In the hallowed lecture hall of the Royal Institution, people gathered to hear Raymond Tallis’s lecture, which takes the same title as his newly published book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.
In this lecture, Tallis argued that biologism has become too culturally dominant as a means of explaining humanity. He believes that such biologism is supported by what he calls “the two pillars of unwisdom” which are ‘Darwinitis’ and ‘Neuromania’. Most of my comments here will focus on ‘Neuromania’, although ‘Darwinitis’ was criticised with equal vigour and for similar reasons.
Tallis defines neuromania as the belief that the brain explains every aspect of human behaviour and awareness. He believes that the fundamental error of neuromania is that it posits that because there is a relationship between neural activity and consciousness, it must follow that neural activity is consciousness. Such materialist, reductionist thought, he argues, is widespread, and newspaper articles reporting the localisation through neuroscience of ‘love’ or ‘God’ often go relatively unchallenged.
He does not reject neuroscience intrinsically, rather he sees it as immensely valuable and important, simply feeling that it has become over-emphasised within our society, often being called upon as causal or explanatory in ways that he believes it cannot be.
Tallis believes that this over-emphasis has caused ‘neuromania’ to infiltrate the humanities and also become dominant within the arts. He is highly surprised by what he perceives as the open welcome the humanities have given to ‘neuromania’ and ‘darwinitis’, citing the field of ‘neuroaesthetics’ as an example. However, he fails to note that the picture is not always this clear, and that it is not the case that all practitioners within the humanities are embracing such ‘pillars of unwisdom’ with open arms, uncritically ascribing neurological and evolutionary causes for aesthetic developments. Tallis sees the humanities as a place where such ‘pillars of unwisdom’ should be rejected, but fails to note that they also already are. However, his criticism that ‘neuromania’ has become culturally dominant in a wider sense holds, in my opinion, un-doubtable weight and truth.
Tallis criticises two neuroscientific studies in particular, seeing them as guilty of propagating neuromania. One is by Seki et al about the neural foundations of love, and the other by Libet et al which seemingly neurally undermines the notion of free will. Both, Tallis argues, are too simplistic because they do not take into account the human world which the subjects of the experiments exist within. He believes that such studies do not take into account that the self relates to what he calls a ‘community of minds’. A neuralistic view of love reduces it to a simple stimulus, whereas in fact it is much more than that and is something which is greatly socially and biographically informed.
Tallis believes that because neurological experiments do not take into account the ‘community of minds’ then they remove ‘the self’ from the equation. Tallis argues that human intentionality challenges the conception of a purely material world, and that intentionality is the centre of the ‘I’. He believes that physical science is limited because it squeezes out consciousness. He argues that physical science replaces phenomenal appearances with measurements, and that therefore the physical sciences must be limited as all experiences happen from viewpoints of people existing within the world.
Tallis believes that we are ‘co-conscious’, meaning that we are constantly conscious of many things at any one time. It is, importantly, narrative itself which links all these moments together into coherence. Narrative is tensed. Tallis argues that there are no tenses in physical science. And furthermore that there is no neurological explanation of the binding of co-consciosuness, no neurological explanation of the work that narrative does. This lack of tenses is what Tallis thinks accounts for the failure of neurophysiological accounts of memory.
Tallis beleives that the problems come from using language – eg metaphors of anthropomorphism – carelessly. He thinks that neuromania is caused by linguistic habits such as personifying the brain.
He believes that biology must not be confused with culture and that biology as the key to human nature is one of our cultures biggest assumptions. He thinks that this means that the humanities are therefore seen as underdeveloped human sciences. This, I think, may be important considering what he argues is the cultural dominance of biologism and the current struggle the humanities are undergoing within academia.
Tallis explains that he is not religious, but thinks that biologism is as unsatisfactory as an explanation of humanity as the supernatural. He calls himself a humanist, but admits he does not know what the answer is, or where the key to humanity lies. He sees his job as simply pointing out that it must not be taken as a given that it exists in the biological or natural sciences. However, he is certain about one thing. This is, as he states, that the brain must be left behind when discussing social phenomena which are created by the ‘community of minds’, and which exist beyond simply biological explanation of neural phenomena.
Tallis’s lecture proved extremely controversial, with audience questions being abundant and the debate being fervent and diverse. It is clear that he has touched upon a highly important issue for our culture today, raising more questions than answers but taking a bold step in a direction which seems promising.