Raymond Tallis, Lecture at the Royal Institution, 7th July, 2011: ‘Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity’

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.

Tallis, Aping Mankind

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.

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7 comments

  1. Very interesting post, which raises a lot of questions, thanks. As a neuroscientist I’m one of the reductionist believers that you/Tallis mention. I would take issue with his fundamental point:

    “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.”

    This implies that there is ‘something else’ involved in producing consciousness, apart from neural activity. What would that be exactly? A soul? A spirit of some kind? What? The squashy piece of meat in our heads is the only thing we’ve ever found that can produce behaviour, language, memories, and yes, even consciousness. The way in which it does this is (so far) pretty mysterious, but unless you believe in ‘something else’ being present (besides the brain) then you have to accept that everything we do and experience is produced by some action of the brain. As a neuroscientist, I have to believe that our efforts to understand how the brain works will, one day, produce a full and complete explanation of its key functions, including consciousness. That day may be a long way off however… we are just scratching the surface, and the tools we currently have available are insufficient. Using fMRI to study the brain is like trying to take apart a watch with a pneumatic drill.

    There is a lot of bad neuroscience out there, and Zeki’s work on love is a good (or rather, bad) example. Yes, of course love is a hugely complex, bio-socio-culturally-mediated thing, and reducing it to the level of a simple stimulus is hugely reductionist, but you have to start somewhere! Reducing a very complex problem to a simpler set of operational definitions is one way to approach it that is at least tractable.

    I agree the culture of ‘neuromania’ has got out of hand though – the popular press in particular seem to love a good story along the lines of ‘Brain area for X identified’. In reality, the interpretation of such data is always much more complex and has more caveats attached than they care to mention in the article.

    • As usual with neuroscientists, they are philosophically incoherent. Just because you can’t explain consciousness does not mean that there must be something supernatural. I can’t explain how the universe (defined as everything that exists) can expand when there is nothing for it to expand into. Does that mean there must be something supernatural?

  2. I have actually met very few people in humanities departments who hold the ‘biologistic’ position that Tallis is arguing against. No historian or ethnologist or cultural studies person I know think in ‘biologistic’ terms. On the contrary, they are still quite anti–biologistic’. The problem is not that the humanities has adopted biology, but the reverse: that so few people in the humanities could ever dream of drawing on biological thinking in their work.

  3. @betterliving through science,

    Perhaps I misunderstand, but the opening part of your comments reads something like, “an argument from absence implies an absence of argument.” To seek out an explanation restricted to squashy pieces of meat, or their counterparts, is to demand the type of naturalistic explanation that the author is objecting to. His objection is not against the brain per se; thus, to demand an explanation of conciousness with reference to the same ontological category is not going to solve anything – rather it begs the question.

    To phrase the issue in my own words, one might argue that neuro-biological explanations of consciousness are determinably insufficient for a full causal explanation. Not being able to posit the missing ‘extra’ is not necessary to undermine an errant thesis.

  4. This is all very interesting! I wished I saw this provoking lecture, I would be curious to know what Tallis said about ‘Darwinitis’ as well. As a neuroscientist and a biologist I guess I would disagree with him… but most of all I disagree with this apparent conflict between science and humanities. Personally I think the brain is where the two really come together. ‘Human nature’ or ‘consciousness’ (or whatever you want to call it) may not be purely biological but it must be in that “squashy piece of meat”, somewhere. Neuroscientists are not trying to reduce it to a circuit (well, some of them are) but rather understanding its rules. I don’t want to write a lengthy boring comment. I would just suggest Tallis (and anyone interested) to read more about ‘memes’ and ‘cultural evolution’ (especially as Dawkins postulated it). Darwin’s revolutionary theories go far beyond biology, in a way I think they were more philosophy than science and I’m happy to see them becoming more and more popular.

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