical judgments; ethnography explains why some communities will emphasize intention-reading while others suppress it; and history traces out how it comes to be that one society, at one point in time, ends up finding intentionality fascinating, while another takes it to be a source of anxiety—and what happens when people actively try to change their own ethical system.

Can you explain the title?

WK: I use the term ethical “life” because I think it’s important that ethics isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that you consult from time to time. It’s built into the very flow of everyday life. It’s part of your emotional equipment, your sense of self, and of your ability to have relations to other people, as well as to the words and habits and institutions you get from living in a particular society at a particular time. Notice that this list ranges across all the fields I’ve mentioned: psychology, social interaction, history. “Ethical life” means that an ethics saturates even quite ordinary activities.

Some people say that the foundation for ethics and morality is religion. Isn’t this so?

WK: It follows from the proposition that ethics is built into ordinary life that it’s not based on religion as such. Anthropologist will tell you that even very traditional religious communities always have their village atheists, yet the village atheist also participates in ethical life. And of course many philosophical systems have tried to base ethics on non-religious principles like reason. Still, it’s also true that religions have played a huge role in the development of ethical systems. One chapter of the book looks at examples from Christianity and Islam to show how they construct and inculcate a very distinctive style of morality. But they do so by drawing on raw materials that are already part of everyday life, and then transforming them in certain characteristic ways.

But at least we can say ethics is the specialty of philosophers and theologians, so why would an anthropologist be talking about this?

WK: Anthropologists have two mandates. One is to understand people as they actually are—warts and all–and not as we think they should be, which can sometimes put us in the company of some pretty nasty characters. The second mandate is to begin by trying to see people from their own points of view. Our job doesn’t stop there, but making that our starting point means we have to grapple with ethical intuitions that we may find foreign or even repugnant. As I see it, the traditional role of the philosopher or theologian is not to carry out empirical research to discover what ethical life actually is, but rather to say something about what it should be, and to justify that view. Now certainly there are many philosophers and theologians who are in deep conversation with social scientists, and vice versa—I hope you can see this dialogue going on in my book–but most of us end up observing that division of labor, and work at different sides of the questions. And one of the things this book says, with which many philosophers and theologians may disagree, is that there’s no guarantee that we can find a single set of unifying principles that everyone will agree to, or that history is leading us to converge on a shared ethics.

Is it human nature to be ethical?

WK: Yes and no. One the one hand, ethical life is a dimension of ordinary human existence across the board. It draws on certain capacities and propensities that all children develop early in life, and that all societies respond to and develop in one way or another. The book stresses the very basic elements of ethics, like seeing yourself from your interlocutor’s perspective or having a sense of reciprocity and fairness, which are features of life everywhere. On the other hand, this book also argues that these basics do not amount to a full-fledged ethics until people have some way of recognizing that that’s what they are: that there’s something ethical at stake. And this depends on all sorts of social dynamics which necessarily vary from time to time and place to place. They have a history. Moreover, every community has some values which are likely to conflict with one another, such as freedom and equality, or justice and charity. The balance between them is likely to shift from one context to another. Which is one reason why we’re not likely to end up with a single set of shared ethical principles.

Well, if ethics isn’t just a universal set of rules, is the end result ethical relativism?

WK: The short answer is “no.” This is the other side of the coin in the answer to the previous question: there are limits to how far any ethical system can ignore or go beyond the raw materials with which it’s working. Simply in order to make sense of one another, people have to act in ways that others can interpret, and there are cognitive, linguistic, and sociological constraints on this. Moreover, just recognizing that other people have very different moral intuitions doesn’t exempt me from having certain commitments. If I’m going to play soccer, I have to care about the outcome even if I’m aware that there are people out there who don’t know or care about soccer (but, say, who do care about basketball). But no amount of knowledge about the different games is going to give me an objective basis for declaring that the game I’m playing is the one that should really matter. We can’t expect our scientific knowledge about ethics to provide us with a superior position from which to we can prove to everyone else that our ethical intuitions are the correct ones.

The last section of your book is about historical change. Many of us would like to know, are people getting better?

WK: That really depends on what yardstick you want to use to measure progress. On the one hand, it’s clear that people around the world are more and more likely to have dealings with others from different backgrounds, and to see some connection to people who aren’t right next door. So two things follow. First, everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town. And second, the potential scope of their ethical concern is expanding. Alongside this is the rise of universalizing ideals, like the concept of human rights. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming more cosmopolitan—sometimes they just circle the wagons and double down on racial, national, or religious exclusiveness, insisting that some people are not due objects of my ethical concern. So, again, I don’t think we’re going to find any guarantees out there. But it does look like the friction generated when different ethical worlds rub up against one another can charge up new ethical ideas and provoke us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society.

New Brain & Cognitive Science Catalog

We invite you to scroll through the 2016 Brain & Cognitive Science catalog below.

Phishing for PhoolsDon’t miss Phishing for Phools! Nobel Prize-winning economists George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller challenge the traditional idea that the free market is inherently benign and show us through numerous stories how sellers can manipulate and deceive us.



ThriveIn Thrive, Richard Layard and David M. Clark argue that the economic and social advantages of investing in modern psychological therapies more than make up for the cost, and that we cannot afford to ignore an issue that affects at least 20% of people in developed countries.



future of the brainThe Future of the Brain, edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman, is a collection of essays that explore the exciting advances that will allow us to understand the brain as we never have before.




Secret of our SuccessJoseph Henrich makes the case that our success as a species can be attributed to our ability to socially connect with each other and benefit from a collective intelligence in The Secret of Our Success.




For these and many more titles in cognitive science, see our catalog above! And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to get 30% off on select titles through November 13, 2015.

Fall Sale

Finally, if you’ll be attending the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Chicago from October 17-21, visit us at booth 126. You can also join the conversation on Twitter using #SfN15!

Tim Verstynen, author of Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep does Google Talk

Tim Verstynen, co-author, along with Bradley Voytek, of Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain recently participated in an hour-long Talks at Google event (video below).

There are two versions of the video, one in color, and one in black and white for an added spooky affect! Although Halloween came and went with no zombie apocalypse, Verstynen discusses his book and what can be gained in the field of neuroscience by studying zombie brains.






Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?
A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain
Timothy Verstynen & Bradley Voytek 



Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban on 2014 elections

weedenElections are almost always a polarizing event in this country, but Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban, authors of The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It, explain why it’s more complex than just liberals and conservatives going twelve rounds in the ring. Two days ago, The New York Times published Weeden and Kurzban’s opinion piece, Election 2014: Your Very Predictable Vote, and it has generated some internet buzz; over 500 comments have already been submitted.

The gist? Americans vote out of self-interest. The proof? “Unemployed people are more than twice as likely as people working full time to want unemployment benefits increased. African-Americans are by far the most likely proponents of affirmative action and government help for African-Americans. Rich white men are especially likely to oppose income redistribution.” Furthermore, but  unrelated to economic motivations, Weeden and Kurzban note, “People who want to have sex but don’t at the moment want babies are especially likely to support policies that ensure access to birth control and abortion. Immigrants favor generous immigration policies. Lesbians and gay men are far more likely to oppose discrimination based on sexual orientation. Those who aren’t Christian are far more likely to oppose discrimination based on religion.”

This all sounds like common sense, yet, there are many political scientists focused on the influence “parents and peers, schools and universities, political parties and leaders, and…’values'” have on American voters, and self-interest is overlooked. Weeden and Kurzban argue, “the most straightforward explanation, demographics, is also the most persuasive.” The authors go on to theorize as to what the United States might look like if policy was determined by polling residents:

“There would be greater spending on the poor, health care, Social Security and education. Immigration would be reduced. School prayer would be allowed. Anti-American speech by Muslims would be restricted. Abortion would be legal in cases of rape and fetal deformity, but illegal if the abortion was motivated by not wanting more children, by being poor, or by being single.”

So why doesn’t the United States look like this? Weeden and Kurzban have an answer for that too!

“Negotiations at the federal level result in more conservative economic policies, and more liberal social policies. That’s because they involve one set of highly educated, wealthy representatives negotiating with another, and the policies that result reflect their own core interests.”

You can read the article in its entirety, here and don’t forget to  pick up a copy of The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind in time for the 2016 presidential election!

In the spirit of Halloween: 5 facts from Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep

j10305[1]Are you a Halloween costume enthusiast who gives the best costumed trick-or-treater the most candy? Do you plan on being a zombie this Halloween? Are you afraid you might not be able to distinguish between real zombies and fake ones? If you answered yes to any of those questions, read on! Below is a list of five facts from Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek’s book Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain.

  1. According to Verstynen and Voytek, all zombies suffer from CDHD, or Consciousness Deficit Hypoactivity Disorder. Subjects with CDHD suffer from “a lack of intentional movements, lethargic and fatigued movements (akinesthesia), loss of a sense of pleasure (anhedonia), general language dysfunction (aphasia),” and much more.
  2. Ever wonder why some zombies are easily outrun and others are surprisingly quick on their feet? Verstynen and Voytek believe this phenomenon has to do with the time it takes a dead body to resurrect itself as a zombie. They call this “time-to-resurrection,” and the longer the process takes, the slower the zombie will move.
  3. CDHD seems to affect the amygdala and hypothalamus regions of the brain while leaving the primary sensory areas, cortical motor areas and basal ganglia, thalamus, and brainstem regions intact.
  4. Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) has been used in patients with Parkinson’s to help alleviate them of their symptoms. Our authors wonder if similar kinds of therapy could be used on zombies.
  5. “Survival Tip #6: Mimic them. ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’…If confronted with a herd of undead with no clear avenue of escape…act like a zombie.” Zombies have difficulty recognizing facing, so as long as you’ve been practicing your zombie walk and growl, you should be fine!

Whatever your motives are, hopefully these five facts will help you better identify zombies this Halloween.


Halloween prize pack sweepstakes includes Zombies & Calculus and Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep!

zombies.jpgIn honor of all things spooky and scary, is sponsoring a Halloween Prize Pack Sweepstakes. Five winners will be presented with six books to get you in that Halloween spirit.

To win, all you have to do is comment on this post, here! Good luck and happy Halloween!



Clear and Simple as the Truth has author Steven Pinker’s seal of approval

simple truthSteven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, was recently featured in The New York Times Sunday Book Review to, well, review books (among other things). Pinker covers everything from the current books sitting beside his bed on his nightstand to his dream literary dinner party, but one question and answer caught the Press’s attention in particular.

When asked if there were “any unexpected gems you came across” while researching his latest book “The Sense of Style,” Pinker names Mark Turner and Francis Noël Thomas’s Clear and Simple as the Truth. “Their model of ‘classic prose’ — the writer directs the reader’s gaze to something in the world — elegantly captures the differences between vigorous and turgid writing,” explains Pinker in the interview.

Not long after the Times interview (literally one day later) Pinker was published in The Chronicle Review of Higher Education for his explanation of why academics stink at writing. Here, Pinker turns to Turner and Thomas for help framing his argument. “In a brilliant little book called Clear and Simple as the Truth, the literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner argue that every style of writing can be understood as a model of the communication scenario that an author simulates in lieu of the real-time give-and-take of a conversation.”

“They distinguish, in particular, romantic, oracular, prophetic, practical, and plain styles, each defined by how the writer imagines himself to be related to the reader, and what the writer is trying to accomplish…Among those styles is one they single out as an aspiration for writers of expository prose. They call it classic style, and they credit its invention to 17th-century French essayists such as Descartes and La Rochefoucauld.”

For the New York Times Sunday Book Review, click here, and to read the rest of Pinker’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, click here.



The official zombie diagnosis, courtesy of Nerdist and Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep

k10305Have you and your friends ever sat around the TV after watching the most recent episode of The Walking Dead and wondered what caused the infection or virus to spread? If you have, you’re not the only one.

Kyle Hill of Nerdist recently shared the “official zombie diagnosis,” from Bradley Voytek and Timothy Verstynen’s book Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain. It turns out zombies are actually suffering from “Consciousness Deficit Hypoactivity Disorder ,” or CDHD. How is CDHD transmitted? Hill concludes the bacteria in a zombie’s bite and the lack of proper medical care are the most likely explanations for the zombie epidemic.

Voytek and Verstynen describe the symptoms of CDHD: “lack of intentional control over their actions, lethargic and fatigued movements (akinesthesia), loss of pleasure (anhedonia), general language dysfunction (aphasia), memory impairments (amnesias), and an inability to suppress appetitive actions such as eating or aggressive ‘fight-or-flight’ behaviors.”

In the book, Voytek and Verstynen also theorize as to why some zombies are slow and other are fast. Hill sums up their theory succinctly. “They call it the time-to-resurrection hypothesis. It goes like this. The longer the brain goes without oxygen or nutrients, the more damaged it gets. Therefore, the longer it takes for a zombification to reboot your body, the more brain damage that zombie will have. Fast zombies, which traditionally ‘turn’ very quickly then can move the way they do because they have less brain damage than the slow zombies.”

To read the rest of Hill’s article, click here. Below is a 4-minute video of Hill explaining his Walking Dead theory. Who knows, he might be right!


Read this exclusive excerpt from the winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has gone to John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser. To celebrate, we are offering a free excerpt from The Future of the Brain, a collection of cutting edge neuroscience articles edited by Gary Marcus. In “Understanding the Cortex through Grid Cells,” May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser write:


One of the ultimate goals of neuroscience is to understand the mammalian cerebral cortex, the outermost sheet of neural tissue that covers the cerebral hemispheres. All mammalian brains have a cortex, but during evolution, the size of the cortex has expanded enormously, and in the largest brains the growth has resulted in extensive folding, with much of the cortical surface getting buried in deep grooves, or sulci and fissures. The cortex is the site where most cognition and intellectual activity takes place. Thinking, planning, reflection, and imagination depend on it. Memories are stored there, and the cortex takes care of language interpretation as well as language production. Moreover, although the cortex can be found across the whole range of mammalian species, the expansion of this brain structure is thought to underlie the amplification of the intellectual repertoire in humans.

Continue reading here:



Infected: World Science Festival interviews Bradley Voytek, author of Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep

While zombies are running (or should I say, “staggering?”) around spreading their infections in Hollywood movies and TV shows, Bradley Voytek, author of Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain, is spreading knowledge about the field of neuroscience, the brain, and how it can all be better understood through the study of the undead.

In this new interview with the World Science Festival, Voytek discusses need-to-know matters such as zombie symptoms and probable causes, why some zombies are slow and others fast, and his general approach to writing the book with co-author Timothy Verstynen.

World Science Fair: What consequences are there when a zombifying agent brings a dead brain back to life?

Bradley Voytek: Neurons start to die off within minutes when there’s a lack of oxygen—especially neurons in the hippocampus, this seahorse-shaped area a couple inches in from your temple, which is pretty important for forming memories. So if, as in The Walking Dead, the zombie infection takes hold after someone dies and reanimates them, if there’s that couple minutes of delay before restarting, there’s going to be some brain areas dying off.

In the book, we call this the “time to resurrection” hypothesis. If you look at “fast zombies,” like in the movie 28 Days Later, the infection there takes just seconds to transform somebody from a normal person into this rage-fueled monster. We argue that because you’re only dead for a few seconds, there hasn’t been much damage to the physical substrate of the brain, so you’re still coordinated. But in Night of the Living Dead, the undead may have been dead for weeks or months, so they would have decayed quite a bit.


Ultimately, Voytek hopes Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? will appeal to “people who don’t normally care about [the principles of neuroscience],” and they will “end up accidentally learning something about the brain.”



Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?
A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain
Timothy Verstynen & Bradley Voytek

A look within — MRI technology in action

It’s 2014, and although we don’t have flying cars or teleportation, we do have some truly amazing technologies. The video of a live birth posted below has been making the social media rounds in recent weeks, and it is a wonderful glimpse of the imaging possible through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.

To fully understand the history and future challenges of imaging technology, we recommend Denis Le Bihan’s book Looking Inside the Brain: The Power of Neuroimaging. Le Bihan is one of the leading scientists and developers of MRI technology, so who better to guide readers through the history of imaging technology from the x-ray and CT scan to the PET scan and MRI. He also explains how neuroimaging uncovers afflictions like stroke or cancer and the workings of higher-order brain activities, such as language skills and also takes readers on a behind-the-scenes journey through NeuroSpin, his state-of-the-art neuroimaging laboratory.



Looking Inside the Brain
The Power of Neuroimaging
Denis Le Bihan
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

Under the knife with a zombie

Why do zombies act the way they do? Why, for instance, are they always looking to bite someone’s face off? Would a Snickers bar make them any less angry or violent? These are just some of the questions Tim Verstynen and Bradley Voytek try to answer in their new book Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain.

In the video above, Verstynen and Voytek explain the nature of the relationship between the brain and emotions, but don’t let the animation and mumbling zombie fool you! These authors provide viewers with a glimpse into the field and history of neuroscience and how studying and stimulating the brain allows us to better understand complicated emotions. If you’re interested in the science behind what makes a zombie a zombie, or if you’re a grad student willing and ready to examine a zombie brain, check out the video as well as the book, Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep.


bookjacket Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?
A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain
Timothy Verstynen & Bradley Voytek