Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Raymond Tallis)

Written by Dave Clarke on .

Raymond Tallis

Acumen Publishing (2012) I

SBN: 978-1- 84465-273-0

Raymond Tallis trained as a doctor before going on to become Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester. He was elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences for his research in clinical neuroscience. He retired from medicine in 2006 to become a full-time writer. His books include The Kingdom of Infinite Space (2008) and Michelangelo's Finger (2010). He will speak at the OUPS Conference 'The New Neuroscience - Friend or Foe?' in 2014 at the University of Warwick.

In 'Aping Mankind' Raymond Tallis exposes the exaggerated claims made for the ability of neuroscience and evolutionary theory to explain human consciousness, behaviour, culture and society. While readily acknowledging the astounding progress neuroscience has made in helping us to understand how the brain works, Tallis directs his guns at neuroscience's dark companion - ''Neuromania'' as he describes it - the belief that ''we are our brains'' and that consequently our everyday behaviour can be entirely understood in neural terms.

Tallis attacks the likes of John Gray, Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore and Richard Dawkins among others. He also takes issue with both the computer (consciousness as computation) and the animal understanding of human nature in the explanation of human consciousness. He disputes much of scientism seeing it as the mistaken belief that all important questions are best tackled with the use of natural science techniques. In this book Tallis uses the terms Neuromania and Darwinitis to highlight these misuses in neurology and Darwinism. In explaining his position he covers four main (albeit broad) areas. These are neurology, evolutionary theory, computational theory of mind and Linguistics. From a starting point of reviewing science and scientism and their consequences he ends with restoring humanity and the humanities and he finally concludes with 'Back to the Drawing Board'.

Within neurology Tallis takes issue with and disputes a number of claims but mainly with those surrounding functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This technique, he argues, only shows relative levels of blood flow or oxygen consumption in the different areas of the brain and does not explain what the areas of higher activity are actually doing. He focuses on the rise (and rise) of the brain sciences as the apparent explanation of all aspects of human life explaining it thus, 'The link between the Darwinisation of all understanding of humanity (which I have characterised as an inflamed mode of Darwinian thought or Darwinitis) and Neuromania (the appeal to the brain, as revealed through the latest science to explain our behaviour).' Much of the book revolves around these ideas and he does admit that his problems with Neuromania go back to the 1960's when he was a medical student contemplating the difference between brain activity and consciousness. There has obviously been more than enough time for Tallis to put his thoughts into this book.

Tallis asks 'Did natural selection generate consciousness?' and finds it hardly surprising that those who approach the human being from a biological position have problems with the intricate and complicated aspects of human consciousness. He further suggests that evolutionary theory has difficulty with consciousness of any kind. He asks two specific questions in order of clarity. Firstly, by what means consciousness could have come into being if it was not there in the beginning and secondly, what advantages does it confer? With reference to the modern eye and competitive advantage he is unhappy with evolutionary accounts of consciousness and he asks the reader to consider the emergence of (conscious) sight from (chemical) photosensitivity. He points out that a chemical effect of light is not awareness of the light that has caused this chemical effect and we should not confuse causality with intentionality.

Tallis notes that it is difficult, although not impossible, to see how living creatures emerged from the laws of physics noting that it is far less clear why consciousness should benefit a certain species. He adds that humans have benefitted massively from being conscious and makes evolutionary sense only if you do not start far enough back. Tallis says that if there isn't an evolutionary explanation of consciousness then the world is more interesting than biologism would allow. On being aware that the brain does not explain consciousness and knowing that human life is overwhelmingly different from animal life he asks why Neuromania and Darwinitis have been allowed to advance and spread without any sort of significant challenge?

There are many people who would agree with his position! He certainly will be worth seeing at the OUPS 2014 Conference as I am expecting his talk to be as controversial as this book and it should spark some interesting and lively discussion.