Peer Review: Aping Mankind – Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

“A venerable orang-outan”: editorial cartoon depicting Charles Darwin as an ape from The Hornet, 1871. Author unknown

Welcome to Peer Review, a series in which we ask leading academics to review books written by people in the same field.

Here Neil Levy, ARC Future Fellow, based at the Florey Neuroscience Institutes, reviews Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis, philosopher, poet, novelist and cultural critic, who was until recently a physician and clinical scientist.

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This book is about hubris: the hubris of those neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists who think they can explain society and the individual by invoking crude and simplistic theories.

It takes aim at those neuroscientists, for instance, who claim to have explained love by pointing to a region of the brain, and those psychologists who explain charity as simply a display to attract potential mates.

Its target is hubris, but it is also an exercise in hubris.

Tallis’s criticisms are directed not only at simplistic theorists and their sympathizers, but also at the entire intellectual culture which, he thinks, gives an undeserved plausibility to these theorists.

Mainstream philosophy of mind, cognitive science and neuroscience, and not just its simplistic popularizers, are taken by him to be fundamentally misguided.

Indeed, his strategy is to argue against the popularizers by refuting this broader culture.

Unfortunately, he is out of his depth when he takes on these thinkers. He understands their arguments badly or not at all, and produces some breathtakingly bad arguments of his own.

Unnatural animals

The ‘neuromaniacs’ in the title are those who think human behaviour can be explained by neuroscience. Looie496, original creator unknown

Tallis’ motivation is a laudable one. He argues, correctly in my view, that simplistic theorizing of the kind put forward by his neuromaniacs (theorists who think that human behavior can be exhaustively explained by neuroscience) and sufferers from Darwinitis (those who explain distinctively human behavior as evolutionary adaptations) can be morally and politically damaging.

Neglect the importance of social causes of human behavior and you overlook how they can be changed when they are undesirable.

But the right response here is to see neuromania and Darwinitis as the product of overreach. Sufferers from these maladies attempt to explain large-scale phenomena by reference to facts that play, at most, only a small role.

Tallis will have none of it. He thinks that to oppose neuroscientific explanations of, say, love he must hold that neuroscience can’t explain anything distinctively human, and to oppose reductive evolutionary explanations of human behavior he must deny that humans are animals.

To his credit, Tallis rejects the most common routes taken by those who deny that science can illuminate humanity: dualism and creationism.

He rejects the claim that the mind is a spiritual substance and the view that humanity was created by a deity. And he accepts, as any intellectually responsible person must, that we are evolved from simpler animals.

Nevertheless, he denies we are part of the natural world. He argues that what’s distinctive about us cannot be understood scientifically.

Consciousness and the brain

What is that is distinctive of us? For most of the book, Tallis argues that consciousness is distinctively human (inexplicably, toward the end of the book he concedes that some other animals are also conscious).

Tallis concedes that distinctively human but also that some other animals are conscious. Okedem/Darwin's ape

Consciousness, he argues, cannot be explained scientifically: there can be no neuroscience of consciousness.

In arguing for this view, he targets the identity thesis, according to which consciousness is a brain state (he does not seem to realize that refuting the identity thesis would leave untouched mainstream views of consciousness, according to which it depends on, but is not identical to, a brain state).

His arguments against the identity thesis are nothing short of bizarre. His main argument is that if my consciousness of a “redness” was a brain state, then the neurons themselves would have to be red.

Serious philosophers of mind will probably throw the book away at this point.

Tallis does note that many scientific identity claims identify two things that are quite different: for instance, science tells us that water is H₂O, though a single molecule of H₂O is not itself wet.

He denies this is relevant, on the grounds that “being H₂O” and “being water” are two ways in which water can appear to consciousness. How this is supposed to show that the two identity claims are disanalogous I can only guess.

Perhaps the thought is that all appearances require consciousness, and that consciousness is therefore fundamental.

That might be true (though I doubt it: the thesis that mind is fundamental, which is called idealism in philosophy, is for good reasons merely a historical curiosity today), and the identity claim true nevertheless.

Unsuspecting Darwinist

More generally, Tallis argues the brain, being physical, is not the kind of thing that could realize consciousness.

Instead, he thinks that consciousness and free will somehow emerge from our culturally saturated and deeply social way of living with one another.

As we saw, he denies that his views are meant to offer comfort to creationists and dualists. What he does not recognize is that his alternative requires the truth of dualism.

If you think, as he does, that no physical system could be conscious, then his alternative isn’t going to help without dualism.

Human social arrangements are deeply complex. makelessnoise/Flickr

Human social arrangements, deeply complex as they are, are nevertheless systems that are realized physically. If brains are the wrong kinds of things to be conscious, so too are our cultures.

Tallis’s real problem is that he has taken over the fundamental assumptions of the neuromaniacs and the sufferers from Darwinitis without realizing it.

They argue that if we are animals, if our minds are constituted by our brains, if our behavior is partially explained by our evolutionary history, then we cannot choose, we cannot act, we cannot be persons.

He accepts their claims, and concludes that we cannot be animals, our minds cannot be constituted by our brains and our behavior cannot be influenced by our evolutionary history.

This is the wrong way to respond to simplistic science – bad science should be replaced with good science, not bad philosophy.

The truth, slowly emerging from cognitive science in all its forms (from evolutionary biology to cognitive neuroscience, from philosophy of mind to ethology) is that we are very special kinds of animals, deeply social and deeply cultural, living in worlds that are saturated with meaning.

Our kind of animal is capable of shaping its life and its society in the light of reason, not by transcending our biology but as a consequence of it.

Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Acumen, 2011.

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