“Aping Mankind”: A Review

“Aping Mankind”:  A Review

Raymond Tallis’ new book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen Press), is a passionate screed against an archenemy:  biological, especially neurological, determinism.  It is perhaps a bit too passionate, sacrificing coherence and completeness to the joys of skewering the usual suspects, including (among others) Antonio Damasio, Daniel Dennett, and most particulary John Gray, author of Straw Dogs and other books that cut humanity down to animal size and whom Tallis considers an especial “provocation.”

The book’s lack of coherence arises from that fact that it is not, strictly speaking, a monograph, but rather an anthology of previously published articles, lectures, and book chapters—he specifically mentions nine such previous sources in his Acknowledgements.  Consequently, a reader does not get the sense of following a well-constructed line of argument, and worse, encounters a great deal of redundancy. By the time I was halfway through, I was becoming impatient with rereading pages of argument, including the same examples and citations, that I had read earlier in the book, and resorted to skimming until I ran into something new.  A good editing job might have eliminated the redundancies and made for a shorter book (text runs to 361 pages), as well as one more cogent.  Those who have read Tallis’ earlier books, such as The Hand and Michelangelo’s Finger may be advised that they don’t need to read Aping Mankind.  Those who have not will find it well worth the occasional irritations and will emerge with a deeper appreciation not only of the limits of scientism but of the true explanatory power of the humanities.

The book contains many nuggets worth mining. Tallis does a good job of demolishing what he calls neuromania, the tendency to reduce all human thought, consciousness, decision making, sense of self, etc., to nothing more than neural activity.  He rightly asserts, and extensively details, the errors in claims that brain scans (fMRI) can tell us anything about thought, consciousness, or self, in short, that which makes persons.  Brain scans do no more than illustrate what areas of the brain are active; they cannot show us what the brain is active about, and they certainly cannot tell us what the person is thinking.  But the error is widespread, rarely challenged, and serves as the basis for such ludicrous claims as that the self is an illusion.  Tallis autopsies numerous instances of the error, but one will serve as an example here:  Benjamin Libet’s experiments in the 1980s “which seem to show that our brain makes decisions to act before our conscious mind is aware of them, so they are not really our decisions at all” (54).  The subjects of Libet’s experiment were asked to make a slight physical movement of the fingers or wrist at will.  They were attached to an EEG to record this particular activity in the brain.  Libet discovered that the brain activity occurred significantly ahead of the point at
which the subjects consciously decided to make the movement and drew the
conclusion that the subjects did not consciously decide to make the movement;
rather, the conscious decision came after the fact and was therefore an illusion
of freely chosen movement.  Ergo, humans have no free will.

The naïveté of the experiment, let along the conclusion, seems self evident, yet such experiments have formed the basis for vast tomes on the illusion of
consciousness, self, and free will, and worse yet have been taken up and lauded
by the popular media and journalism.  The Libet experiment, for example, figures in Straw Dogs by John Gray, a nemesis if Tallis has one, who wrote, “[There] are strong arguments against free will; but recent scientific research has weakened it even more” (Straw Dogs, 66).  Gray then describes the experiment, quotes Libet to the effect that “ ‘cerebral initiation even of a spontaneous voluntary act . . . can and usually does begin unconsciously,’ ”  and then concludes, “The upshot of neuroscientific research is that we cannot be the authors of our acts.”

That so much can be concluded from so little is a provocation indeed.  Tallis rightly argues that the action being monitored is not only trivial, having nothing to do with such acts as my writing of this review or the meaning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but is woefully decontextualized and therefore in no way elucidates how human persons make decisions and act on them.  By way of illustration, he describes at length a journey he might make (and probably has, on numerous occasions) to travel from his home outside London to a conference or meeting in London.  I won’t repeat the argument here, as it is a lengthy one, but suffice to say he irrefutably demonstrates that the many decisions required to make such a journey, from first accepting the invitation to completing the meeting, simply cannot be unconscious.  The situation is too complex for determinism to explain.

As a researcher in clinical neuroscience, Tallis knows whereof he speaks.  It is therefore a bit of a surprise that, in his turn, he reaches a conclusion not supported by the evidence, or rather by the absence of such.  He argues that, because our brain scanning technology cannot, repeat cannot, begin to explain what consciousness, free will, and the self are, the self is not located in the brain. The explanation is not biologic, and we are not our brains.  He posits a “collective consciousness” to explain who we are and why we are not animals, but unfortunately he does not do a good job of explaining his theory or of providing proof thereof.  Well, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; that we cannot explain the self in neurological terms does not necessarily mean that the self and its attendant capabilities (consciousness,free will, etc.) are not in or created by the brain.  It may simply mean that we cannot as yet “see” it in the brain, and I am willing to accept the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that we never will be capable of doing so.  I cannot buy the idea that the person is somehow located somewhere outside, in a collective, nor does all the evidence
of brain damage and dementia and the like suggest that we are not our brains.

Unlike many people, I am not the least bit disturbed by the fact that the brain has wonderful but limited capacities and that therefore there is a limit to human knowledge.  We are not gods, we are not (even potentially) omniscient.  But that does not mean we are automatons.  We do not have to go from one extreme to its opposite.

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  • James  On January 30, 2012 at 5:30 AM

    Im not sure you’ve fully done Tallis’ end point justice here – he’s not saying (as I understand anyway) that the self and consciousness are located outside of the brain, or that a functioning brain is not necessary for both these things, but that in order for them to be present, there is the need for a social setting and interaction. I dont think he expresses this point particularly well, and maybe goes a bit too far with the (quasi mystical at times) talk about a ‘community of minds’, but there is in my view plenty of evidence that the construction and maintenance of both consciousness and a sense of self requires sustained interaction with other individuals, within a culture. Academically speaking you can look at developmental psychology such as Piaget or Vygotsky, but more generally you could also point to the effect of solitary confinement, or of other situations where individuals are isolated.

    • William L. Scurrah  On January 30, 2012 at 8:17 AM

      Thanks for your comment. I agree with what you say, although I am bothered very much by Tallis’s “quasi mystical talk,” which does get in the way of the point you make about the social context of conscoiusness and sense of self. For more of my take on that very point, see my post “Is Immortality Feasible?”, especially the last paragraph. I think you will see that we are in agreement.

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