James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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Aping Mankind

A book review of Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity
Acumen Books, pp 388, ISBN 978-1-84465-272-3

There is the strong impression that neuroscience is well on the way to cracking the mystery of the brain with sophisticated scanning techniques now capturing in brilliantly coloured images the neural circuits involved in altruism, criminality, empathy—even wisdom and love—and much else besides.

There remain, to be sure, several contending theories as to the riddle of the precise relationship between physical brain and non-material mind but the general view would be that it is now resoluble in exclusively materialist terms: that unique sense of ‘self’ ,the character and personality that is each one of us, must by necessity be an illusion generated by the electrochemistry of the brain to give the impression that we are in charge of our thoughts and responsible for our actions.

This unsettling proposition that ultimately we can be no more than the stooges of our brains is remarkably pervasive but gratefully cannot possibly be true , as Raymond Tallis demonstrates persuasively and entertainingly in his most recent book, Aping Mankind—and for a whole host of reasons not just scientific but philosophical, epistemological and commonsensical.

Tallis has no disagreement with neuroscience to which he has made his own unique contributions, nor with Darwinism. His concern is rather how their extrapolation ad absurdum in the form of Neuromania and Darwinitis provides the spurious rationale for, as he expresses it in typically robust prose, ‘a boringly wrong view of human life, of low ceilinged inanity’.

Neuromania, the systematic over-interpretation of the findings of neuroscience, proves on close scrutiny to be almost risibly simplistic. Thus a (typical) study purporting to identify the neural circuits involved in romantic love involved showing volunteers (wait for it) photographs of their loved ones which appeared to ‘light up’ a different part of the brain than photographs of close friends.

The insuperable difficulty here, Tallis argues, is that snapshots of the activity of the brain cannot begin to convey the deep and multi-layered nature of the most prosaic of human feelings nor offer the slightest insight into what needs explaining—how the monotonous firing of billions of neurons ‘translates’ into the ineffable subjective experience of (for example) being in love.

And so too for Darwinitis. It is of course tempting to invoke evolutionary theory to explain away all those uniquely human attributes of reason and imagination as ‘computational modules’ refined over millions of years by the evolutionary process. But the metaphor is misleading and its credibility is predicated on denying ‘the bleeding obvious’—that the mental differences separating us from our primate cousins are ‘wall to wall’. It is mere whimsy to suppose the chief executive is somehow driven by the same set of imperatives as the alpha male gorilla—who in turn can no more justify his behaviour by reference to abstract principles, or create laws and institutions than an amoeba.

So much then for the façade of knowing that passes for the materialist explanation of the mind bolstered, Tallis maintains, by a consistent lexical trickery that would confer on bits of the brain attributes that rightly belong to the human person. He has, however, no intention of resorting to the traditional dualistic notion of the mind and body as two separate ‘things’. Rather his originality lies in turning the tables on protagonists of ‘the self as an illusion’ by asserting its antithesis, that the intuition of its subjective reality at the centre of the human experience cannot be negated by the objective findings of neuroscience.

That intuition is grounded in two distinct and complementary ‘unities’: the unification of the sights, sounds and impressions of the external world into a single coherent stream of consciousness; and also that biographical unity, the recognition of ourselves as being the same person with the same character and attributes over many decades.

For the first Tallis argues there can be no integrating mechanism in the neural circuits that can both integrate the tidal wave of sensory information flooding into the brain and yet keep all those sights, sounds and impressions as quite distinct and separate from each other. As for biographical unity , the physical brain cannot on its own account experience time passing– there are no tenses in the material world—thus there has to some other means or mechanism by which we seamlessly integrate the experiences of a lifetime and know them to have occurred in the past.

This is a terrific book, though readers must be prepared to read it at least twice, not because it is in any sense obscure but to fully appreciate the richness and subtlety of Tallis’s novel insights—with all their implications for our understanding humanity’s precious attributes of freedom, intentionality and moral responsibility.