Jeremy Clarkson. Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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The neuroscience of Jeremy Clarkson

If humans can’t control themselves, they cannot be allowed the freedoms others enjoy: humans learn self-control, she says, in the same way that toddlers learn to control their bladders.

The great Jeremy Clarkson drama is, at heart, a question of neuroscience. Can our brains, formed and tweaked over millions of years, adjust to modern times? Or are we doomed to let their ancient structures rule for ever?

Perhaps it helps to compare Clarkson to Sims, the central character in Jennifer Haley’s brilliant play The Nether. Both are accused of an ongoing series of only vaguely defined transgressions. Both are largely unrepentant. They consider themselves to be beneficent figures: they provide pleasure and entertainment, albeit of a kind that is frowned on by many. Neither see grounds for criminal proceedings: it is the tenor of their lives and their general proclivities that the authorities seek to rein in.

The difference is that Sims is an entrepreneurial paedophile. In The Nether, the internet has become a fully immersive experience, gratifying all the senses. Sims has created a virtual world where customers’ avatars are free to have sex with childlike avatars – and even slay them with an axe, if they wish.

Is this wrong? It is an unsettling question for the audience, especially since the set makes the online world an immersive experience for them, too. The online children are not real; they are the online personas of consenting adults. No one is physically hurt. The uncomfortable truth is that we have no rules for how virtual adults should behave, even towards virtual children. Technology has already outrun the evolution of our morals.

Sims exploits this. His creation, he says, mitigates against people with his proclivities offending in the real world. Their brains make them do these things, he says. He is merely providing an alternative path of action. Does he have a point? The scientific literature certainly associates paedophilia with specific abnormalities in the brain. In 2003, the Archives of Neurology reported the case of a man whose brain tumour had caused him to start sexually molesting his eight-year-old stepdaughter. When the tumour was removed, his sexual interest disappeared.

This month, German researchers have reported that there is “growing evidence that paedophilia is linked to both structural and functional brain abnormalities”. One of those abnormalities is in the areas of the brain that deal with impulse control. The question is, does that make us any less inclined to condemn behaviour when those impulses are acted upon?

It seems not. The American neuroscientist and philosopher Patricia Churchland puts it like this: “An explanation is not an excuse.” If humans can’t control themselves, they cannot be allowed the freedoms others enjoy: humans learn self-control, she says, in the same way that toddlers learn to control their bladders.

This brings us back to Clarkson. Top Gear creates a virtual experience for those who have learned to control their bladders but not their impulses to do (or watch) silly or dangerous things. The programme’s appeal is often described as adolescent – and with good neuroscientific reason: in teenagers, the frontal lobes are not yet fully connected. These are the structures responsible for assessing consequences and making judgements. The Clarkson issue is about whether this half-formed physiology and the appeal of its world-view can justifiably be exploited and enjoyed by adults.

Now, though, someone has allegedly been physically hurt. The incident invokes ancient brain structures that flood us with deep-rooted but possibly anachronistic moral certitudes. We, the audience, are left in turmoil and yet utterly compelled to watch as the BBC’s moral dilemma plays out. Having had its way with Jeremy Clarkson for so long, should the corporation now control that impulse towards the axe?

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.