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Dick Swaab

Dick Swaab

Dick Swaab is a professor of neuroscience at the University of Amsterdam. In We Are Our Brains he identifies himself as a “neurocalvinist”. He thinks that everything from gender identity to sexual orientation to a propensity for schizophrenia is neurologically determined in utero. This leads him to make some counter-intuitive pronouncements.

If you are born in the winter, Swaab says, you’re more likely to develop schizophrenia. Exercise is bad for you. The bigger your brain the longer you’ll live. Most antidepressants are no more effective than placebos. Swaab argues that free will is an illusion, and that the social relativism of the Sixties and Seventies, a time when “there was a universal belief in social engineering”, was profoundly misguided. People are born bad or good, mad or sad, and there’s little we can do to change them.

Swaab presents his thesis as a liberating and liberalising doctrine. If people are neurologically “programmed” to be gay or straight then condemning them for their sexual orientation is immoral, and trying to “cure” them is doomed to failure. If people are born good or bad then we should give up on the idea of incarceration as punishment.

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