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Aping MankindReview - Aping Mankind
Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity
by Raymond Tallis
Acumen, 2011
Review by Keith Harris, Ph.D.
Jul 10th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 28)

Despite its mischievous title, Aping Mankind is a very serious book, and represents the author's current location in his decades-long stream of multifaceted thinking.  Tallis has been called a polymath -- he is a physician, philosopher, public speaker, and a prolific writer. He has produced dozens of books and is the author of, or principal subject of (by my count), some 200 articles to date. (For a list of his works, see here.)  Much of his speaking and writing over the past several decades has been deliberately controversial and engagingly argumentative, and Aping Mankind is no exception.

The main thrust of this current work carries forward his position that humankind has been misunderstood, misrepresented and misled by extremist advocates of neurological and evolutionary explanations about what makes us human, and what distinguishes us from other creatures.  Among the extremist views are the claims that we're only brains, that we're only animals, that consciousness is an epiphenomenon, that humanity is intrinsically driven by base motivations and self-interests, that we are just the momentary carriers of a particular line of DNA, and so on.

The distinctive features of human beings--self-hood, free will, that collective space called the human world, the sense that we lead our lives rather than simply live them as organisms do--are being discarded as illusions by many, even by philosophers, who should think a little bit harder and question the glamour of science rather than succumbing to it. (p. 8)

In the face of this increasingly shrill campaign to dehumanize us, Tallis calls for what many will see as a balanced approach in science, philosophy and the humanities.  To this end, Aping Mankind is an admittedly expansive work.  Tallis planned it to be a "one-stop shop for anyone who wishes to question the wild and often ludicrous claims that are made on behalf of biologism" (p. 10).  By this use of the intentionally provocative terms biologism, neuromania and Darwinitis, Tallis doesn't mean in any way to discount the useful and foundational aspects of Darwin's work, or the value of applied neurological discoveries -- he is, after all, a neurologist -- but rather he urges us to keep a reasonable restraint and a skeptical eye on the more extravagant claims laid to these domains.

I do not doubt that Darwinism gives an ever more impressively complete account of how the organism H. sapiens came into being.  But that's not the point: things with us did not stop there.  Humans woke up from being organisms to being something quite different: embodied subjects, self-aware and other-aware in a manner and to a degree not approached by other animals. . . . Our consciousness...cannot be found solely in the stand-alone brain; or even just in a brain in a body; or even in a brain interacting with other brains in bodies. (p. 11)

Thus, in the first few introductory pages of the book, Tallis concisely sets the stage and tone for the three hundred plus pages to come, noting that "It is a bitter irony that two of our greatest intellectual achievements -- the theory of evolution and neuroscience -- should be used to prop up a picture of humanity that is not only wrong but degrading" (p. 12).  Following the introduction, the book can be very loosely divided into thirds, although the intricate argument so carefully put forth by Tallis requires much interweaving of branches throughout.  The first three chapters primary address neuroscience in both its reasonable and unwarranted views, the middle of the book largely deals with Darwinism and its excessive extensions, and the final chapters speak to the unique (as far as we know) humanness of being human.

Right off, in the first chapter of the book, Tallis highlights the difference between science and scientism, with the latter defined as the "mistaken belief that the natural sciences... can or will give a complete description and even explanation of everything, including human life" (p. 15).  The reader is given a high-level review of the history and current understanding of neurological development and functioning, and the meaning of neuromania becomes clear -- the position that we are only our brains.  The connection is also made here to the extension of evolutionary theory that Tallis has termed Darwinitis.  Briefly, the main symptom of Darwinitis is the production of the following line of logic: (1) since the mind is identical with brain activity and (2) the brain is an evolved organ, and (3) because evolved organs are designed solely to serve evolutionary purposes, and since (4) the definitive evolutionary purpose of organisms is to pass on (to replicate) genes, then (5) the mind is an epiphenomenon of an organ whose real (and generally hidden) function is to generate behaviors that support the maintenance and transmission of its genetic line. Simply put, human agency and responsibility, in the sense of free will and self-directed, purposive behavior, is undermined in this model. "Men who sleep with many women and traders who aim to maximize their returns on their investments are simply responding to the fundamental biological imperative to make the world safe for their genes, and a place where they can optimize their replicative capacity" (p. 47).

The condition of neuromania is taken up directly in Chapter Three, where Tallis describes and decries the unreasonable proliferation of neurological explanations for almost everything human, including this handful from the list he cites: altruism, criminality, empathy, hope, love, suicide, trust, wisdom and so on. Of the neurological background material that Tallis reviews, one example must suffice here.  In one bit of researchers, scientists set out to study the neurology of love by showing photographs of both strangers and loved ones to subjects.  Among their findings was that love is a specific response of certain areas of the brain, including the medial insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, the caudate nucleus, and the putamen.  With his distinctive flair for verbal sparring, Tallis points out that

...as anyone knows who has been in love -- indeed anyone who is not a Martian -- love is not like a response to a simple stimulus such as a picture. It is not even a single enduring state, like being cold.  It encompasses many things, including: not feeling in love at that moment; hunger; indifference; delight; wanting to be kind; wanting to impress; worrying over the logistics of meetings; lust; awe; surprise; joy; guilt; anger; jealousy; imagining conversations or events; speculating what the loved one is doing when one is not there; and so on. (p. 77)

The conclusion from this, shored up further in subsequent chapters, is that improvement over time of imaging technology and of the ability to measure physical and neurological functions will not, even in principle, tell us anything more useful about human experiences such as love that we won't always know better and more fully from the inside.  It's a complicated business, nonetheless. 

Later on, in Chapter Seven, Tallis points out that a human being is neither just a body nor just a mind, but rather in some way we are the intersection of these (again, in a way that is almost certain to remain inaccessible to our most advanced scientific investigations).  This is a challenging and difficult idea, that the self is necessarily "the subjective sense of being me" and at the same time must be grounded in physical form (a body) in a social setting:  "The body links the private space of recollection with the public realm" (p. 272).

After in-depth considerations of the functions and adaptations (such as our "pointing" finger and the richness and uniqueness of human language) that eventuated in the distinctive consciousness of our species, Tallis offers up in Chapter Eight many interesting and distressing instances of "pop-neuroscience" and other neuro-whatevers taken to far hinterlands.  One of many "pop-neuro" examples is that of (so-called) neuro-economics offering guidance to politicians regarding social policy (q.v., p. 325). The breadth of Tallis's familiarity and facility with the positions of others both in his own field and in others (such as the arts) is impressive throughout the book. (Although obviously it is important for the reader not to take Tallis's thoughts about such works as the sole source for the content validity of those works; at least some authors have complained that their positions have been misstated.)

For those readers whose interests span psychology, philosophy, mind and evolution, the final chapter calls for careful attention.  This chapter, "Back to the Drawing Board", starts with a poignant moment during a visit Tallis made to Australia in 2003.  At one point his host offered to show Tallis the preserved brain of Ullin T. Place, a lecturer who died in 2000, leaving his brain to the University of Adelaide.  Place was, according to a placard, "responsible for a revolutionary change in the way philosophers view the nature of mind and consciousness."  Decades back, Place had argued persuasively against certain tenets of dualism and behaviorism, asserting instead that "consciousness should be seen as a brain process and nothing more" (p. 337).  Tallis notes the irony that this placard should adorn the preserved brain that supported the mind that was once capable of standing outside the brain itself, in order to speculate that the neurological processes within the brain were all that comprised it.  "If consciousness simply were brain processes, it would not be able so to distance itself from brain processes to discover, or imagine that it has discovered, that it is brain processes" (p. 338).

That is, as the German philosopher Franz Brentano demonstrated long ago in his Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874/1995), all mental activity, whether perceiving, remembering, feeling, knowing, or intending, is about something.  And as almost everyone would agree, physical objects as well as energy forces and fields, are never about anything. The link between the physical world and the mental world has never yet been clarified, despite heroic attempts by both very vocal opponents of the common view of consciousness such as Dennett (e.g., 2003), and less-partisan philosophers such as Chalmers (1997) and Nagel (1974).

To assert, as some do, that consciousness is ephemeral, just an illusion, would mean that the sense of self must also be illusory.  In everyday life it's quite impossible to act as though this could be the case.  Tongue in cheek and referring to a contrary position of philosopher Chris Frith, Tallis notes that "The self-washed brain produces an illusion called Chris Firth, although that illusion is so firmly of the belief that Frith exists that he attaches his name to the book he has written about the brain" (p. 340).  Tallis also quotes pointedly from J.B.S. Haldane:

It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of the atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically.  And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms. (Haldane, 1932, p. 209)*

Readers of Tallis's book will of course hope, after following the intricate arguments about how Darwinitis and neuromania have got it wrong, to learn Tallis's own explanation of how it is that we are both conscious and self-conscious, human and creature, physical and non-physical.  Tallis doesn't take a concrete position, though he's cast serious doubt on the position of others.  He does appear to appreciate the work of Andy Clark and others "who subscribe to dynamical, embodied, extended, distributed and situated (DEEDS) theories of cognition" and to W. T. Rockwell, who is quoted with the position that "Even the most private, subjective, qualitative aspects of human experience are embodied in the brain-body-world nexus" (p. 352).  Perhaps, as well, the reader would also recall hints in the passages back in Chapter Six where Tallis explained how close (some) other higher primates have come to self-consciousness; here he observes that they "have almost everything in place" that is required for the shift from episodic into sustained consciousness and notes that human consciousness has evolved in "ways that are unknown to biology" (p. 241).  If the nature of human consciousness is unavailable to biologists, how much less clear must it be to physicists and chemists?  Perhaps it is enough to simply acknowledge that science has no answers about humanness, but neither does science benefit from the forced, extremist solutions offered under the fevers of neuromania and Darwinitis.  Perhaps consciousness is another "layer" of reality, much as is mathematics, which describes reality but is somehow independent of that which it describes.

This tentativeness of this book in proposing its own definitive position about the mysteries of humanness, consciousness and selfhood does not at all detract from the pleasure of its reading.  The reader will find it richly rewarding, packed with thoughts worth sharing and ideas worth considering, and quite a lot of fun.  For what more could we reasonably ask?

 

References

Brentano, F.  (1874/1995).  Psychology from an empirical standpoint.  New York: Routledge.

Chalmers, D.  (1997).  Moving forward on the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 4(1), 3-46.

Dennett, D. (2003). Explaining the "magic" of consciousness. Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology, 1(1), 7-19.

Haldane, J.B.S.  (1932).  When I am dead.  In Possible worlds and other essays. London: Chatto & Windus.

Nagel, T.  (1974). What is it like to be a batThe Philosophical Review 83(4), 435-50.

 

* The rest of Haldane's relevant comment in "When I Am Dead", not included in Tallis's book, goes as follows:

In order to escape from this necessity of sawing away the branch on which I am sitting, so to speak, I am compelled to believe that mind is not wholly conditioned by matter. But as regards my own very finite and imperfect mind, I can see, by studying the effects on it of drugs, alcohol, disease, and so on, that its limitations are largely at least due to my body.

Without that body it may perish altogether, but it seems to me quite as probable that it will lose its limitations and be merged into an infinite mind or something analogous to a mind which I have reason to suspect probably exists behind nature. How this might be accomplished I have no idea.

 

© 2012 Keith Harris

  

Keith Harris, Ph.D., is Chief of Research for the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California. His current interests include the empirical basis for mental health research, behavioral genetics, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.


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