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We keep being told we’re “hardwired” to do things.  To have affairs, to put on weight, to prefer certain colours, or even to read books.  It’s the least marvellous metaphor going round currently and I wanted to suggest a few reasons why, every time someone claims we’re “hardwired” to do anything, I cringe.  Even when it’s something I like.  It’s usually paired with the idea that we’ve been doing it “throughout the whole of human history…”, another charmless rhetorical device which I’ll tackle in the next blog post.  But for this one, it’s “hardwired”.[1]

Metaphors are a necessary way of conceptualising the world – without them it’s difficult to see how we’d get much thinking done.  But they’re never neutral and by creating an image out of an issue they sneak in a bunch of assumptions.  If an analogy seems elegant and striking, that may well be because it has imposed order on an apparently formless set of ideas, and in doing so has already won the argument.  Plato’s “ship of state” is compelling because it seems to encapsulate exactly what the political life of a Greek city-state was like, and because it provides implicit answers to political question.  A ship has a direction, a specific set of esoteric knowledge necessary to understand that direction, and (perhaps most importantly for Plato) a clear hierarchy in which everyone must submit absolutely to one man for their own safety.  That’s politics sorted, then.

The effect is more obvious with a more emotive subject.  Public debate about rape and women’s safety rarely lasts long before someone brings up the analogy of “leaving your car unlocked” or “having your wallet hanging out of your pocket”.  It suggests that dressing “revealingly”, overindulging in alcohol and walking through dangerous neighbourhoods are unnecessary risks which women can easily change.  Of course, to entertain the analogy you need to suppose (if only for a moment) that women’s bodies and sexualities are objects which can be ”stolen” and need to be locked up.  That’s just one of the working parts in this rhetorical device, but it’s also an attitude which a lot of people have historically held (and many still do), and which led to the very problem the “leaving your car unlocked” analogy tries to deal with.  Whether intentionally or not, the terms of this metaphor ask the listener to accept some deeply damaging and offensive ideas about women as a way of approaching the problem.

Even when the answer isn’t so clearly built into them, analogies carry their own haze of associations.  When someone says that the deficit is like a household budget, and we can’t keep borrowing more money, we have to cut back just like any family, I realize they’re simplifying deliberately.  They don’t actually assume that all economic principles can be scaled up or down at will, and that the economy as a whole works like their paycheque.  There’s nothing in that metaphor which means they distrust big government, would prefer decisions be taken on a local level and perhaps feel that the traditional family unit isn’t valued as much as it should be these days.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if their views tended that way.  If in the same discussion someone tells me that the country has maxed out its credit card and has to pay it back, I’d consider it very possible they have a slightly old-fashioned view of consumer credit and think people these days are too used to instant gratification, particularly those younger or less well-off than themselves.  No concrete basis for that in the metaphor itself, but I’d suspect.

“Hardwired” carries its own template for the world.  The word has a clunky, compound feeling to it, a sense that it doesn’t quite translate from its original setting, like a literature student who deliberately talks about l’écriture rather than writing. “Hardwired” keeps some of the heft and authority of the sciences: even when being used in an argument about reading habits or gender roles, it gives an impression that these are questions which have already been settled by scientific investigation.  It seeks to shut down the discussion, to foreclose speculation, to insist that things are the way they have to be.  It’s the rhetorical equivalent of the naturalistic fallacy, of ending an argument with “Well, I’m sorry, but that’s just the way things are.”  Of course the metaphor doesn’t explicitly say this, but often are we been told that humans are hardwired to transcend their biological limitations?

More generally it implies that the “hard” sciences take precedence over the “soft” branches of thought such as history or politics.  The metaphor seems to suggest that not only are we determined by our “wiring” in this particular instance, but that our minds and our lives are best considered as a kind of circuit board.  (An oddly Creationist implication, as I’ll discuss in the next post.) I think there’s a particular danger in thinking about ourselves in this way – it enshrines every injustice and inequality as the will of the machine.


[1] I should make clear that I’m thinking here about “hardwired” as a metaphor which appears in the press and public discussion.  I don’t mean to dismiss neuropsychology  or evolutionary psychology as disciplines – even if I had enough understanding of what they are to do that – but rather to criticize the way their claims are often presented to us by non-scientists.  I don’t think that’s an unreasonable distinction to make: after all, I wouldn’t suggest that the Daily Mail proves that oncology is a vapid and futile branch of medicine.

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